Monday, December 19, 2005

The Picture of Dorian Gray

No, this has little directly to do with the Oscar Wilde classic book.

It's about my spouse and I. My wife is the same age as me (50). But she is the equivalent of Dorian Gray who doesn't age and I'm the portrait which does! It ain't fair.

Jet black hair, youthful skin, still a good figure, she could pass for 30. She has had a merest hint of greying at the temples recently, but it would be undetectable to a casual eye.

Me though...going grey since mid 30s, now totally grey. And hair now getting thinner on top. My weight fluctuates as I go on and off fitness regimes but the general picture is overweight. In summary, I could pass for 60.

Of course spousey enjoys all this. She told me of an almost disguised Freudian slip one of her lady acquaintances made recently. "Saw you walking the pier yesterday with your fath-...husband."

On another occasion I was walking towards our seat with our food tray from cash desk at a self service cafe place. Spouse was still at desk getting condiments. Another lady noticed a wooden walking stick left at the cash desk and chirped up to my wife...."tell that man (me) he left his walking stick".

I console myself that I can still play tennis quite well. Use the bicycle from time to time. A reasonable swimmer too with diving qualification. And like spousey I never smoked. But I look like a bad mixture of Bertie Ahern and Father Jack (from Fr. Ted) and I can do terrifyingly realistic impressions of the latter.

Ah feck it, you're as young as you feel and it's nice to have a spouse 30 years younger.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Old folk can be cool

Some parts of two RTE TV programmes over last month helped me reflect a bit deeper on the feelings of the elderly.

The first was on Ryan Confidential with Gerry Ryan interviewing Nell McCafferty. I hadn't thought of Nell as being particularly old but she recounted a story of her recently stopping on a busy street to do something with her bag. A very young woman spoke in a friendly way to her and asked her how she was. Nell said to the young person that it was great to be recognised (as a celebrity). The young person looked puzzled, said she didn't know her at all, was simply trying to help an old woman! Nell was facing many changes.

The next was on the Afternoon Show - I casually see some of the breakfast repeats on my way out. As an experiment Anna Nolan got made up as an old lady and went slowly walking down Grafton Street whilst being secretly filmed. Said afterwards she felt totally invisible, completely ignored, as if she didn't exist.

In the studio on same programme Anna also interviewed an elderly lady who was trying (I think) to help in improving social attitudes to the elderly. This lady recounted an experience she had herself on a visit to a hospital. A nurse was asking her questions in a loud condescending voice as if the lady was a mentally challenged child. I paraphrase here but it was along the lines of...

What tablets do you take, love?

"I don't take tablets."

Ah, you must! You know, they'd be in a little plastic bottle...what you take before you go to bed.

"I don't take tablets."

"Look love, I'm going to look through your handbag, won't be a minute. Ah, wait, here's your daughter, I'll ask her about the tablets."

Can you imagine how degrading that would be if you were the recipient.

I've witnessed many old folk going through this general type of treatment - including my own mother on my regular visits to her in nursing homes and hospitals in her final years. Unfortunately many of the elderly do lose their short term memories, they become slow and immobile and looking down at them seems to be a norm. It is wrong. In their brains is a lifetime of knowledge and experiences, they were young and built a world and created our generation.

Listening and talking to old people can be illuminating and rewarding. In some cases it can require the commitment to sift though the outer interference of their broken bodies to the inner mental treasures. I chatted to many interesting people in the nursing homes while visiting my Mum. If you tuned in to them you could learn so much. I heard many tales from retired people such as homemakers, shopkeepers, Gardai, civil servants and teachers about the way they once lived.

One guy called Tom was a very lucid ninety-nine years of age. He spoke in detail to me about the Titanic sinking and it being in the newspapers for so long that everyone was sick of hearing it! He was facinating, he even could explain his grandparent's experiences in the potato famine. An amusing aside about Tom was that he was very sprightly on his feet. He once was standing talking to me as I was leaving the big sitting room. He enquired from me as to why everyone in the room were always sitting around and not doing anything. I explained to him that they were all old people...just realising as I spoke that they were actually up to twenty years his junior!

Of course there are cases of extreme brokenness in the elderly (as indeed in the young) which are exceptional challenges but these I hope are becoming rarer with better medical treatments. For the most part old people can be fun, inside they are often lively...the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

Well guys, the only thing that separates us from all this is time. There is going to be a huge swell of us in the elderly category in the next 20-40 years. I know we'll want to be respected, we should aspire to being oases of wisdom. Let's hope we can still use a laptop and have good broadband. It may need to be a cheap laptop if the pensions don't work out!

PS - hey, I've just noticed that today is my late Mum's birthday. So this one's for you Mum!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Once upon a time in the IT world...

During an office tidy up today we came across my feature published in Irish Computer magazine in 2002. It was to mark 25 years since the magazine was founded by the late Don McDonald and it was a brief mixture of how the ICT landscape had changed for me in that time and references to Don himself. 1977 is not exactly ancient history, but it was in ICT terms. I must write again on similar telecom outrages of the 1970s. Anyway here is my Irish Computer piece as written three years ago, I'm not all that proud of it....

Don McDonald launched Irish Computer Magazine in the same year as my career started. In 1977 I graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and joined the Data HQ section of the Dept of Posts and Telegraphs – now Eircom. I worked there for over 4 years on many interesting projects – launching X25 services, designing data test centres and data leased line equipment, latest modem evaluations etc. Cutting edge stuff at the time. However it was long before PCs were invented and I used pen and paper to write tender specifications and posted them over to the Typing Section. Days later the typed work returned with mistakes – everything so slow!

Dial-up modems in those days had to be rented from the Dept of Posts and Telegraphs. Most popular speed was 300bits/sec and if you could afford it there were the dangerously faster 1200 or 2400bits/sec modems! We had hundreds of modems in stock but the process whereby the poor customers got their rental modem took about eight weeks of paperwork and post between many different sections involved. This was civil service bureaucracy at it’s most extreme and the lack of IT infrastructure didn’t help.

I joined Technico in 1982 and later headed their datacoms division. I remember an accountant there using one of the first IBM PCs. It had no hard disk – so the DOS operating system was always loaded by floppy! The first PC I used in 1984 was the then powerful IBM AT with a massive 20MB hard disk. The accountant with the IBM PC was jealous!

I enjoyed working with Don McDonald and I particularly recall him persuading Technico to take a stand at the very first Comms Show in 1993. Before the show Don kindly offered to play tennis with me at his club in Kilternan – at the time I was struggling to improve my tennis and looking to join a club. So one Sunday morning, Don – old enough to be my father – spent the first set battering me around for a 6-2 win! Before the second set – whilst I drank a gallon of water – he asked me how many people I thought would visit the new Comms Show. Following my estimate Don looked at me in genuine horror and told me it would be double that figure! He then polished me off even more in the second set at 6-0! After the Comms show Don came to our stand to tell me the visitor count. The figure was much closer to his estimate than mine – all I could do was congratulate him and admire his vision.

I started up Multinet Systems Ltd. in 2000 and we are involved in advancing areas like VPNs, VOIPs etc. So much has improved in the last 25 years. I recently read Bill Cullen’s excellent book on the changes through his life - “It’s a long way from Penny Apples”. In my case, from the 1977 Dept of Posts and Telegraphs days – “It’s a long way from pens and paper!”

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

David Cameron is new Tory Leader

I've always clutched to the comfort that as I get older and least all the serious World leaders remain older than me. Alas no more....the Tories have elected as their leader a 39 year old man with a 34 year old spouse! And yes, he has the vital full head of hair without even a hint of grey. And the TV showed him cycling a flashy bicycle and generally hopping around like an enthusiastic adolescent chimp. All changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born....perhaps.

I heard someone say that to young people the Conservatives may now Even Tory old fogie Tarzan (Michael Heseltine) was impressed. He reckons it is the nearest that the UK have come to having a Kennedy Camelot type political family pack. Indeed Cameron is a good 4 years younger than the youthful John F. Kennedy when he was elected president. Sadly for the young Camerons they have the challenges of a disabled son...but truthfully that's actually an asset to their public image.

There is prima facia evidence that David Cameron might be good. At Prime Minister question time today he took a fresh approach from the usual silly pantomime antics. We will have to wait and see his progress. Image is crucial but substance is just as crucial.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

"The Sea" by John Banville

I've just finished reading this book which won the Man Booker prize this year. In common with a lot of good literature, I had to be patient and open minded as I read it. But it was worth it. I also have an unfortunate tendency to read at bedtime and my concentration wanes. I'll have to get into habit of reading at more alert times.

The first person voice style is the initial element which hits you. I say voice because it comes across deliberately raw, rambling and unedited of course, just as one might think out loud. I found it vaguely irritating for awhile but I gradually admired the freedom of expression. Previously I had been used to the first person style as offering a balanced reference type character. However I increasingly found myself disliking many aspects of the Max Morden character as the novel developed. Even the revealing ending didn't assist me too much in rekindling a liking for him. For me I found this both strange and interesting.

The imagery and descriptive quality was poetically excellent and often amusing. The characters were all well defined, although I found Max's wife's character a little tricky to believe. Oddly, I felt Max's daughter Claire was a very key player. To me she represented the true outside world, offering some degree of objective normality if you like. In that sense she was a useful reference point and of course had the helpful experience of knowing her father and experiencing the death of her mother. It was Max's interactions with his daughter Claire which initially and slowly kindled my dislike of him. It would be too easy to say that Claire's lack of understanding of Chloe from Max's childhood was a factor in their relationship.

Disliking the main character was the last thing I expected when reading a novel promoted as centring on the man grieving for his lost wife and dealing with some strong childhood experiences. Max came across to me as a somewhat introverted, arrogant and self centred individual. There is ample solid evidence to support this opinion. His tragedies I feel don't excuse his behaviour and mental attitudes to others, particularly evident with his daughter. John Banville paints Max as a rather complex dark character. He is an interesting and very believable character but the story line and tragedy might have been more powerful if Max was intrinsically a more balanced human being. I wonder is there a macho element at play in a male author dealing with a male central character's raw grief. I found Banville even made Max's wife a little detached from believable manifestations of grief as she was coming to terms with death. I just felt there was a failed opportunity to create proper emotional empathy to the characters from the well set up story line. Even Chloe was a bit weird.

I waxed in admiration of the fusion of past and present throughout the book. There is a general tendancy for particular memories from our own childhoods to rekindle when something serious happens in the present. In that sense there is perhaps a varying personal dimension to the novel for readers.

I'm not entirely convinced that the book's structure facilitated maintaining the attention of the average novel reader. For a long time you are treated to seemingly rambling disconnected thoughts and events. You are not automatically hungry to read on. However on completion of the book you realise that you have in fact experienced a good work of literature. There are depths to revisit. The written constructions in the voice style first person wanderings were on balance interesting, refreshing and liberating, almost flirting with the ungrammatical. Like all good literature, the book challenges the reader, one needs to be patient to gain the most from it.

I suppose the lingering value of the book for me was the interesting style of writing and the poetic descriptions as well as the fun in analysing the character of Max Morden and others.

Friday, November 25, 2005

George Best dies today.

Lots will be written about George. I grew up watching him at his spectacular peak in the late 1960s. His tackling skill and intuitive intelligence on the pitch was breathtaking to watch.

He was another of the amazing breakaway superstars of the 1960s who just didn't follow the rulebook in becoming exceptionally talented in their speciality. We had Muhammad Ali in boxing, the Beatles in music, George Best in football, what an exciting time it was.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Willie inspects Army Ranger's guns in Pandora's box!

Minister Willie O'Dea is a little lad and little folk secretly like big toys.

For a few moments of blissful escapism Willie was a child again with machine guns, big pistols, all sorts of powerful weaponry. Suddenly immersed into a Freudian subconscious ecstasy world with boring responsible consciousness gratefully hidden behind an adrenalin built solid wall, Willie was having serious fun. He was 6ft 4 inch Clint Eastwood pointing the big pistol close at the camera and oh so much wanted to utter with gritted teeth "Well punk, do ya feel lucky?" Reality was nagging at him, threatening to pull him back through the wall from paradise.

But this was why I wanted to be Minister for Defense, everything was leading to climaxes like this moment. Nobody needs to know.

Oh shit, I'm on front of the Irish Times! Those feckers Rabbitte, Costello, Higgins and Sargent are giving out stink and the Ceann Comhairle can't even stop them. Joe Duffy's listeners are jamming the RTE switchboard.

"Ahem.... I didn't mean any offence to anyone"...hell, the gun wasn't even loaded.

Mmmh...loaded...that would be fun...must put some of Biffo's extra money into a new firing range...I'll need to open it of course, or maybe twice. Actually we need tanks as well come to think of it. Let me see that Irish Times picture.....Crikey I look the part! Big eyebrows, moustache the envy of Jessie James. Smirky nefarious grin and purposeful eyes aiming the big pistol to blow the brains out of the teasing photographer. Gimme a scissors, it's straight into the scrapbook. What a great life!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Slapping in junior school 1960...The Switch!

At school for junior and senior infants (teacher called it low babies and high babies!) in Clontarf there were about sixty of us in each classroom from 1960-62. We ranged in age from four to seven years old.

The teacher would routinely slap us for disciplinary offences. She had a black leather strap. It was usually three slaps on each hand but could be more depending on the offence. If a child was really bad then he was sent to the principal's office for a punishment which the teacher referred to as The Switch.

Now I didn't know exactly what The Switch was, but the few small children who came back into the classroom after being administered The Switch were a terrifying sight. They were bawling crying and in absolute agony. It made the hairs stand on my head to witness this spectacle of trauma. In a class of sixty children you tended to play in many separated groups and I never got to hear exactly what The Switch was. However, my imagination started to work it out from my various limited experiences....

I was familiar with electric light switches at home and my parents told me that electricity was very dangerous and could kill you. I knew my granny didn't have electricity in her house in the country and many older country folk didn't want it because it was so dangerous. Rural electrification was not yet completed in Ireland. Our house would not have had today's modern safe electric wiring with earthing everywhere and proper circuit breaker protection. So electricity was still a respected, misunderstood and feared energy even by adults.

Also at the time, there was a much older boy called Ian up our road at home who had an electricity experiment set. Ian once used this to electrocute me just for his evil fun! He asked me to hold a few electrodes and he then flicked a large switch. A piercing and frightening pain from a powerful invisible energy bolted though my entire body. I roared out loud. Ian gave a fiendish cackling giggle as he all too slowly flicked back the switch - causing the pain to gratefully and mysteriously vanish instantly.

That must be it, I was sure of it. The Switch in school is controling some kind of electrocution! My mind visualized the bold child being brought into a room where they were connected up to electrodes and wires and then the principal flicked The Switch. A more sinister thought also crept into my mind from the parental warnings on electricity. The Switch in the principal's office might even be powerful enough to kill you. Wow, really scary! I was determined to be as quiet as a mouse in class, it was not worth risking my life.

The image of The Switch suppressed all natural creativity, I was even afraid to ask simple questions in class. I explained my hypothesis of The Switch to some of my close classmates - so I inadvertently scared the hell out of them also! Funny how an incorrect image lingers for a long was only years later when I was told that The Switch was simply the name given to a thin wooden cane for slapping children.

Today even the cane would rightly be unacceptable trauma for children. I went to early school not too concerned about being slapped - but vividly concerned of being executed by electrocution!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Confirmation memories

The catechism of catholic doctrine – we kids called it the caddier. A weighty green book filled with questions and answers on a plethora of Catholic truths. Every 11 year-old had to know every question and answer off by heart for their confirmation day. Confirmation meant you were to be an adult Catholic – so knowledge of the caddier was crucial. After several years of preparation in learning hymns and intensive swotting of the caddier I was standing in St. Canice’s Church Finglas in 1966 for my confirmation. Like the rest of the boys I wore a dark suit with short trousers - chosen expertly by myself – no repeat of the cream communion suit likely! Nevertheless I was still nervous. We were told that the bishop could ask us a question from the caddier. There was a sense by most of us though – including our teacher - that there were too many of us in the church to get through everyone. It was more likely that some random sampling would occur for questions. Safe enough maybe.

The church was full with those to be confirmed, girls on the left, boys on the right. No parents or relatives in the church to protect us. The bishop with his entourage walked up the church in all his impressive robes and tall miter. Larger than life. The priests of the parish were figures of awe to us kids – but the priests were looking humble in the bishop’s wake. On reaching the altar the priest’s fluttered - including the parish priest - in alter-boy-like subservient activities around the great man. Was the bishop even human as we know it? This entity was powerful, 10 times more dangerous and scary than any priest alive. He was probably capable of sending us all to the fires of hell with one wave of his crozier. I was in a row about two thirds of the way down the church – gratefully distant from the altar. Even though I had classmates on either side of me, none of us dared speak a word. We had been warned by teachers. Eventually we noticed the unmistakable miter of the bishop moving slowly from left to right, then right to left amongst the boys near the top of the church. He was asking questions from the caddier. The awful truth slowly dawned on me and I broke out in a cold sweat. I had wondered why we were all in rows with every second row empty. The bishop and his entourage were passing between each row and quizzing the boys face to face. Wow! Surely he wouldn’t come this far down the church. Take too long.

Time ticked by endlessly. The bishop was sticking doggedly to his task. Going though every row of boys. The tall hat was getting closer. Eventually I could see the bishop’s face and the priests on either side of him. When he was a few rows from me I could see the pattern. The bishop had a well worn green caddier in his hand and was asking a question from it to every second boy. This pattern was very consistent, I was studying him with the heightened awareness of a drowning child. I did a desperate count of the number of boys ahead of me and came to the daunting calculation that the bishop would definitely be asking me a question. Closer and closer. I’m only eleven years old, too young for this terror. Then my throat dried in fear as I looked up into the face of the bishop – stationary and towering in front of me – the most powerful entity on Earth. The bishop was framed by two priests – one of them the parish priest. It looked like a firing squad. There was an eerie silence as the bishop selected a page in the green caddier. He called out a question. It did sound familiar, but I was almost frozen in fear. It was a question with a long answer. I struggled though it. Got mixed up with one sentence, made a bit of a mess of it. Too scared to think. The bishop paused. He wasn’t happy. He slowly flicked to other pages of the book. My heart was racing. He asked me another question. This one was better. Answer a bit shorter. I managed to get through it okay, but not quite perfectly. The bishop paused in silence. I avoided eye contact in fear of what anger his face might reveal. Then to my considerable relief the bishop and team slowly moved on to the next boy. I now ventured a glance up at the bishop’s face. He was staring back at me even as he moved, with disapproving eyes. The expression said to me – you really aren’t good enough, you barely scraped through. I wondered - what if I had messed up on the second question? Was I close to being marched out of the church, made an example of? What would my parents and friends think of me – a failure on this big moment in front of the bishop. Anyway, no point in dwelling too long. I was safe and the rest of the ceremony was a doddle after this.

I can laugh back at the confirmation catechism episode today. But it gives a flavour of how much in awe kids were at the time of priests, bishops, teachers and those in strong positions of authority. I can only imagine how easy it must have been for the deviant minority to get away with sexually abusing children and the horror it would have been for such kids. Fortunately I never experienced this, nor at the time did I hear of any who were. However, the irrational fear of those in strong authority lingered well into my adult life. Even today, as successful as I am and with my own company etc., there are still little traces left of fear of those in controlling positions.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

First Confession/Communion memories

Preparation for First Holy Communion was serious business at school in Ireland in 1962.

First Confession had to be prepared for initially. Our teacher, I realized later in my schooling, mimicked a scene from Frank O'Connor's short story First Confession. Fear of Hell needed to be instilled into kids so they would avoid sin. The teacher lit a candle on her desk and invited anyone to hold a finger over the flame for more than a few seconds. One or two tough guys tried it and ended quickly back at their desks yelping. The teacher then gloatingly explained that they had experienced a very tiny glimpse of Hell. However, rather than a quick pain in the tip of the finger, the fires of Hell gave continuous pain over over every inch of your body - for all eternity. Wow! We seven year old kids were almost traumatized with the thought. It was too much to take in. Better avoid sin big time. I became very fearfully interested in the technicalities of mortal and venial sin and telling a proper confession.

The 10 commandments were also taught to us carefully. The teacher did however gloss over the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery." She said that we would learn more about that sin when we were older. I wasn't impressed by this response and it worried me that I could be guilty of it without knowing. I looked at the wording carefully and coupled with the teacher's vague clue I figured that the sin had to mean pretending to be an adult when you were only a kid. When I went to confession I actually told the priest that I had committed adultery! After I landed this bombshell the priest leaned forward and looked carefully at me out of the grill in the dark confession box. "Do you know what adultery is, my child?", he asked. I suddenly realized that I must have been completely wrong in my notion of adultery. I then nervously said "Eh, no." A faint smile appeared on the priest's face but thankfully he dropped the subject and asked me to continue with my confession.

There was a test run in the class for receiving communion properly. We each went up to the front of the class in a line and received unconsecrated communion from the teacher. The idea was to practice the mouth opening and swallowing the communion without biting it. It was well before the time of having an option on receiving communion in the hand. Biting or touching communion was a serious offence. Everything in general went well on the test run except one boy did, perhaps by accident, bite the communion. The teacher noticed instantly. I recall that she did not slap the boy (although that was a very real option open to her - see my other article Slapping in junior school 1960...The Switch!) but instead made a major example of him and his fatal action to the entire class. I recall the kid in tears and terrible distress at his desk. The stigma the teacher made of his action was powerful and affected us all in the classroom. Even in the schoolyard afterwards the lad was identified in talk as the boy who bit the communion. It scared us all of ever biting communion. And this was just a test run. Imagine what the priest would do at the live event!

I have to say that by contrast to teachers and clergy, my mother had a gentle and friendly, albeit intense, approach to faith. She also wanted her only child turned out really well for First Holy Communion. However, I still can never forgive her for choosing a cream coloured suit for me! Just picture the view from the balcony of the packed church in St. Gabriels, Clontarf. On the left side of the centre aisle was an ocean of little girls in white dresses. On the right was a mass of boys in dark suits. Right in the middle of the dark suits was an idiot in white! I felt incredibly self-conscious and although I laugh at it now, it was quite an issue at the time (I made absolutely sure that I chose my own Confirmation suit four years later!).

My father had borrowed an old black Morris Minor car for the First Communion day. I thought this was very exciting - I loved cars and rarely had the opportunity to be a passenger. My Dad drove my Mum and I to my granny down in the country - a little cottage in a rural townland called Dorea, some miles beyond Ashbourne. I recall that I collected 7 shillings in total from relations and family friends - a good solid innings at the time, 44 cents in today's money!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

USA and the World

It's almost fashionable to dislike USA foreign policy under Bush these days and it has generated a lot of general anti-American feeling - especially in younger people.

It's true that USA has meddled heavily in World affairs. Some of this is perceived as very morally questionable, but there is much which was and is extremely useful to the countries in receipt. Military intervention was very welcome in Europe in WWII and the subsequent Marshall Plan. The fear of Communism was passionate in the past and was a motivating force in Korea and Vietnam of course and created rather unsavoury unwinnable conflicts.

In the business world so many of us in Western Europe and elsewhere benefit greatly from American companies setting up and trading abroad. My own company is totally dependant on US suppliers and indeed US established companies in Ireland as customers. Business is a two way system however - it also suits the US companies to trade here from all the benefits Ireland have to offer. That is not to dilute the respect and gratitude each party is entitled to extend both ways. The USA are very good trading partners. We depend on them a lot and we have strong historical connections.

One of the factors which troubles myself and others is the USA's sheer dominance as a superpower. Bush has had a rather nasty tendency to make this factor look dangerous to us all since 9/11. A lot of his rhetoric to the nations of the World just before Afganistan and Iraq invasions was along the lines of "if you are not with us - you are against us". Their military might makes you wonder what could happen if someone a bit more right wing than Bush came along and got the US people motivated enough to believe that more and more countries outside USA are dangerous. The manipulation and ultimate ignoring of the UN was also a heavy handed step which compounds this future danger. Without the UN - who is able to tell the USA when enough is enough?

It's easy to imagine the above happening. USA is a big place with great geographical, climatic and to some extent cultural diversity. In the vaste majority of American states people's idea of a foreign holiday is going to places like California or Florida or Hawaii. I've been to USA many times on business and it's incredible how little that ordinary people know or care about places external to North America. You could picture a situation where they were persuaded that more places in the World needed to be made safe as threats to Americans. 9/11 having hit the USA heavily right in their quintessential heart - had the effect of silencing any major sense of American foreign injustice - as had happened for Vietnam.

I recall in 1996 when the huge (but aging and non-nucleor) aircraft carrier JFK was in Dublin Bay for about a week. The big HSS passenger ferry looked like a small toy as it daily steamed past the JFK. Dun Laoghaire was full of sailors in crisp white uniforms. On Sunday morning in our tennis club we all stopped our tennis matches to look up in awe as a handful of powerful American jet fighters flew right over our club. I thought to myself that these jets probably had the potential firepower to wipe out much of Dublin. The impressive Dublin visitation would have represented a tiny fraction of 1% of the USA's military might.

Let's not forget that in spite of USA's warnings on the dangers of nucleor weapons that the USA are the only nation to have used nucleor bombs as a weapon - twice in fact.

There is an uneasy feeling created from the Bush administraion that we mustn't get the USA too mad. We are lucky to have all the foreign investment and the protection and we should be very grateful and be good little democracies. There was hint of this squirmy feeling when Bertie kept the refueling in Shannon arrangement going even though we are a neutral state. Our condemnation to the Bush administration's ignoring of the UN was diplomatic eggshell walking. Our little country needs all the American business.

Having said all of the above, there have been and still are disgusting activities going on in foreign regimes. Many states seem to latch onto religious extremism and Al Qaeda are an exceptionally nasty group who have completely exploited Islam. There must be unity against terror. I just think Bush's style of being a shoot-from-the-hip old wild west sherriff is grossly over simplistic, encourages the terrorists further and makes traditional allies uncomfortable. A more sophisticated long term approach is required with considerably greater intelligence and less insightment to motivate even more terror.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

National pride

At the weekend Fianna Fail Ard Fheis the Taoiseach announced the return of commemoration of 1916 with a military march past the GPO from next year (90th anniversary).

[Aside....I enjoyed a great belly laugh from Miriam Lord's light hearted article in the Irish Independent on Saturday. She evoked a brilliant image ...."It'll be like Red Square in O'Connell Street next Easter. Socialist Bertie on top of the GPO taking the salute in a Russian hat and the might of the Irish army parading a few missiles and their new tanks. Fly pasts. Gunboats on the Liffey."..... Yes indeed, 1916, 1917, what's a year between comrades?!]

Assisted by the recent IRA cessation I do welcome the spirit of enhanced pride in our cherished Irish heritage, history and imagery. I mean this on two levels...

1. I recall the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising when I was at school. We were taught to have pride in the brave men and women who fought for Irish freedom from Britain. There was an RTE serialized drama on TV depicting all the events of Easter week 1916. The rebel Irish leaders and their forces took over the GPO and other buildings, read a proclamation, put themselves in the front line. Fought openly and bravely for freedom and either died fighting or were captured and executed. I know they were using violence to achieve their ends whilst slow political moves were afoot. However, it's hard to compare the 1916 Rising to the modern IRA practices of cowardly bomb planting with mass civilian deaths, secret executions and racketeering. Moreover, the modern IRA's cause to bludgeon Northern Ireland, where the majority are loyalist, into Irish unity was always completely misguided. Of course the IRA ceasefire has to be welcomed and has opened the door for us to recapture some pride in our identity. We should celebrate the birth of our independence in 1922. Regarding 1916, even though it was a violent event, I do feel that the Irish Government should take control of it's remembrance. It has to be better than the Sinn Fein/IRA folk hijacking it.

2. I was at a funeral a few years ago of an lovely elderly lady who was devoted to her country and language. Her funeral mass was conducted in the Irish language and there was an Irish flag on the altar. A lady in green clothing read prayers in Irish. One part of me said that this is beautiful....another part of me associated the imagery with a modern Sinn Fein/IRA propaganda event. How horrible to have such unwelcome negative thoughts invade my mind. The modern IRA had caused this. Let's hope they are finished with senseless violence for good and we can restore all our rightful pride in what we are.

As a footnote...There are those who say Bertie's plan was a master stroke for the Ard Fheis to win some political ground from Sinn Fein and that he didn't get other parties involved in a prior debate. Yes indeed, but so what? That's one reason why Fianna Fail are successful - good PR. Fine Gael could arguably claim an equal or better republican pedigree but never use it.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Nelson's Pillar, a quick route to the top!

We approach the 40th anniversary of the blowing up of Nelson's Pillar in March 1966. I was 11 years old when that event occured and I must be one of the youngest today who can tell a tale of being up the famous pillar. My little story is also a reminder of an era of exceptional respect for the clergy.....

One of my pals had an aunt who was a nun. In 1965 she took my pal and I along with a few of his siblings into O'Connell Street, Dublin to see the movie Mary Poppins. This movie seemed to be running endlessly for up to a year in the Metropole Cinema (the cinema is long gone - it was beside Eason's bookshop).

Coming out of the cinema after the matinee the towering Nelson's Pillar dominated the street. This wonderful nun said she would take us up to the top of the pillar as a further treat. We joined the end of the very long queue leading to the pillar. In her penguin robes the nun was instantly noticed by the ticket men. Within seconds we were being ushered past the hundreds of waiting people to the pillar entrance. My initial reaction was one of utter shock to be jumping a big queue. In school or elsewhere I would be a dead man walking! I looked nervously at the faces in the queue as we walked briskly past. Everyone was looking at us. However there was not one word of anger, no scowling faces. Quite the opposite in fact - I recall many warm smiles and even a few pleasant salutations to the nun as we passed. My shock melted into a wonderful sense of privilege and the nun grew hugely in my respect for her powers. We were like royalty, this was red carpet treatment!

We wound our way gingerly up the poorly lit narrow spiral stone steps inside the pillar. On eventually reaching the top we looked down at O'Connell Street far below and triumphantly noted the size of the queue still stretching up the street. To me the shaft of the pillar below us really seemed too narrow and fragile to support us all on our high viewing platform. We were even looking down at the roof on the huge GPO nearby. I also had a close look at the statue of Admiral Nelson himself on his pedestal just above us.

It was a great and memorable day. I enjoyed Mary Poppins, the excitement of Nelson's Pillar and I learned (alas temporarily!) that it was good practice to have a nun with you in a long queue!

PS - I wonder if that nun is still alive, I don't even recall her name, she was a kind person indeed.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Ireland and World Cup

Okay, from lastnight's Swiss drawn match result we are out of the soccer World Cup next year. Sad.

I'm going to add my very humble personal opinion to the huge pile contributed from self-apppointed experts who look at team performances. My only qualification is some sort of analytical and tactical mind and having watched plenty of soccer and listened to real experts for at least 35 years. Hence I know more than Brian Kerr ....mmmh....I'm sure he's scared!

I've noticed one thing our players either don't do at all or do badly - and all the really great teams of the past are good at. This is the skill of directly and properly tackling the opposition's defence - coupled with simultaneous tight passing - making space and thereby creating an extra fraction of a second of time in front of the goal at edge of the box. I know it's much easier said than done. It's down to player skills and excellent teamwork. Brazil were always superb at this and so were the great Holland team of 1974. Argentina and Italy did it well also. I guess we just don't have good enough players and/or they don't have an opportunity to practise and play long enough together as an international squad to make this work smoothly.

I thought about our lack of properly tackling the Swiss defense all through the game - it was particularly evident in this match. I was pleased to hear a real expert after the game - Liam Brady - point out this problem clearly.

There we go, I've had my say........I think I'll stick to the day job.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Knighthoods conferred on Irish people

I'm wondering how to feel about the British conferring knighthoods on Irish people. It seems like a good compliment at face value.

I recall Bob Geldof's reaction at the time for his knighthood. Many folk thought he might refuse it, being the maverick he was. Bob was delighted to accept it - saying to one reporter "Of course I accept it. If someone offers me a cup of coffee, I accept it". What he meant was that if someone gives you an award in a spirit of generousity why should you not accept it?

Is it a problem because the honor comes from the British, our old oppressors? I know that many British in centuries gone by saw ordinary Irish folk as some kind of humanoid ape-like creatures who uttered a gibberish language. Now they are conferring some of us with knighthoods out of respect for exceptional deeds. Seems we need to put the past behind us at some point. Furthermore - if someone accepts a knighthood - what's wrong with using it? If someone gives you a gift then it is polite to use it. It seems like hypocricy or least ungratefulness otherwise.

One is only entitled to use the "Sir" title if technically a UK citizen. Furthermore it is silly to "insist" on being called Sir XYZ. Someone might put the title on display on cards and communications but it is crazy to get upset if some just decides to call you Mr. XYZ. Displaying the title is a mark of gratitude and respect by the recipient to the doner. It's entirely a matter for others if they decide to address the person with it or not.

Above are just my spontaneous views. I might be persuaded to think differently!

PS - I also recall Bob Geldof being asked what the Queen said to him at the conferring. It seems she asked him was it difficult for him to travel to get there (London and the Palace). Bob(dressed in pinstripes and tie) told her:"Not as difficult as getting into these clothes!" apparently the Queen enjoyed a knowing chuckle at this.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Paddy Power Last Supper billboard advert

My article below titled "Humour and Religion" was published in Letters section of Irish Independent newspaper on 17 Oct 05. The editors removed some of my original sentences which I've included in italics below. I've no problem with that - it does keep the core sentiments and is more compact. They also dropped the capital H in "Himself" when referring to Jesus...I was trying to be respectful, but the Indo clearly didn't go for it!.

The controversial billboard, while it lasted, contained a light hearted joke that the Last Supper was not the time or place to be gambling. Is this really so grossly offensive?

Granted the image might arguably have offered more intelligent humour and been in better taste had it excluded Jesus Himself from seemingly being personally involved in the gambling process at the table. I say this because if we think a little deeper, would it really be impossible to imagine the disciples engaged in gambling at just the wrong time? We are talking about ordinary unsophisticated fishermen, who, in their well intentioned but fallible humanity, had at different stages either fallen asleep when they were asked to pray, denied Jesus after having promised not to, and betrayed Him for money. Moreover, Da Vinci's huge and dramatic Last Supper fresco was actually capturing the very moment after Jesus had announced that one of those at the table was about to betray Him. So I think the joke could have been wittier thrown more firmly on the disciples and maybe showing a contrastingly exasperated Jesus. Of course those in the advertising world don't always use too much sensitivity of thought on the subjects that they exploit.

Even though the advert as displayed perhaps wrongly poked some fun at Jesus Himself, there nevertheless is a general point to be raised. Are we still at the stage that there is no room at all for any humour in any interfacing on religion? I've listened to some Christian teachers say that Jesus was likely to have had a sense of humour - His ability to draw an attention span of groups of children being one clue. I think one of the problems is that many of us when approaching the subject of religion still fail to see the importance of both the recognition and inclusion of many valued aspects of our humanity. Our humanity in a very positive way includes humour and laughter.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

United Ireland

Just as a preamble let me say that my mother was from Northern Ireland. I've spent a lot of time in NI over the years with relatives, friends and associates from both communities. I've seen trouble, street riots and listened to many community level views over some 40 years.

I've read with interest Michael McDowell's article in Sunday Independant some weeks ago about Irish unification. From recollection it seemed similar to what another attacker of Sinn Fein/IRA - Conor Cruise O'Brien - had articulated some years ago. The essential point was that it would be in the Northern Ireland Loyalist's own interests to think long term of the benefits of us all on this island forming a new type of united political entity which is inclusive of Unionists. I could say that I agree with this - but what is more important is that the Loyalists are given the time and conditions in place to think this through themselves as a good or bad idea.

Such a union can only even begin to make sense to Northern Ireland folk if they start to see all Irish people as their friends and allies and that life will be better on this island if we work together in trust. President MacAleese continues to do a very good job at building bridges in helping to get the loyalists to know us better (admittedly with a few clumsy errors - but who's perfect?). More of this is needed by all of us. More trading, tourism, cultural, and sporting exchanges will help. If only the UK would join the Euro it would help too - crazy that you can go all the way to Italy with same currency and not be able to do the same up the road on the same island. This opens up another unity point - a better co-operating EC generally will help.

The Sinn Fein/IRA past and present is difficult for everyone. The violence has left huge scars which we can't expect to go away overnight - it will take years of patience. All the IRA announcements of ceasing armed struggle and decommissioning are great and exceptionally welcome. However it is the self-congratulatory and triumphalist way it is presented that makes it hard for loyalists and many nationalists to stomach. The violence should never have happened in the first place. I realise there was and is still violence from the Loyalist side - this must be addressed too - but during the last 30 years it was always much smaller in comparison to IRA activity.

As regards politics I actually think better bridges can be built in the short/medium term by the likes of blatently anti-IRA politicians like Michael McDowell and others. It's still hard to listen to Sinn Fein pontificating morality and inclusiveness. More short term progress can be made by listening to other parties. Sinn Fein need to back off in pushing too much too fast. Ironically - I've seen Gerry Adams putting together a very similar argument for unity as McDowell and Conor Cruise O'Brien, which is quite plausible. It's just that Adams is the wrong messenger at the wrong time to Unionists. I realise Sinn Fein have an electoral mandate but that does not mean that other parties can quickly and comfortably form a Government with them. Forced marriages are a mistake.

I'm old enough to remember when voting rights, jobs and policing were weighing heavily towards unionists and when the nationalists looked under heavy siege. Nationalists were burned out of their homes and we had Bloody Sunday etc. However, you can spend your life looking further back than is helpful to progress. The fact is that the IRA have wrongly and unneccesarily shattered lives in the name of protecting the nationalist community and advancing a united Ireland by force.

Great progress is taking place in terms of lasting peace. But Unionists need plenty of time and space and not be bullied. If eventually it makes sense to them to have a United Ireland then fine. If not, it just means we in the Republic are not seen as a better neighbour than the UK.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Space Exploration - the vision changes

In July 1969 as a 14 year old with a growing interest in science and technology, I stayed up all night watching live TV coverage of the first men on the Moon. For someone my age it excitingly culminated all that the 1960's stood for. Everything was radically changing for the better as I saw it. Music, fashion, TV, technology, free thinking. Now we were walking on the Moon less than 10 years since we could even figure out how to put a man into space.

During the celebrations of Apollo 11 I recall Werner Von Braun (the NASA rocket designer) holding a big banner saying "Mars by 1985!" Yes! That's the stuff!, I thought. No stopping us now. I also enjoyed the movie at the time "2001 A Space Oddysey". The book author - Arthur C. Clarke - was my favourite Sci-Fi writer because he incorporated very realistic concepts of the near future. The future looked really exciting to me and I looked forward to being part of it all - and still being moderately young in 2001 as the new century dawned. I followed every manned Moon landing religiously up to the last - Apollo 17 in December 1972. In fact when the movie about the Apollo 13 adventure eventually came out I didn't even see the need to watch it for a long time. I had lived through every detail of Apollo 13 live as it happened in 1970.

Quite a lot changed negatively as the 1970s progressed. Fuel crises, industrial disputes, space budgets cut drastically. No more Moon missions. No plans for men on Mars. The reusable Space Shuttle came about eventually - but even this was not going anywhere interesting - just into orbit.

For a long time I was very deflated - the euphoria of the 1960s was gone, the rate of progress was slowing down as I saw it. It took me a very long time to mature my thinking and accept that space exploration is still ages away from being a sensible, safe and cost effective activity for humans. Space is utterly alien for humans - so huge a challenge to keep us safe and alive there. When you want to go beyond the Moon - the distances and problems multiply massively.

I've recently come to the conclusion that we can and have achieved amazing results with unmanned space probes. It may not be the stuff of Buck Rogers or command the same public excitement as manned space travel - but it does get excellent scientific results - and in it's own way includes quite a bit of adventure. The media largely ignores all this and doesn't convey much to the public. Successes have been helped by great improvements in computers, communications and robotics which allows deep space probes to work very well in hostile environments and make automated decisions on the spot.

The most exciting probes in recent years have to be the two Mars Rovers - Spirit and Opportunity. How many people realise that these two amazing 6-wheel drive solar power vehicles have been reliably driving and exploring around different parts of Mars for more than 20 months now? Every day is a new adventure - and I must say I constantly look forward to the updates and amazing photographs from NASA's website.

The colour landscape photographs have spectacular clarity and there are interesting daily stories by the NASA controllers on challenges and discoveries encountered by the Rovers.

Another really interesting - and rarely reported - probe is the Cassini. This is in orbit around Saturn - some 1,000 times further away than our Moon. Cassini is constantly making incredible discoveries and producing wonderful photographs of Saturn, it's complex rings, and in particular it's widely different range of Moons. The largest Moon Titan in particular is fascinating. Cassini released the European Huygens probe into the atmosphere of Titan and it recorded terrific results and photographs right down to the surface - including some after the soft landing. Cassini continues to study Titan in detail during regular near flybys. It is a very peculiar World with a thick atmosphere, rain, rivers, features like lakes and islands - but with different chemicals at play than here on Earth.

There are many other exciting things going on in space exploration. So the vision of the 1960s is happening - just different than I expected as a youngster. The future always unfolds in more subtle ways than we dream.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Fianna Fail/Fianna Gael and Leadership

I've commented before on British Labour Party under Blair. Here are some very brief personal observations on Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael here in Ireland.

Fianna Fail

A huge machine of course, very efficient organizationally and at vote management etc. Many skilled TDs and good marketeers. Leadership quality and image today is crucial. In my opinion Bertie Ahern is often underrated as a leader. He almost works on the subconscious level - Freud would probably have had a lot to say about him. I'm not even convinced he completely knows why he is good. Fianna Fail tend to win support from business people and middle class but they also have an appeal to working classes. Bertie has helped in fostering the latter. Part of it of course is the warm "one of the lads" Dubliner image and accent, enjoying soccer and other sports, drinking Bass, being friendly with people in the street, sense of humor. I honestly don't think he consciously works too hard on this (if he was playing a numbers game for instance he would probably force himself to drink Guinness!). He genuinely just enjoys doing these things - and of course by accident it helps his image. This is partly why he has endured doing his job for so long - by his own admission once on Late Late Show - "it's a great job" (being Taoiseach). BTW - notice we all tend to just call him Bertie - another good accessibility image thing. Other party leaders we give their full names to. Even big World leaders show how detached they are from common people by unfriendly surname references - "Blair" and "Bush" (never Tony or George). Nobody refers to our guy as "Ahern".

The above features of Bertie though are vastly complimented by his skill as a man who works hard on compromise. He is known to be a skilled negotiator and it comes across at all levels - local disputes, labour relations, coalition, European level etc. He is conscious about people's concerns - put's himself in everyone's shoes. This is quite an asset - and he is so strong at this that it often gives him the image of being slow at making decisions or dithering - as exploited in adverts by Michael O'Leary. In fact Bertie had such a passion for the concerns of workers in Dublin Airport that he got amusingly tagged a socialist. It's almost the opposite of Tony Blair's extended reach of "a socialist appealing to middle class"!

Bertie has a laissez-faire style of leadership in terms of running his own Government. A lot of Bertie's real strength has been that he recognizes his weaknesses. He puts together a quality cabinet (no doubt with loads of advisors helping) and let's them do their job with minimal interference. He certainly has many good departmental ministers. This style of leadership coupled with his compromising personality also helps him get the best from skilled mavericks like Michael McDowell. Bertie has held coalition government together better than many might have predicted over two terms. One might argue of course that the PDs are natural partners - their raison d'etre was after all a Fianna Fail breakoff in reaction to Haughey's antics. Also to be fair to Fianna Fail, I do think a complicating factor in their failing to get overall majorities - apart from the lingering gremlins of the Haughey era - has been the peculiar rise of Sinn Fein (but that's another story).

Fine Gael

Fine Gael of course are seen by many as the "emergency alternative" to Fianna Fail. If FF mess up then FG are there to jump in. FG have always had very good people but in my own view as a humble observer they have had image problems over the years such as:

1. Being traditionally champions of the farming community is washing down a lot now of course as agriculture decreases as an income source.

2. I always thought when I was a teenager that their leader at the time - Liam Cosgrave was awful in front of cameras - never smiling, terrible droning voice, dull as dishwater. I know he was a great man as was his father - but he never seemed to understand the importance of media skills. I just feel he didn't help FG to grow at a time when they could have exploited the emerging massive importance of good PR. I think it did them harm which lingered.

3. Alan Duke's Tallaght strategy was the most unselfish thing ever done by an Irish political party - it allowed Haughey to at last do something sensible about the appalling mess he had helped create on the national debt. However, unfortunately for Fine Gael it was a sacrifice for the good of the country that set them back heavily in their own fortunes. FG's image was worn down as FF were seen to do what the opposition were asking for - hence FG ceased to look like a real opposition.

4. A succession of leadership changes has haunted FG over the last 5 years and such things are always messy - a really good leader is the holy grail that all parties seek. Garret Fitzgerald, although far from being an excellent overall leader, was good on many levels - probably the best FG had in last 50 years. However, post-Garrett it's been a mess. I should say that there is as much serendipity at play as there is skill in good leaders emerging. All parties everywhere struggle with it. Bertie himself decided against putting his name forward as leader in FF when Albert Reynolds was coming up against Haughey. Enda Kenny is a good politician - his reputation is gradually improving. You get the impression though that it is a little forced - that maybe he is stretching himself beyond comfort zones. Appearing on chat shows and even on RTE's The Restaurant as celebrity chef he just seems lacking in personality for such events and is making himself do it to raise profile. He comes across as a good thinker who is naturally a bit publicity shy and certainly lacks that sparkle of leadership charisma. Enda Kenny could probably most kindly be described as an evolving force, but the best leaders are often almost born good.

Fine Gael need to start believing in themselves and thinking big. They need powerful leadership and start making the population believe that they can run the country themselves. This partnership lark with Labour is crazy - it's a defeatist attitude before they even get going. There is no reason why Fine Gael can't be strong enough to beat FF on their own. Labour are slowly becoming a spent force in Ireland - their punch being stolen by both Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail. Labour's association with Fine Gael will only do them harm. Conflicting ideologies and good chance of a clash while in Government. Success is an attitude of mind, if you don't believe it yourself, no crutches are going to help. I don't buy the idea that Fine Gael should "be realistic" in putting together a pact with Labour to become next Government. Look at Labour in Britain - a very weak force in the Thatcher/Major era with poor leaders like Michael Foot and the like. Look at them today - with the right winning attitude they have blown away the Tories with 3 terms of office and comfortable overall majorities. Fine Gael have an excellent opportunity to make a similar impact - they are still the second largest party and have the raw ingredients to make it happen. I'm not saying they won't get into Government with a Labour pact - I just think in long term it's a wimpish attitude and most unhelpful to their political growth.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Da Vinci Code

Just back from a 1 week holiday in Northern Italy with my wife. The kids now being in their later teens and beyond, it was our first time on a holiday on our own since they were born. Absolute bliss for us (and them I dare say!). We had a brilliant week.

As an appropriate coincidence for our first trip to Italy I happened upon The Da Vinci Code novel in a newsagent at Dublin Airport departures (the novel leans somewhat pivotally on Da Vinci's The Last Supper - the famous huge fresco in a church in Milan not far from our destination in Lake Garda). A few weeks earlier I had watched a fascinating and very balanced documentary on the religious history aspects of the novel on National Geographic TV channel. Following all the hype the novel seemed like a good holiday read.

I ate through the 600 pages comfortably over the 7 days of our holiday. It was an absorbing read. I'm sure many would correctly argue that Dan Brown's book is - from an historical perspective - a somewhat incomplete, imbalanced and " Readers Digest" treatment of a rather big subject. We must remember that The Da Vinci Code is a fictional novel which of course can only touch the surface on many historical topics. Also, the fictional novel characters are naturally portrayed giving their own subjective views for purpose of the plot.

Nevertheless, as Dan Brown has argued on his website and elsewhere, the book should provoke thought and is a springboard in many ways. The positives I've taken from the book are many and include:

1. The whole Mary Magdalene theory is of course very interesting. The fundamental inputs lead to some prima facia logical analysis. It provokes additional research.

2. I've found myself carrying out further studies and readings on the Bible itself, Mary Magdalene, Da Vinci, The Louvre (I was last there in 1991 and was completely enthralled), Westminster Abbey etc. My new studies are wider than analyzing the core ideas from the book, so it has extended my interests (although both history and art have been interests of mine for a long time).

3. I've always been fascinated by objective research of Christ and the early Christian Church. I've too logical a mind to accept blind faith and complete face-value acceptance of the 4 official Gospels - written/rewritten and edited of course by very ordinary people 2,000 years ago. From my earlier Bloggs one can detect that I'm hungry to learn more in my search for truth and the "Big Picture"and the book has helped me focus some of this curiosity in certain directions.

So, overall The Da Vinci Code is a good read on many levels for many different types of people. Of course Dan Brown is also a cunning author and has gone out of his way to appeal to every group imaginable - not least many Christian women no doubt (it's even been said that many nuns have given positive reactions)!

It's hard for anyone to be deeply offended - as it is after all a work of fiction and by Brown's own admission merely another view to be weighed up in the mysteries of distant history. "What is history but a fable agreed upon!" - Napoleon Bonaparte. If believing Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus and bore Him descendants helps some people live better lives - then is it not a good thing for them? Does it matter to some that we can't totally prove it? The square root of minus one (i) is quite literally an imaginary number - but it's mathematical concept contributes hugely in all aspects of modern engineering. This clever analogy was thrown up in the novel and made me smile!

Anyway, I'm still conducting further readings, but below is a link to an article from a Christian lecturer in theology (Ramon K. Jusino) who puts up a reasonably well argued hypothesis that Mary Magdalene could be the "Beloved Disciple" and the author of the 4th Gospel (normally attributed to St. John). It was written before The Da Vinci Code novel hype and does not analyse the subject of whether or not Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus......

In Jusino's summary arguments there is one brilliant paragraph....

"Does this thesis seem radical to you only because I propose that a woman authored one of the four Holy Gospels in the Bible? If I had a thesis which proposed that Bartholomew, or Andrew, or James, or any of the other male apostles authored the Fourth Gospel instead of John -- would that be considered very radical? Probably not. In fact, the church has no problem with the prevailing scholarship which says that a man whose name we don't even know wrote one of the most sacred Christian documents. Imagine -- even a nameless man is preferable to a woman."

Here's another secular site that seems good for basic known information on Mary Magdalene:

Friday, July 08, 2005

Stopping terrorism and crime - knowledge is the key.

The terrorist events in London yesterday prompt me to introduce general thoughts which have been on my engineering mind for some time. These thoughts will seem radical but they are only ideas for debate.....

Both terrorism and crime generally has in the future the potential to be massively and dramatically reduced by using the latest communications, IT and bio technologies. It may seem potentially intrusive but it's goal would be to make all law abiding innocent people safer. Bio type identity systems - especially if linked to GPS - would have a very powerful influence on detection and safety. Anyone who goes anywhere in public could be detectable and their background accessible to policing authorities. Just think about how difficult it would be to commit and get away with any crime with powerful use of latest technology. The cost would be insignificant compared to the benefits.

The obvious outcry is of course related to infringement of human rights and privacy etc. Suppose somebody has committed a crime in the past or is worried because he/she is of a minority religious or ethnic group - is there likely to be too much intrusiveness etc? I would argue that quite the opposite is the case. People who are known to the police currently tend to be hassled by them simply because the police are genuinely suspicious of repeat crimes. They sometimes need to question them about an incident due to their previous crime history - and very often this is not at all a fair reflection of the person's current good way of life. Latest technology would for instance show that the person was not anywhere near a location of a crime etc. Those of us who never committed a crime may feel that our movements being detectable to police if desired is intrusive. I can understand this, but why worry if you have nothing to hide? Every one of us has video footage taken of us daily in shopping malls and public streets. Is it not more comforting to know that you have the equivalent of a guardian angel on your shoulder?

So I think we should at least consider moving towards the goal that every human be uniquely identifiable by bio-implanted information micro-chips and that their position on the earth and recent precise movement history be recorded. The very important point however is that this information should just be accessible to policing services with the highest levels of security in place. Information should never fall into the wrong hands nor used for marketing or other interest groups.

Can you even imagine how much more efficient policing work would be (not to mention securing convictions in court) with full use of this technology? Terrorism would largely stop in it's tracks, anyone who breaks into your house or commits rape or other crimes is instantly caught. Missing persons are a thing of the past. Speeding and reckless drivers are detected before they cause havoc. Even smaller crimes like stealing handbags or mobile phones etc. are solved immediately - police often have little resources to put much effort currently into such crimes. We might even eventually get back to the days when we could leave our cars and houses unlocked without fear! The technology has also the potential to help detect childhood tendencies to anti-social behaviour or crime and therefore direct educational and psychological services into place before the problem gets worse.

We are not too far from a stage where the technology above can be implemented very effectively. It must be a reliable and mature technology which is not obtrusive for individuals to wear in/on their bodies.

I think it is only a question of whether we want this to happen or not. Does it sound too much like we are creating a police state? We must remember that it is merely tools we are talking about to help detect genuine crime in a democratic state. Police monitoring and ombudsman facilities become important - but the very technology I am proposing facilitates this too. My vote is for introducing it professionally, gradually globally and with full provision for the safety, liberty and democratic rights of every human on the planet.

Hopefully the above is at least worthy of discussion and some conceptual pilot trials. For legal, human rights and to a lesser extent technical reasons it may be up to 50 years before it could be globally employed.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

M50 Dublin completion - at last!

The final part of the M50 Dublin orbital motorway opened a week ago. It covers the section from Sandyford Industrial Estate to the south eastern M11 near Shankill village. All sections of the M50 had their own problems in planning and construction but this final section had massive challenges.

Acquisition of lands proved to be slow and hugely expensive - with owners presumably seeking their lands to be paid for at inflated residential zoning rates. There were spacing and technical routing/interchange challenges in taking the road though built up areas near Sandyford Industrial Estate and also various other special civil engineering challenges.

Then of course the infamous issue of the medieval ruins situated below ground level on the planned Carrickmines interchange of the M50. This saga gets my blood boiling as it caused the most disproportionate delays and wastage of taxpayers money I've ever witnessed for a road construction. Most of us greatly value our medieval history and the State contributed hugely in time and funding to gain the best archeological studies and retrievals from the site. This effort was particularly intensive when you consider that the site was grossly overrated as a "castle" with just traces of stubs of walls remaining. It could be argued that the legal challenges and inordinate time wasting and expenditure were way out of proportion to the value of the site. The motorists of Ireland affected by this section not only struggled through traffic jams for years longer than necessary - but paid dearly in further taxes for the privilege. The forum for challenge and objection was stretched beyond any reasonable democratic process.

I do detect that lessons have been learned from the M50 construction - in all the areas above and more. For the benefit of future generations we must learn to manage such projects in a macro teamwork manner and cut down dramatically the time and cost of road construction projects.

In any event it is a time to celebrate. The last section of M50 completion is a culmination of many years of hard work and frustrations by the planners/designers/utilities/contractors. Let us not forget that in addition to the route itself there are many linkage roads which were planned and built well in advance and which came fully into effect with the final motorway completion.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Hypothesis - "They're here!"

Following on from my last posting "Are we alone in the Universe?" (please read that firstly) - let us now examine the hypothesis that intelligent life from other parts of the Universe have in the past or in the present been showing up on our doorstep on Earth. It is one of the two simplest explanations for the Fermi Paradox - and from logic very often the simplest explanations are the correct ones (refer to Occam's Razor)! Note: the other simple explanation of course would be that there is no intelligent life out there capable of contacting us.

So let's deal with the hypothesis that there is extra-terrestrial intelligent life which is already here. How come we don't know that they are here or have been here? Why would they not try to communicate with us? There seems to be only two possible simple general answers to the above:

A. The intelligent life does not want us to know they are here.

B. The intelligent life is in contact with us but we do not properly realize it.

The proposition in A seems a little weak. Why would the life form be here and not want to communicate with us? Are they just studying us, or afraid of our aggression? It just doesn't seem to add up for an advanced life form to behave this way. It is not likely to be the way we ourselves would behave if we encountered an intelligent race. Historically we would be more likely to give them a lot of trouble in fact!

Let us look at B. If aliens are in contact with us already the first thing to note is that they do not appear to be trying or succeeding in harming us. This would seem compatible with a very advanced intelligent life form. But why do we not realize that super-advanced creatures are in contact with us? This is a very difficult question. We need to perhaps examine evidence of unexplained phenomena on Earth related loosely to other extra-terrestrial life forms.

The obvious place to start is in the whole UFO phenomena. A huge proportion of sightings and encounters seem to be complete rubbish. If there are physical spacecraft and beings which in the present or in the past have visited the Earth then we have never been able to scientifically prove their existence. Also, if they are in such physical form - then why not just come clean and communicate with us properly. Nevertheless, it does remain possible that some kind of relatively advanced alien creatures have made some limited attempts to physically study or communicate with us. It just seems that their efforts have at the very least been unconvincing.

The next thing to examine is what we might refer to as the whole spiritual world. There is huge anecdotal evidence from us humans of all types of spiritual phenomena - from experiences of what we call God to simpler paranormal events. Is it possible that with very advanced knowledge of the nature of matter and energy that we could in the future transcend our existence into some other format? We are discovering more and more about subatomic particles and the fabric of matter and energy and perhaps we will discover other startling things which we can control in the future. Is it possible that we can become immortal in the future by becoming what we might loosely today call pure spirits? Maybe it's already happening without us properly understanding it.

The other thing to keep an open mind on is that spiritual existence may not have a strong relationship with physical space and time as we see it. So in other words these aliens may not relate directly in their advanced state to any physical part of the Universe. They may never even have existed as physical bodies as we are or they may have learned how to transcend and then have no meaning in terms of physical location.

The Universe is physically so vast that it would seem to take a massive and fundamental breakthrough in the nature of a being's existence in order to communicate throughout the Universe. The physical Universe is effectively impossible to explore on any sensible scale by planet-based physical creatures that depend on resources of the planet to stay alive.

From the above brief thought process it could be speculated that alien intelligence is more likely to be communicating with our minds or souls/spirits than actually physically appearing in front of us. We can live with the idea of "mind" perhaps but the concept of a soul or spirit in a proper scientific sense is still very advanced for us to work with. However in my opinion we need to start thinking of advanced alien civilizations communicating with us in ways related to this. In a massive physical Universe it is the only way I can see that can make sense of a positive answer to the Fermi Paradox.

To take my "They're here!" hypothesis much further is tempting but of course extremely speculative. One could start to argue that what we would call God is actually a very advanced spiritual life form that is trying to communicate and help us. I want to resist going much further with this as we are now really moving the wagon wheels deep into the Injun territory of non sequitur!

It is difficult to analyze this subject objectively in a detailed way, we don't seem to have the tools and indeed it's not even a faculty of regular science. However, it is time that we started to merge humanity's diverse and large pools of knowledge in physical sciences, philosophy, logic, religion and even the paranormal into a new form of super-science. This super-science may be fundamental to our understanding of ourselves and the nature of life everywhere in the Universe. Without doubt it could be the most important subject we ever study.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Are we alone in the Universe?

A big subject - are we alone in the universe in terms of intelligent life?

It seems that there is a great uniformity about the universe. The trillions of stars are all made of the same stuff as our Sun and operate the same way - nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium. Stars throughout the universe are clustered into galaxies similar to our Milky Way. We are rapidly discovering in the last decade that stars often have planets orbiting around them.

Within our own solar system there are signs that liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars. There is evidence that basic life forms are common to develop even in tough conditions. It may be that animal life can develop in many cases also.

The really tough question is how common is it for intelligent life forms like humanity to develop and to survive. There is the famous Fermi paradox which questions that if other intelligent creatures exist then why have they not already contacted us. This is a very fair question given the timescale and sheer size of the universe. Then there is the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) work which has not produced any startling results in decades of scanning the skies for radio transmissions.

So, are we the only intelligent creatures in the universe or at least in our own galaxy? Oceans of analysis and comment has been written on this subject and there are so many parameters and variables at play.

Here are some comments of my own:

1. Intelligent life, even in our own form, may not develop well enough to communicate long distances through space. There could be many civilizations that never get beyond crude farming or maybe the equivalent of our medieval history. The exploitation of electricity and in particular radio transmission is quite a major leap as it is an invisible and somewhat abstract technology to both understand and to exploit. It is this technology that allows us to attempt to put our mark on the universe. It is conceivable that this leap in technology is never made in many reasonably intelligent races in the universe. Hence they can neither consider traveling or communicating in space and therefore are undetectable to us.

2. Let us assume that there is a civilization that reaches our own level of technology. It is a fair comment to make that when a race reaches our 20th century level of technology that the basics exist to accelerate technological progress at a rapid rate. It is reasonable to assume that the spectacular technological progress we have made in the 20th century will continue at a high pace in the 21st century and beyond. What will we be like in say 1000 years from today - which is a mere microsecond in the timescale of the universe? Will we be so advanced that we have figured out how to travel huge distances in space rapidly, casually and economically? Would we be advanced enough to detect and reach other intelligent life forms? So assuming it is possible to exploit technology in a way we don't even understand yet - it brings back the Fermi Paradox. Why haven't other civilizations developed the same way and not already reached us? Here are a few thoughts of my own:

2.1 There is of course the possibility that there are very few or no examples of super-intelligent life in the Universe. This could be deducted if very advanced animal life was very rare (see my comments in 1. above) or a block in advancement takes place though regular extinctions - meteor impacts and other natural disasters or indeed self destruction through WMD wars.

2.2 A rather tantalizing direction in relation to the Fermi Paradox would be to raise the hypothesis that super intelligent life has already contacted us and is maybe here already! Given all the logical deductions emanating from the uniformity, timescale and massive size of the Universe then it is reasonable to put forward a hypothesis that other intelligent life has detected us or has been visiting us . Maybe we are so wrapped up in what we consider our super-efficient 21st century technologies that we haven't even got the sensory capacity to detect what is all around us. We are so busy searching using our visual and radio communications tools and maybe we are as blind as bats. We could be like a person who spends hours looking for his hat - only to discover it is on his head! I'm going to post a separate analysis into my "They're here!" hypothesis as it is a very interesting and completely plausible subject.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

British Labour Party...lessons for Irish parties?

The success of the British Labour Party in three elections under Tony Blair has been remarkable. Okay, they had a drop of support in the recent election - but any party would still envy the big size of their overall majority going into a third term. Fianna Fail in contrast have probably forgotten that overall majorities can even be achieved.

The British Labour Party's success may have many complex ingredients but some simple formulae have stood to them in my opinion....

Firstly, they work intelligently to make damn sure they keep their core traditional Labour voters. The typical low paid worker will still vote Labour, or at very least will not vote Conservative. I listened with interest to interviews with Rover workers who just before the election lost their jobs. Surely they would be angry enough to stuff Labour in their voting. No, most Rover workers interviewed said they would vote Labour. It was interesting to listen to them saying things like...."Well, I've always voted Labour..." or "Labour tried their best to keep this place going...the Tories would have been much worse". For many workers , Thatcher's perceived reign of terror in the 1980s with industry probably still puts shivers into their souls.

Secondly, Blair and Labour cleverly stole the Tories middle class appeal. Blair acts and sounds rather like a Conservative. Notice also a very powerful but simple word he always works into his speeches...the word "decent". Everything is about doing "decent" things for society, a "decent" living standard, etc. Working people love to hear it and it's a more marketable word to middle classes than phrases like "social standards" which knocks on the door of that dirty word "socialist". Blair has the confidence and articulate skills of a Margaret Thatcher in both House of Commons debates and in dealing with the media. However Blair has a further skill. He is not afraid to face debate with masses of ordinary people, take their raw anger on the chin and calmly articulate his views. He may get a mauling in the process, but he somehow emerges looking like he cares or at least is trying to be ..."decent"!

This "Labour dressed as Conservative" tactic reminds me, albeit with many differences, of Charles Haughey's path following the infamous "Tallaght Strategy" under the noble Alan Dukes of Fine Gael. Haughey tactically played the opposition's own game and Fine Gael have been struggling ever since!

You would wonder if the Irish Labour Party could ever emulate the British Labour Party's success....I've many thoughts on this...but maybe for another day!

One final thought which says it all - Margaret Thatcher herself was reportedly asked earlier this year what was her greatest legacy. "New Labour", was the pithy reply!

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Ireland at Eurovision 2005

Some would argue that Ireland's entry was dodgy. A simple young inexperienced brother/sister act who look very raw Irish kids-next-door stereotype. Joe with his natural red hair and pale skin and Donna looking like money was needed to be spent on her teeth long before this type of public display! Sometimes we are too close to ourselves to realize that it is often our unique features that makes us liked abroad. They were a confident pair, proud and with a sense of fun. Although many other acts looked very visually perfect - it is always possible for something quirky and different to surprise and do well. Maybe this is what Eurovision should be about. The ABBA act in 1974 had some of the features of a Donna and Joe type rise - they were natural talents - and the ABBA girls' teeth were no better that Donna's!

The problem is the public voting mechanism which has been introduced in the recent past and the neighbourhood voting pattern. To break through this emotional voting trap you need a very exceptional song and a very professional act - and even this is no guarantee. The ironic thing is that after last year's disaster we said we would try to select a very professional polished act for this year - but we are ourselves the victims of a public voting selection in our own country. Donna and Joe could do well if voted for by a balanced jury system in each country - it was a catchy song and they put it over well, they had a quirky appeal. However it was never designed for a European public voting system.

We need to immediately go back to a very professional jury selection system for our national choice of performance and need to influence Eurovision to also go back to a jury system. I doubt if the latter will happen though - the public voting system generates revenue to pay for the exercise and gets more people involved in watching TV. So going back to the taxpayer or TV network funding could be a difficult process - given the complexities of Europe. However, if we don't go in this direction the whole contest may rapidly decline in interest and credibility.

Anyway - Donna and Joe deserve our support and praise - they did their best by the rules we in Ireland and Europe presented them with. It's the rules which need to change.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

A new arrival!!

Well, after reading a lot of Blogs I'm creating my own! I'm a 50 year old married Dublin (Ireland) male with teenage kids. I'm hoping to discuss views on politics, science, technology, astronomy, photography and maybe spiritualism and the nature of life and the universe etc.