Friday, March 31, 2006

In praise of and fitness!

Well I do think more people of all ages should play tennis. It's great fun, social, good aerobic exercise, and unlike golf doesn't take up too much time, typically an hour or so. What's better is that you don't really think about the exercise element because it's primarily fun. In my opinion this is in stark contrast to jogging and gym work where it takes mental commitment and is hard to keep up regularly. And it's not a contact sport nor involves extreme strength so injuries are exceptionally rare - tend to only occur at professional levels.

All you need is someone to play against, a friend or someone else who wants a bit of exercise and fun. You can start by just hitting balls back and forth over the net without playing games at all. Gradually co-ordination improves and you get more and more fun from it.

Joining a club is a very good idea and it's then easy to get into a regular playing pattern and finding people your own level, nice social scene, coaching etc.

I've been in a tennis club for about 12 years now after starting by messing about on public courts. It's weird, but even though I've obviously aged since then, my tennis skills have improved in that time beyond all recognition. This is without any major commitment other than having fun playing regularly and the odd bit of informal or formal coaching. It's very rewarding to see your skills improving from year to year.

Tennis courts are something we are not short of in Ireland. You would be amazed by the number of clubs around, often hidden away off side roads and cul-de-sacs. There are plenty of public courts too. You need very little equipment other than a racket and runners.

Tennis is fun and fitness - and in that order of priority!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Top Gear...bittersweet feelings.

I often watch Jeremy Clarkson and the lads on Top Gear reviewing cars and getting up to all sorts of odd experiments and trials. A part of me enjoys it and a part of me finds it irritating.

The obvious positive for me about Top Gear is that I like cars. I have an engineering background so I also enjoy the technology aspects. I tinkered a lot mechanically with older cars when I was in my early twenties. After a motorcycle stint my first car was a rust bucket but nevertheless exciting Triumph Vitesse with a 2 litre six cylinder engine, twin carbs etc. Theoretically very fast but it would shake to death long before worrying Garda speed checks on open roads!

Anyway, the negatives for me on Top Gear would be....

1. Obsession with all-out performance on extreme sports cars like Ferraris, Porches etc......

It amused me on many programs where say a Ferrari is shown that they would go into raptures about it's handling and performance. But then you hear them offer minor irritations like.....the front skirt smashes off the ground on speed ramps or coming down from multi-story car parks. Or best of all...."Ferrari's can be quite tiring on long journeys". 200K plus Euros for a sports car that's tiring to sit in for too long and can't handle ramps! Not to mention the fact that it's completely illegal to use the performance on public roads. Do you think they would test a very good compromise sports car like the Hyundai Coupe? No chance! To the Top Gear team this would be either a girly or a hairdresser's car! However the latter coupe has reasonable power, corners and handles exceptionally well, looks amazing, and you can live with it comfortably on long journeys and all conditions. I'm biased maybe since my wife acquired such a red beast a few months ago and we loooove it! However sports cars have to have the right badge and go 0-100Km/hr in less than 5 seconds to even be considered on Top Gear.

2. Silly tests every week, which seem to only have a similar curiosity value to a bearded lady in a Circus. Examples...

* Jeremy tests an SLK Mercedes and a Porche at very high speed around a deserted village. A team of Army snipers are hidden in different parts of the village and all try to shoot him with laser rifles. He was shot less times in the Porche but came to the conclusion that since it was the Porche that was tested first - that the Army got used to the conditions for the Mercedes. Hence it was concluded that the test was fun but meaningless!

* Jeremy tries to out-maneuver an army tank in a Range Rover and avoid being hit by the tank's gun. What can I say!!??

* A Toyota 4x4 vehicle is placed on the roof of a high tower building which is demolished by a controlled explosion. When the smashed vehicle is recovered they found that with a little coaxing they could start the engine! Mildly interesting I suppose!

* A Boeing 747 Jumbo jet engine is fired up to full throttle on a runway. They drive a remote controlled Citroen 2CV car right across the path of the rear of the jet engine (well, the British hate French cars!). The Citroen is blown 10 feet into the air like a kite and lands utterly demolished about 200 feet down the runway! It did make me whistle in awe at the power of those jet engines....but it sure was a bizarre test!

* Jeremy drives a Land Rover Discovery to the top of a Scottish mountain. This was interesting in fairness and could possibly influence the 1% of 4x4 SUV drivers who would consider taking their expensive vehicles off-road!

3. The main negative for me though is the encouragement this program gives to immature boy racers. It's really a program which can excite such idiots. As if such killer fools needed any more encouragement - we've got grown parent type men on the show salivating as they blister cars along roads and do handbrake turns - everything is about pushing supercars to the limits. As much as I like cars - any time most of us are tempted to overdo the driving scene we think of unexpected events occurring to cause a collision, carnage, ruined lives etc. A split second's carelessness can ruin the happiness of a lifetime.

I'm not being a kill-joy here. I do in many ways enjoy Top Gear. But given that it's aimed at the general public - it's possible to have an exciting car program without comparing impractical supercars around a race track, wrongly influencing immature boy-racers and running childish and meaningless bizarre tests.

Footnote, 2nd April...

I have a small spoonfull of humble pie to eat...but not a platefull.

I watched Top Gear on Saturday to be treated to a road test of...guess what...the aforementioned Hyundai Coupe! And they liked it's solid handling on the road, it's great Ferrari type looks and general price vs. performance ratio. In contrast they thought a Lexus Coupe costing three times the price was crap.

A second spoonfull of pie was needed as they then tested a very cheap small hatchback which they also liked.

Wonders will never cease! But they should do this more often.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Michael McDowell and Cafe Bars

Michael McDowell is one of those innovative leaders who often gets up people's noses as his passion for what he believes in is a few steps out of sync with his mouth. He would make a great apprentice for Sir Alan Sugar.

Since there is plenty of negative coverage in recent days for McDowell, I'll try to be different. I have to commend the way he comes up with fresh ideas.

I thought McDowell's cafe-bar licensing idea last year was great. I've been in some of these here and abroad and they do tend to encourage people to balance consumption between food and drink. It's well known that having food reduces the intoxicating effect of a given measure of alcohol and there can be a tendency to drink less when having food. Apart from the obvious reduction in people being pissed out of their skulls with no food in their stomachs, there is also the avoidance of drunks spilling into chippers very late, causing trouble, and having trashy food in their stomachs before going to sleep.

I seem to recall that what killed McDowell's cafe bar plans was a strong rejection force from Fianna Fail back benchers - who may well have had links, lobbyists, or party donations from interests in the license trade.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Mary Harney, Ben Dunne...fight flab and motivate us all!

I'm nobody to preach about being overweight and I understand the problem only too well. But I just think our Minister for Health should consider solving her own weight problem for her own sake and as an added motivation it would set a wonderful example for the nation whose health she clearly is concerned with. Mary Harney has been overweight for as long as I can remember and seems to get larger with time. I'm sure she knows it's dangerous for her as she gets older and the stress and nature of the job with long sitting hours and lunches/dinners etc. can't be a help.

I'm not just picking on Mary Harney because she is a woman. There seems to be a bit of the "Emperor's clothes" taboo about commenting on the weight of a senior high profile female politician (or I suppose on any woman come to think of it!). It's not just about women though. Ben Dunne looks like a most unlikely person to be promoting his fitness clubs - and he has said as much himself! What an example he could set by losing weight and the free publicity for his clubs would be excellent for business. Would probably extend his life as a bonus.

I've noticed that any public comments on national obesity are made by the Taoiseach instead of the more logical Minister for Health, Mary Harney, so she clearly sees the irony. It's a free country as they say and people including elected politicians make their own personal choices. It's also bloody difficult to lose weight. It's a permanent attitude of mind to food which is needed.

I've always had great respect for Mary Harney as a politician. I still credit her for solving the smog problem in Dublin by banning sale of smoky fuels. And I do think she is the right person for sorting out the Health service, given time. Imagine how she could motivate all of us with weight problems by starting and participating in a nationwide and televised campaign to lose weight permanently. It's not easy for her but she could be doing it primarily for herself and secondly for the nation. Ben Dunne should team up with her on a national campaign! It would be fun and would get us all who are overweight in on the act.

Right, I know I'm sooooo dead for commenting on a woman's weight but I promise that if a very overweight man was Minister for Health I would suggest the same thing!

Finally, anyone volunteering to ask Mary? Not me, I'm too the emperor has lovely clothes! I'll volunteer for Ben Dunne.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Inner demons

Many have varying interactions with the darker sides of life, but usually don't admit it.

Edgar Allen Poe's "The Oval Portrait" has some parallels with Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" but written some 50 years earlier. We are subliminally interested in the blend of love, life and our mortality. Indeed it has always been a big subject with Woody Allen also and countless other writers.

It is a sensitive subject, but many truly do struggle with inner demons as too much gets on top of us. Look at all the suicides in Ireland and indeed the recent sad case of the mother who appears to have killed her children before taking her own life. Edgar Allen Poe himself was a very troubled individual but it may have helped him a little to write his macabre tales.

One of my daughters is a student psychiatric nurse. She is very professional about never mentioning names but in general terms seems to come across such a range of problems which very ordinary people have. Psychiatric problems seem to be on the increase.

My attitude in life is to see the funny side as much as possible, certainly it helps me. My wife is the same and in addition she has often said that those who are contemplating suicide should force themselves to go out and do something useful for others. If the inner pain is too much to live then maybe project outwards and just help someone else in a small way, even as a last deed. I would think it could be very therapeutic for the troubled person.

I don't pretend to know near enough on the inner demons and darkness which people go through. It's too big a subject for me but such a growingly important topic in today's world.

Friday, March 10, 2006

40 years since Nelson's Pillar was blown up

I didn't notice much media interest this week in the 40th anniversary of the blowing up of Nelson's Pillar on 8th March. I remember liking the pillar as a kid. It suited the street, matched the nearby GPO columns and you could walk to the top and have a good view of the city. I didn't give a toss at the time who Nelson himself was but there had been talk of putting a different statue on top and renaming the pillar. The IRA took more clinical action - presumably not liking the English admiral being on the street coming to the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

The Spire today in the same spot is modern and interesting and the idea wasn't bad. To me it looked better in the artist's impressions than in reality. Maybe when they finish all the surrounding plans in O'Connell Street it will give the full impact.

I wrote a previous blog on one of my little trips to the top of the pillar as a kid. I'll recopy it here...

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.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Lucia wins "You're a Star"....thank goodness!

I had a passing interest in the final of RTE's "You're a Star" singing talent contest at the weekend. I was very wowed by the voice of Lucia Evans and she was in a different class to anyone else I heard in the previous weeks.

I was a little intrigued by what might happen in the public voting at the final. I'm guessing purely from anecdotal evidence that mainly females vote on these things (only a guess!) and I thought many might be swayed by the charm of the quintessentially Irish O'Sullivan lads. Also given that Lucia was a black girl originally from Zimbabwe I had a nagging fear that some element of racism or zenophobia could potentially creep in on a public but secret vote. I didn't think it would but you just never know. Certainly if she had lost the vote I would have had to suspect some racism because she was so clearly the best beyond any level of subjectivity associated with musical talent. Thankfully and rightly Lucia won the public vote. It doesn't really prove that the Irish are not racist but at least it didn't suggest that we are!