Friday, February 26, 2010

I need a 'Miracle' to see US vs Finland today

Monday was technically the 30th anniversary of the USA's win over the USSR in Olympic hockey, but as far as I'm concerned today is the real anniversary. That's because it was the second Friday of the Olympics when that game was played.

I was reminded of that greatest ever day for an American sports fan when I came across this, which then reminded me of worst ever decision by a network broadcaster. That was when ABC decided NOT to show that game, THE GAME, live, but rather on a 3 hour delay.

It's funny how the mind plays tricks on you, isn't it? I've seen that clip of the final minute with Al Michaels counting it down so many times that I sometimes forget that I didn't see it happen live, didn't really enjoy the thrill that I should have enjoyed because I knew who had won before ABC came on air.

It's only when I really think back on it that I remember following the game through our cable system's score ticker on the local access channel. I remember being really angry then - I was 15 - and you know what? I still feel cheated.

Obviously it's not the same magnitude, but I'm put out by the fact that lunchtime today I learned that I'm not going to be able to see tonight's USA vs Finland game. Ever since Tuesday morning I've been looking forward to this game because (a) it was scheduled for 8pm our time, which I can handle and (b) I was sure our Olympics network - no Irish channel shows any winter Olympics - would show the hockey semifinal. I mean, it's the semifinals for goodness sakes. (They are showing the Canada vs Slovakia game at 3:30 am.)

I was wrong. Instead of hockey they're showing the men's 4 x 7½km biathlon relay.

I admire the great Ole Einar Bjørndalen as much as anybody. Well, as much as any non-Norwegian (see picture of statue of him from his hometown; pic from Panoramio). Okay, as much as any non-biathlete North American fan. Satisfied?

Actually I really like watching the biathlon (every four years). Great skills, great endurance, great competition, great sport.

I've watched a lot of biathlon this Olympics, but tonight I really, really want to watch hockey. Unfortunately, it looks like it'll take a miracle for me to be able to see tonight's game.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Major League Baseball defaces Ireland's national flag

I'm not sure if you noticed or not, but baseball's spring training got going the other day. That means a new baseball season is only a few weeks away, thank goodness.

However, before we get to Opening Day St.Patrick's Day will be here. And, as is the custom now, that means Major League Baseball will be promoting its special St. Patrick's Day line of merchandise. You can get a green version of pretty much every team's cap and tee shirt, if you like.

Obviously there's a demand for such products, which I think is great. The die-hard baseball fan can satisfy their need to display where their baseball loyalties lie, but also exhibit their pride in their Irish heritage. I have a few green Mets shirts myself.

Yesterday I got my annual e-mail from the Mets asking me to "gear up and go green" for St. Patrick's Day. Loads of the usual green caps, green tee shirts, shamrock covered boxer shorts. Who doesn't need some of that?

What struck me, however, was that included among the green caps and shirts and boxers was an Irish flag. Only this Irish flag has "New York Mets" printed on it along with the Mets logo in the middle of the flag on a green shamrock background. And the real kicker, there's an MLB trademark stamp in the lower left corner.

First of all, I want to ask Major League Baseball who owns the green, white and orange flag that you've stamped your trademark on? MLB is not shy about demanding that others respect their logos and symbols. Mostly, however, I want to ask MLB who gave you the right to deface the national flag of Ireland?

I couldn't find any similarly defaced American flags on MLB's web site probably because MLB is fully aware that to do so is a violation of the flag code of the United States. Title 4, Chapter 1 § 8 of the United States Flag Code stipulates that "No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America."

The flag code further specifies that the "flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature." Furthermore, the flag code says the "flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever." I think that's pretty clear and fully explains why you don't see the Mets' logo or MLB trademark stamped on Old Glory.

If the American flag is deserving of such respect then so is the Irish flag. The Irish Government's Guidelines for the use of the National Flag are less detailed, but pretty straight-forward. "The National Flag should never be defaced by placing slogans, logos, lettering or pictures of any kind on it, for example at sporting events." {Note the Irish government's boldface.}

I know there are many people in both America and Ireland who think nothing of violating their country's flag code, but MLB should be not be following suit. And, lest you think it's only the Mets whose logo can be found on the Irish flag, similar versions exist with logos of the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and others.

Interestingly, one team that doesn't have an Irish flag with their team's name and logo on it is the Philadelphia Phillies. They have a special St. Patrick's Day flag, but it's not the national flag of Ireland.

Maybe being the home of the American flag makes Philadelphia more conscious of the respect that a national flag should receive or maybe someone in the Phillies' organization recognized what was right and wrong here. Either way, I grudgingly have to tip my green, shamrock-covered Mets cap to the hated Phillies.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Disney World's message to Ireland: don't come here

Disney World is operating a 'No Irish Welcome' policy. Or so it seems. Okay, it's not that serious, but it was brought to my attention last week that Disney's web site has omitted Ireland.

Yup, that's right. When you use Disney's web site to buy tickets to visit Disney World in Florida you're asked what country you are from and, well, Ireland's not on the list. Canada is there. The United Kingdom is there. Germany is there. Israel is there. Guatemala is there. Iceland is there. Kuwait is there. And so on.

Just about any country you could imagine is on the list, but not Ireland. To be absolutely certain I checked for Rep. of Ireland, as it's known on many European web sites, and I even checked for Eire, which I've seen on a couple of sites. But Ireland is nowhere.

I could get all emotional about it and wail about the insult to the Irish nation by virtue of this omission. Or I could speak of my deep sadness that a company founded by a man who was proud of his Irish roots could deny his ancestral homeland it's right to nationhood.

I could do that, but that would be a grotesque exaggeration of how I feel about this because I'm really curious about how this could have happened and not angry or saddened. {Although, when you combine this with the snub of Ireland at Epcot, well ...}

I don't know how many people go from here to Disney World each year, but it's not an insignificant number. I'd be pretty confident that more Irish people go to Disney World than do Icelandic or Kuwaiti people. In fact, I suspect that Ireland sends a disproportionate number to Disney in Florida when compared with other EU states and, I'd bet, more than quite a few countries on the list.

That's why I'm curious. How did Ireland get left off the list since, from my own experience in web site development, these lists are pretty standard? And how is it nobody at Disney has noticed or been notified of this because I'm sure many people in Ireland must have come across this already.

It's really only a minor issue, but still it's one that I bet Walt Disney would not be happy to learn of. Walt's grandparents - Kepple Disney and Mary Richardson were both Irish immigrants. The name Disney was originally d'Isigny, which is a Norman name, and his family at some point found its way to the area around Counties Carlow and Kilkenny, from where Kepple left Ireland.

Walt visited Ireland many times and his affection for Ireland was what drove him to make "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," which Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole says is much misunderstood in Ireland.

Disney's nephew Roy, who twice ran the Disney Corporation, also loved Ireland. Roy used to come to Ireland regularly and bought Coolmain Castle in County Cork in the early 1980's.

Maybe I've misunderstood the Disney web site and this is a tribute to the Disneys' Irish ancestry. Irish people probably don't need to buy tickets to Disney World because it's free for everyone coming from Ireland. If that's it, then great. I'd like my free family passes please.

UPDATE Jan 25: Disney's web site has been corrected to include Ireland. Again, I was pretty sure it was only an oversight, but I was curious as to how such a thing could happen and go unnoticed because so many people from Ireland go to Orlando.

Thank you to PatrickLee whose comment below "brought to my attention" the fact that the web site had been fixed.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I love watching curling

Curling. There are a lot of detractors out there, especially in America. Many people seem to believe that curling is not a sport and doesn't belong in the Winter Olympics.

Niall O'Dowd is one of those people. O'Dowd says Curling is the silliest sport at the Olympics, that it's essentially a couple of people sweeping in front of a 'kettle lid' sliding along the ice.

I disagree. I'm a big fan of the Winter Olympics. I'd be hard pressed to choose my favorite sport at the winter games (hockey doesn't count because I watch that regularly). Curling would be up there, however.

Sure the curlers may not be the athletic specimens that you'll find in other disciplines, but sports is about more than at athleticism. If athleticism was all that mattered there would be few sports other than triathlon and the NBA.

I've never curled and I knew nothing about it until I started watching it after it became an official Olympic sport. Since then I've grown to appreciate the competition among the various nations, the skill and strategy involved and, something I really like, the sportsmanship of the competitors.

Sure, it looks like a middle-aged guy could compete at or near the top level, but you know what? Golf looks a lot like that to me too. How old exactly was Tom Watson when he came within a whisker of winning the British Open last year? That doesn't bother me.

One other thing I like about curling is that it's not a race against the clock and, more importantly, it doesn't involve judges. Curling is merely a contest between two teams pitting their wits against each other. I can only imagine that those American detractors are being badly served by NBC, but from what I read that's a complaint of fans of just about all Olympic sports.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Annie McCarrick: American missing in Ireland since '93

I hadn't been living in Ireland all that long when Annie McCarrick disappeared in March 1993. McCarrick was from Long Island and had moved to Ireland only a couple of months before she went missing, last seen heading towards a location in the hills in Wicklow.

No trace of her was ever found. Now her name and face are back in the news because the chief suspect in her disappearance is due to be released from prison on August 12.

Not long after she disappeared McCarrick's face was on posters all over Dublin. Her smiling face was on every street corner {photo above was on those posters}. Whenever I saw one of those posters it hit home that an American had come to live in Ireland and that something awful had happened to her.

There weren't all that many Americans living here at the time and the idea that one of us had vanished and was probably murdered was hard to accept. There were so few of us Americans here then that whenever you ran into another it was fun, like you'd found a friend. For that reason McCarrick was like a friend who I never got to meet. It frustrated me that there was nothing I could do to help find her.

I always felt I understood perfectly well how she'd ended up in trouble. When I first came here as a student from New York in the mid 1980s I just remember the sense that Dublin was so safe. Sure there was petty crime, but I felt like violent crime didn't exist here, which wasn't far wrong when compared with New York at the time.

I remember thinking that McCarrick probably felt the same way, as if nothing could happen to her. She probably took chances here that she would never have dreamed of taking if she was home. And it cost her life.

I guess that's possibly why McCarrick's face and name have stuck with me for the past 17 years. She was probably doing as I had done. But I wasn't a pretty young girl. I never felt vulnerable here and I guess I wasn't, but she was.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ireland: Headquarters for the world

Over the past year or so there's been one good economic story for Ireland that has sort of been lost amidst the reports on company closings, job losses, bank bailouts and government spending cuts. The little snippet of good news has been the number of company's that have relocated their headquarters to Ireland.

Today's Irish Times reports that United America Indemnity is moving its headquarters to Ireland from the Cayman Islands. I never heard of United America Indemnity before, but the Irish Times says the company had previously announced that it was moving its headquarters to Switzerland, but has now reconsidered. Can't be bad news, right?

UAI says they are moving here because "Ireland offers an attractive business environment, a highly educated and motivated professional workforce, a comprehensible legal system grounded in Common Law, a sophisticated regulatory environment, and an extensive global network of international treaties."

Last May accountancy firm Accenture announced that they were moving their headquarters here from Bermuda. Accenture said, "Ireland's corporate, legal and regulatory environment alongside its tax treaties with European Union member states, the United States and other countries around the world where the company does business was the reason for the shift."

At the time Ingersoll Rand announced that they were shifting their headquarters to Ireland from Bermuda they too cited the "legal and regulatory environment" as one of the decisive factors. There are a number of other companies that have made similar announcements and mentioned the same

So what's going on here?

Early last year President Obama announced that he was going to press for changes in American law that would put pressure on American companies operating out of tax havens. At the time there were fears here that Ireland would be listed as one of the tax havens, but that didn't transpire.

Last April the G20 nations unveiled an "internationally agreed tax standard," which Ireland has implemented. So, despite it's low corporate tax rate – 12.5% - the transparency of the Irish system means Ireland is not a tax haven. Ireland also is willing to share information with other jurisdictions, something that tax havens are loathe to do.

Ireland is simply the OECD country with the lowest corporate tax rate and we're part of the EU, which makes it an attractive place to have your headquarters. That's the "legal and regulatory environment" that these companies find so attractive.

That 12.5% may sound low, but 12.5% of income that you wouldn't have otherwise can add up to sums that make a big difference here. I don't see any potential risk to the country from this policy, which is one for which the government should be applauded.

Even though it leaves me feeling a bit uneasy knowing that these American companies are not paying tax in America as they probably should, if companies are going to relocate their headquarters to save on their tax bill I'm sure glad it's in Ireland rather than anywhere else.

Nobody's watching Ireland's parliamentarians

Members of the Irish parliament (the Dáil & Seanad) were given some very bad news yesterday: the folks who run the national television service, RTE, are not going to move the proceedings of the two houses of the Irish parliament to prime-time. In fact, RTE's Cillian de Paor gently broke their hearts when he told them that "Desperate Housewives has a bigger audience I'm afraid."

Now the truth is, I'd rather watch "Oireachtas Report" than "Desperate Housewives", which I hate. However, I am not in doubt that de Paor is correct that the audience for "Oireachtas Report" is smaller than that for Desperate Housewives, probably by about 535,000. {Desperate Housewives draws an average audience of 538,000.} "Oireachtas Report" is destined to remain where it is at the moment: on late at night (generally after midnight) at an hour when the audience is primarily "drunks and insomniacs," as was once famously uttered by the leader of the Labour Party.

We don't have a C-SPAN here, which is probably just as well. Even political junkies would balk at seeing any more of our elected officials droning on in tones and language that really would help any insomniac, often to a mostly empty chamber.

At yesterday's committee meeting one Senator even asked if there was nothing de Paor could do to make our elected representatives look better. "Could you change the angles of the shots... to make it look more vibrant?" Sad, isn't it?

Dáil member David Stanton asked "if there was anything TDs and Senators could do to make proceedings in the Oireachtas (both houses) more interesting for viewers." De Paor didn't respond with the obvious, however.

He should have said that a few brawls as happens regularly in Taiwan and recently in Korea too or even a food fight, Taiwan again, would go a long way. The public would definitely tune in for some of that kind of action. I don't think they need to go as far as a fracas resulting in death, as happened in Turkey late last year.

Even the occasional lapse in parliamentary language can spur interest as Green Party member Paul Gogarty demonstrated in December. His use of the "F word" generated a lot of interest here and outside Ireland via YouTube. (Warning: language is R rated.) Adds a bit of spice, anyway.

So there's plenty the elected representatives could do to make their program more widely watched, but either they're reluctant or they lack the imagination. I can't understand why de Paor didn't ask them how far would they be willing to go to get a ratings boost and better time-slot.

The occasional hard man act from a government minister or a leading opposition figure is just not going to cut it. Fighting, biting, scratching and clawing amongst the elected representatives would definitely be a winner.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Too much English from the Irishman in charge at Vancouver

Elsewhere on this site you will find articles celebrating Irishman John Furlong, who is head of the winter Olympics Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC). However, what you may not know is that Furlong and VANOC have been drawing plenty of fire for what many French-Canadians feel was an almost total lack of French at the opening ceremony.

An editorial in yesterday's Toronto Globe and Mail said, "The most watched event in Canadian history was a celebration of the richness of Canadian identity. Among all the wonders of the Olympic opening ceremonies, though, there was a glaring and audible neglect of one of Canada's two official languages." The Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser described it as "conceived, developed and presented in English, with a French song at the end." Oh là là.

Other government officials also noted the lack of French. The premier of Quebec Jean Charest and the Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore both indicated that they would have preferred more French in the opening ceremony. A Quebec speed skater was annoyed that that two time gold medalist from the 1984 games Gaétan Boucher was not part of the opening ceremony. Others didn't like that a quote from a 19th century French-Canadian poet was translated into English rather than read in the original French.

VANOC has tried to defend itself, but it seems that French-Canadians are generally unimpressed with the fact that there were Quebec-based acrobats and flag bearers in the opening ceremony, that two of the show's producers were from Quebec and that Celine Dion was invited to participate, but declined.

Now the pressure is on Furlong and VANOC to deliver more French for the closing ceremony. The choreography for that event was probably settled long ago, but now Furlong and the rest of his team will have to - as Canadians are used to in hockey - change on the fly and get more French into the line-up by February 28.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Three 'Irish' suspects in Hamas hit

Do you know these people?

No? Me neither. Nor, I'm willing to bet, does anyone in Ireland.

These three are among the 11 suspects that the United Arab Emirates believes were behind the recent killing of Hamas big-wig Mahmoud Al Mabhouh in Dubai. The three 'Irish' suspects are named as (from left to right): Gail Folliard, Kevin Daveron and Evan Dennings.

Today the Chief of Dubai Police produced those pictures above along with those names. The passport numbers don't even look right, but maybe the Dubai police have held back some of the details.

All Irish passport numbers have at least one letter and based on the partial green harp in the upper left corner, those passports are all in the 'old style', which means one leading letter is missing from the number. (I think. I'm not an expert on Irish passports, other than those in the house.)

Whatever. I really doubt any of those three is Irish. I also doubt the Irish government will be deploying the forces of law and order to hunt them down, but whether these three were using stolen Irish passports or forgeries will be of interest to the Irish government.

The UAE authorities say they "know where they are right now and even their residences." Maybe I'm wrong, maybe all three are living in Mayo and maybe members of Ireland's national police force are on their way to arrest them right now. Maybe, but I doubt it.

Ex-Intel Chief directs his fire at Irish education

I didn't know what to expect from Craig Barrett, the Irish-American former head of Intel, when I heard he'd been made Chairman of the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG) last year. At the time all I thought was, "That's a good idea. He'll open a few doors." I never expected he'd actually be so active, so keen to voice his opinion about where Ireland needs to go to achieve economic success in the 21st century.

Barrett {photo} has not been shy. He's been all over the papers and radio expressing his opinions, particularly about the Irish education system. So far the reaction to Barrett's views has been non-existent, possibly because to engage with him would be to call into question some of the sacred cows of the education system.

One of those sacred cows is the Leaving Cert. Ireland's secondary school system is built around the Leaving Cert, which is a series of exams taken at the end of the sixth and final year of secondary school (basically junior high & high school). All the exams count the same, which means an 'A' in Home Economics or Art counts just as much as an 'A' in Math or Physics. Each grade gets so many points and a student's point total determines what college course he or she gets.

All the college places are doled out on the basis of how you did across all your exams*. This means a genuine math/science geek, one who could be a great software engineer, might lose out on a college place to the kid whose math talent doesn't match his ambitions, but who did better in Spanish and Irish than the geek. The aptitude of the two students is irrelevant.

The system is treated as almost a matter of religious faith here. Anyone who raises the topic is told time and again that "it's the fairest possible" system, which it probably is, but it's designed to reward effort rather than to identify talent and potential of college-bound students.

Barrett says the key to success in the 21st century is to let "smart people get together with smart ideas," but that's not happening enough at the moment. It may not be "fair" on those who worked harder at second level, but we need to get the smartest people studying math and science and that will require a change to how college places are distributed.

This change must be made and is a logical outcome from any discussion framed by Barrett's argument about the future and the Irish government's own repeated statements on building a "knowledge economy." That change, however, would strike at the heart of how university places are decided, which would mean a complete revamp to how the second level system is run.

That's only one aspect of the system called into question by Barrett's analysis. The organization of primary schooling, teacher selection and training, rates of pay, are all matters that must be considered if you take Barrett seriously. I'll know Barrett's constant hammering is starting to hit home when those who have a vested interest in the current system start to take aim at him. For the moment I'm just grateful that the ITLG gave him a platform and that Barrett has been keen not to waste it.

* Last year an aptitude test was introduced for those who want to study medicine, but it has been widely criticized in the press with many stories of those students who "missed out" despite getting high points totals on their Leaving Certs.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The precious voices of Irish politics

First it was George Lee quitting on politics and his party and now we have another high profile resignation. Today the Green Party's Déirdre de Búrca resigned.

De Búrca was a Senator for the Greens, one of only eight party members in the two houses of the Irish parliament. She got her seat in the Senate when her party entered government in coalition with Fianna Fáil back in 2007.

De Búrca {photo with John Gormley} says she is quitting because she can no longer support a party that has "abandoned our political values and our integrity." She points the finger directly at party leader John Gormley saying he's "done a disservice to the Green Party" by tying the party too closely to their government coalition partners. De Búrca says Gormley has been "unable, or unwilling" to "take a stronger line with Brian Cowen and the Fianna Fáil party" and ignored Green Party principles because the party has become too attached to being in government.

Okay, she's frustrated I can understand that. She wants a stronger leadership from the head of her party, again understandable. What I can't understand is why she's quitting.

She could have led an effort to change leaders, but she chose not to. She could have stayed in, fighting for the party she clearly still believes in, but she chose not to. She chose to quit.

Believe me I'm just as happy because her views rarely matched mine, but I don't like all this quitting. What does it say about people that they'll quit rather than fight? What does it say about us as an electorate that we're represented by such people?

Lee & de Búrca both could have made simple statements that they were leaving politics because they've had a change of heart or decided that it wasn't for them or they wanted to spend more time with their families or whatever. That would have been fine, but instead what we have is people leaving because ... I don't really know ... because no one's listening to them? Gimme a break!

Good riddance I say to both of them. I find it embarrassing that such preciousness exists in the houses of parliament. I don't want to be represented by the type of people who, when angry, wince as they slap you halfheartedly and then turn and run away.

If you believe in what you're doing and in what you can do then fight your corner. But, if you're going to quit, then quit with dignity. Shaddup.

{Kudos to the Green Party for their quick web site fix. De Burca's page has already been purged. The government's own web site should be as quick to treat De Búrca and Lee as non-persons.}

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dublin's drivers beat down on 'bicycle brigade'

It's funny what will light a fire under people. There have been all sorts of government decisions recently that could have sparked a revolt. Yet the people have been pretty accepting of all the budget cuts and bank bail-outs, probably because it was difficult to see any alternative.

All very quiet, until the past couple of weeks when there was an eruption over a new speed limit in Dublin. Dublin City Council voted to reduce the limit from 50 kph (31 mph) to 30 kph (18.6 mph) in the city's central areas.

At first the objectors' concerns and arguments were dismissed. 'People just needed some time to adjust' or 'this will make the city safer and better for cyclists and pedestrians' or 'it's only a limited area.'

It was a typical story until something very unusual happened. The more the City Council tried to ignore the uproar and carry on with their unpopular decision, the more those who opposed the change grew louder, not quieter as usually happens.

Taxi drivers complained that their passengers didn't want them to obey the law and that they were being passed by bikes. But it was the general public's voice that was the angriest. Newspaper columnists and talk radio fed off this anger. People were angry as hell at the decision, out of proportion to the importance of it really, but they were fed up. They weren't going to be dictated to by the "bicycle brigade."

Gradually the one or two politicians who were against the change from the outset were joined by others. Those who'd changed the limit started to waver. They haven't reversed the decision yet, but Dublin City Council has decided to review the decision at its next meeting on March 1, when, most commentators now say, the new limit will be scrapped.

I can't quite figure out why it was this decision and no other that roused people so much. The nation's drivers raised hardly a peep as the government added $0.60 in new taxes on a gallon of gasoline over the past year. We're the only people in the EU who pay a one-off 30% Vehicle Registration Tax on top of the 21% sales tax on all new cars. Municipal parking charges have gone through the roof.

All of these changes are, like the speed limit change, part of a general policy designed to discourage driving (at best, some say it's a war on cars), yet none of these often significant costs managed to cause the stir that a couple of miles of slow (admittedly, ridiculously slow) roads did.

As a car owner I'd like to think this is the beginning of a fightback against those who want to eliminate the automobile or who see drivers as a cash cow waiting to be milked. And I'm curious to see if other popular uprisings like this take hold as people's patience with our rulers wears thin. For the moment I'm assuming this was a one-off.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Irish women must be allowed their dream sleigh ride

The Winter Olympics get underway tomorrow in Vancouver, but there won't be a huge amount of interest here. The winter games, unlike the summer ones, are not a big deal in Ireland.

This year's team consists of six athletes, which I think may be the biggest team Ireland's ever sent to the winter games. I'm not really sure because even the official Olympic Council of Ireland web site offers little enough about Ireland's Winter Olympics past. Ireland sent five athletes to the 2006 games.

Snow and ice are rarities here, there are very few skating rinks, and almost nobody plays hockey so few kids grow up dreaming of partaking in the winter games. All of which makes it imperative that Aoife Hoey and Claire Bergin be allowed to compete in the women's bobsleigh.

Despite all the odds stacked against them, the pair qualified for this year's Olympics. That hasn't been the end of their trial, however. First Australia objected to Ireland's entry because, Australia argued, their region - Oceania - wasn't represented in the women's competition.

I never knew that regions competed at the Olympics, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled yesterday that both Ireland and Australia should both be allowed to take part in the women's bobsleigh. Australia will compete under the Oceania flag, I'm sure. Regardless the Irish team was safe.

Now the Brazilians are offering another argument as to why the Irish women should be excluded. The Irish Times says there's confusion as to what exactly is the Brazilians' problem, but it seems to stem from the fact that the Irish women were late to enter the qualifying campaign. So they got a late start, but still managed it and that should count against them?

I know what you're thinking, sounds a lot like the movie Cool Runnings. Yes, except the happy ending isn't written yet. And we're not talking about 4 easy-going Jamaican fellas, but two determined Irish women.

There'd be a lot less "peace be da journey" and a lot more, as the Fighting 69th cried heading into battle, "Faugh-a-ballagh." That's Irish (Gaelic) for "clear the way", which based on my experience, would be excellent advice if these two Irish women are unjustly denied their Olympic dream.

In addition to Hoey and Bergin, the Irish Olympic team consists of Pat Shannon (men's skeleton), Kirsty McGarry (women's slalom), Shane O'Connor (men's slalom) and PJ Barron (men’s cross-country skiing). I'm sure you'll join me in rooting for them to do well and, from what I gather, there's no fear they'll beat your any of your favorite athletes to a medal. You'll have no conflicting loyalties. It's all about competing for the Irish athletes.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Lee leaves Fine Gael looking like losers

Big doings here today, if you're one of those who is obsessed by the minutia of Ireland's politics. RTE's former Economics Editor and the nation's favorite merchant of doom, George Lee, announced today that he was quitting politics, quitting the Dáil and quitting the Fine Gael party less than a year after he quit RTE to "get off the fence" and work to "ensure the country got better Government."

That was in May of 2009 and now it looks like Lee (photo - right) will be looking to get back on the fence at RTE.

Undoubtedly this was a tough decision for Lee, but what of his former party and its leader Enda Kenny (photo - holding Lee's arm aloft)?

Fine Gael is Ireland's second biggest political party and was seen as pretty much shoo-ins for victory in the next election, even if that's still two years away. The country is on its knees and the biggest political party, Fianna Fáil, is generally regarded as responsible.

Right now there are over 400,000 unemployed, thousands of small businesses are on the rocks, the banks are still in a vegetative state and will probably need more taxpayer help. Recovery will be slow and painful, which should all but guarantee a mood for big change in the political sphere.

As far as the electorate is concerned Fianna Fáil turned a blind eye (at best) to shady practices in property development and neglected its responsibilities in regulating the banks who loaned the money to the property developers. In other words, this is a golden opportunity for Fine Gael to shine. All they have to do is prove they can manage things better than Fianna Fáil. That's not too much to ask, is it?

But they're Fine Gael.

Being Fine Gael means never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It means always a bridesmaid never a bride. It means you can use whatever cliche for LOSER you want to use because Fine Gael are losers.

Now for the most part they're likable losers. I'm sure the Fianna Fáil party loves them because it's always nice to have a loser as your main rival; someone you can count on to do something really stupid at the worst possible time. Or any other time as well. That's Fine Gael.

George Lee is leaving Fine Gael because, he says, he had no influence in shaping the party's economics policies. At the time he quit RTE to join Fine Gael Lee was easily the most well known and respected economist in the country. Having warned us for years that the sky was falling, he was almost a god in people's eyes when it did, in fact, fall.

And how did Fine Gael use this uniquely popular and intelligent and respected resource? Basically as a meet and greet guy, sort of a pretty face for a poster campaign, but not someone whose views you'd actually take seriously. It just seems so stupid that it's beyond comprehension. But they're Fine Gael.

Now Lee's gone, FG's lost their poster boy and, possibly, their best opportunity in a generation to actually win an election, which they haven't managed since 1982. They've managed to look worse than Fianna Fáil and that's hard work. Losers.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Super Bowl's too late for this Yank in Ireland

It's Super Bowl Sunday and I know what you're thinking: is this guy who calls himself The Yank going to watch the biggest game of the year. And the answer is ... sort of.

You can find the Super Bowl on TV here and there are a few gatherings of Americans and Irish football fans - there are some - around Dublin to watch the game. I won't be there.

I'll be watching from the comfort of my own home. For a while. Kickoff is at 11:25pm, which means the game won't be over til sometime after 2:30. I can tell you for a fact I won't see the finish. I might make it to half-time, but there's no chance I'll stay awake through that even if The Who's blasting "Won't Get Fooled Again" (which I love).

It's not just the late start, however. Back in 2006 when the Mets had that (almost) magical season, I never missed an inning of their playoff games. I stayed up for every single game - and most of them started at 1:20am. By the time the Mets were eliminated I had trouble sleeping at nighttime.

It's not just the Mets either. I've often stayed up for a Playoff or World Series game that didn't involve the Mets. I skipped sleep for many Yankee-Red Sox games over the years. I love playoff time.

That's just it. I love baseball, but I don't love football. I never did. Okay, maybe I did when I was in high school, but I never liked it more than baseball and over the years I've lived here my interest in football has waned.

I don't pay the extra $30 per month to get Sky Sports - part of Rupert Murdoch's empire - which shows two or three NFL games a week. I can watch only one NFL game a year, the Super Bowl.

So who am I rooting for today? I know the sentimental favorite is New Orleans, but back when I cared about football I always rooted for the team from the coldest city. {I never liked the warm, neutral venue thing.} That's Indianapolis this year and I like the idea that Peyton Manning uses the Irish language to call his audibles.

So I guess I'll be rooting for the Colts. Unless I change my mind before I drift off.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

PIGS or PIIGS we all pigged out on debt

PIGS. Have you seen this acronym? It's only in the business pages and if you have seen it used it's because the PIGS are putting pressure on the euro, causing a sharp decline in the value of the European currency in recent days.

So what is or are PIGS? The PIGS are four European nations with severe fiscal problems: Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain. Or maybe not. Some say it stands for Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain.

And now there's some bad feeling over what that "I" stands for.

Michael Casey, former Chief Economist of the Irish Central Bank, says that PIGS includes Italy and that PIGS is simply a new way of referring to the EU members along the Mediterranean, or those that used to be known as the 'Club Med' members, which was another way of saying 'not really sound economically.'

Forbes magazine and others agree with Casey and put Italy and not Ireland in the PIGS group.

The Italians don't see it that way. The Italians say that their economic problems are not as bad as Ireland's and that Ireland, not Italy, is the "I" in PIGS. Citibank agrees with them, possibly because Citibank is more afraid of offending their clients in Italy than those in Ireland.

Casey says Ireland doesn't belong in the PIGS group because despite the seriousness of our current situation we have a better record than Italy, we have fewer long-term structural problems and, with a bit of luck, our economy could rebound quickly.

The earliest mention of this term I can find is from the Wall Street Journal of December of last year. The Journal doesn't claim to have coined the expression, but rather attributes it to traders worried about the "weaker members of the eurozone." However, the Journal said the term was PIIGS, including both Ireland and Italy.

Now it's all a bit rich coming from those "traders" because (a) it was their fellow financial wizards who put us in this mess in the first place and (b) they are most likely based in America or in Britain, two countries hardly in great economic shape themselves. In fact, one analyst says that there are seven big states that may be worse off than the PIGS group. Those states are not small and peripheral but California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and New Jersey.

So, let's face it whether Ireland or Italy is the "I" in PIGS or whether it's PIIGS the truth is that we all, including Britain and America, were piggin out at the debt-filled trough and now we're paying the price for that.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Automatic instincts compound Toyota problem

I was reading this story about the family in California who were all killed when their Toyota's accelerator got stuck and the thought struck me: why didn't the guy just take the car out of gear? I wasn't being critical so much as wondering why he didn't do that given he had time to make a phone call.

I thought about it a bit more and figured I was thinking like someone who drives a manual transmission car. When you drive an automatic - as most Americans do and as I did before I left - you don't think about gears. The car's always in "drive", even when you're stopped at a traffic light. If you're used to driving a manual transmission you're always shifting up and down and into neutral at lights, etc.

I think this has an impact on a driver's reactions in situations like poor Mark Saylor found himself in. I'm not talking about judgment so much as instinctual reaction. The instincts you acquire when you drive a manual are different.

The article in the Dublin paper the Evening Herald says there have been thousands of accidents in America attributed to this problem, but only 26 in Europe. There might be differences in the numbers of cars affected between the two continents, but I can't help wondering if the popularity of manual transmissions in Europe accounts for some of that difference. Around 80% of cars sold in Europe have a manual transmission, which is nearly the complete opposite of America.

I had an 'accelerator issue' myself once. A few years ago my car suddenly seemed to lurch and then push on faster than I wanted (it was a throttle issue). My first reaction was simply to put both feet down: one on the brake, but the other on the clutch. As soon as I hit the clutch the engine disengaged, which was a lot better than hoping the brake could hold back the racing engine. I didn't really think about what I was doing, but just reacted that way. Once I felt I had control again, I worked my way down through the gears til I was comfortable with the car.

Someone driving an automatic could accomplish the same thing by shifting to neutral or downshifting, but that's not an instinctive reaction. When you drive an automatic your only instinct would be to hit the brake, which is not really the best answer to the problem.

Few people who drive automatics have used the gears to slow the car. I would guess that a lot of people who drive automatics don't even know they can do that. {Although I do remember my father telling me to downshift if the brakes ever failed in our family's automatic transmission car.}

Using the gears to control the car is not instinctive for people who drive only automatics. It would be much more of a routine action for anyone who drives a manual transmission, something they would do without thinking. Something they would do on instinct.

Instinct is often the only thing you have time for when something unusual happens on the road or when you're heading towards panic. In the case of the Toyota accelerator problem, those who drive manual transmissions would find that their instincts are a great help.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Robbie Keane won't carry Celtic to the title

I have to get something off my chest. I don't like Irish national team captain Robbie Keane. Don't rate him, don't like him. This puts me outside the pale with Irish soccer fans, who adore Keane.

This also probably puts me outside the pale with Irish Central's Cathal Dervan too and who am I to argue with Cathal Dervan? His knowledge of soccer is encyclopedic and mine is, well, not.

So why do I feel this way about Keane?

I guess it's because he reminds me of way too many Mets - one of those guys who was full of youthful promise that was matched with an arrogance not supported by any on-field performance. You know the type: has his elaborate "ain't I great" celebrations all worked out and his autobiography written in his head before he's put in a full year at the professional game. Then he follows all of that with a patchy career that can be summed up as ... ehh.

I'm not saying Keane is no good, but he's clearly not great. He didn't fare too well at Inter Milan early in his career and after achieving some success and becoming a crowd favorite at Tottenham Hotspur, he spurned Spurs and left for one of Europe's glamor clubs, Liverpool, where he was a flop. Back to Tottenham then and a bit of success, but as Tottenham has risen to the top ranks of the EPL this year, Keane has found his playing time reduced. So, he's a decent player for a mediocre team. Nothing more.

As for his time with the Irish squad, Keane has scored a lot of goals, but he hasn't been able to carry the team to the promised land, unlike another Keane who managed that feat back in 2002. Robbie Keane is not the kind of player who lifts a team, who inspires players to play beyond themselves and that's unfortunately what Ireland needed from him the past 4 years.

Yesterday Keane moved to Glasgow Celtic. Dervan says that Keane "will provide the missing wow factor" for Celtic. Well, maybe he will. From my non-expert vantage, the Scottish league seems much inferior to the English league, which should suit Keane just fine. Maybe he'll shine there. I really don't know, but I sincerely doubt he'll be anything like as successful as Celtic's Swedish star Henrik Larsson was.

It's not just Irish fans and Dervan whose opinion I'm fighting, but his former (& possibly future) manager at Tottenham. Harry Redknapp says he wants Keane back when this season's done. {One of the oddities of soccer is that players can be loaned out to other clubs. Keane is only "on loan" at Celtic.} Redknapp also says Keane is a hard worker and has "great enthusiasm for the game," which is a definite plus and a credit to him.

And then there are the seemingly thousands of Glasgow Celtic fans who, based on the scenes from Glasgow last night, are thrilled to have Keane in the their team. It's hard to pick out Keane (lower right) in the picture amidst all the Celtic fans straining to touch his garments. Obviously they see something in Keane that I just don't.

They expect Keane to lift Celtic up and over their arch-rivals Glasgow Rangers to the league title. I won't hold my breath.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Jedward - innocent heroes in a cynical industry

Okay, brace yourselves. It's entirely possible you've never heard of Jedward, in which case you don't have an opinion on the Irish twins. If, however, you have had the "pleasure" then you might be taken aback by what I'm about to say. I'm shocked myself.

I like Jedward. Now, truth is, I'd sooner have root canal than endure their singing and dancing routine, but as I was watching them being interviewed by the BBC's Jonathan Ross on Friday night I found myself liking them more and more.

So what's to like? I guess it's the complete naivety of the two of them. I considered the possibility that it's all an act - and it might well be - but even if it's an act the way the two of them are always in synch with the innocence is tremendous. But, I actually don't think they're acting. I think what you see is pretty much what they really are.

John and Edward Grimes are sort of antiheroes of today's pop culture. They are completely devoid of cynicism; they're optimistic and seemingly impervious to any negative thoughts (Simon Cowell threw all he could at them and it just bounced off); and they're ..., they're ... wholesome, safe for kids to enjoy too.

Again, I don't want to see them perform - you can get a flavor of them here - but young girls seem to like watching them. As a father of a young girl, I don't object. I think most teenage girls find them hilarious, which I guess I can sort of see. Younger kids, say under 10, adore them.

To be honest, I hardly paid any attention to them when they were on the X Factor. It's not my cup of tea. Yet, I could hardly avoid the conversation and it was interesting to witness the mood change towards them. Initially, most people couldn't stand them because they couldn't sing (or dance apparently). Yet week after week they won people over and it has to be their attitude that was the difference.

They didn't win and they may vanish from the public eye in the not-too-distant future - how long can they remain that innocent in such a cynical industry? - but I think their name(s) will be remembered a lot longer than any of those contestants who went further in the competition than Jedward. And for how long can they team up with obnoxious has-beens like Vanilla Ice and remain unaffected? I don't know, but for now I wish them luck.