Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Celtic Zombie now stalks Ireland

The Celtic Tiger has given way to the "Celtic Zombie." Oh, that name isn't making the rounds, but the word "zombie" seems to be a regular feature in any report on Ireland's economy these days.

Today Bloomberg carries a report on Ireland's "zombie" hotels. During the boom years Ireland added hundreds of new hotels thanks to tax breaks that made hotel investment attractive. Now, unfortunately, with the decline in visitor numbers, particularly business travelers, occupancy rates at Irish hotels have fallen to levels not seen in 30 years. So a lot of the new hotels are no longer viable, but due to the way the tax breaks were structured it would cost more to close them than to keep them open.

Those are the zombie hotels, but the biggest, most damaging zombie of them all is our zombie bank. If you haven't heard of Anglo-Irish Bank, that's probably just as well. This is the zombie that in Hollywood movies is the last and most difficult to kill. The biggest and strongest zombie only this zombie may kill us all and leave us with no Hollywood ending.

Today the bank posted a loss of €8.2bn ($10.4bn) for the first six months of this year. That is €2,000 ($2,500) per head of population lost, although the money was really lost during the stupid years when Anglo lent money to anyone who could turn the handle on the bank door.

The losses reported today are in addition to the €12.7bn ($16bn) reported as losses in the previous 15 months. Oh, and, lest you think the shareholders or bondholders have lost their shirts due to these losses, Anglo is 100% taxpayer-owned and bondholders are 100% state-guaranteed. So Anglo managed that feat solely for our benefit.

How much more money will the zombie bank cost us? That's anybody's guess, but billions anyway. And in an attempt to pretend things aren't quite as bad as they are, the zombie is reaching out and creating more zombies. The bank has a diversified portfolio of non-performing commercial loans and has been writing off loans to pharmacies, technology firms, hotels and other businesses in exchange for shares in these otherwise bankrupt companies. Or, as economist Brian Lucey sums it up: "You have a zombie bank propping up zombie companies. This creates a zombie economy."

For the past year or more the Minister for Finance in the Irish government has been praised lavishly for the manner in which he implemented a series of steps to save the Irish economy. He cut government spending and set up a so-called 'bad bank' (Nama) to absorb the banks' (it's not just Anglo, you know) bad property loans. Much of that praise has come from outside Ireland, such as last week's support from Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

Flaherty, with that name he's clearly a member of the greater Irish family, was probably only trying to be helpful, but he'd better stand back now. I suspect that the Irish public's patience may soon evaporate as it's clear that recovery is still a long way off and that we haven't yet bottomed out. The zombies haven't finished their work yet.

Well-intentioned people like Flaherty might find themselves grouped with those in the government, who are after all, largely responsible for the fact that Ireland is now terrorized by zombies.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

I'd watch Mary from Dublin over Susan Boyle any day

The "next Susan Boyle", how many times have you heard that? This week the British press was full of that with regards to Mary Byrne from Dublin, a 50-year-old supermarket check-out clerk whose audition for Simon Cowell & friends was scheduled for tonight.

Well, I just watched Mary's audition for the British X-Factor and the truth is I'd rather watch and listen to Mary {photograph} over Susan Boyle any day. Is she a better singer? I don't know, but based on this one 3 minute song Mary is a much better performer than Susan Boyle.

Maybe this will irk or even anger a few of you, but I find it very hard to watch Susan Boyle. Can she sing? Sure, but to me there's always something missing from her performances. I find it even more glaring when I watch her. I couldn't tell you what it is exactly, but I just don't enjoy watching Susan Boyle perform.

For that reason I think Mary has a right to feel aggrieved any time someone calls her the "next Susan Boyle." The contest has a long way to run and maybe it won't work out for Mary as it has for Susan Boyle - no riches, no fame, no tabloid pressures - but regardless Mary has the right to think the world of herself right now.

For a woman of that age, from a working class background and who admits to having a "low self esteem" to put on the show she did tonight was amazing. I hope she goes on to great success on the X-Factor, but whether she wins or not becomes rich and famous or not doesn't matter to me. As far as I'm concerned Susan Boyle should be so lucky.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Highway through Tara was a waste

Back in June of this year the new highway going through the area around the Hill of Tara was opened to traffic. From what I saw on Tuesday during my first journey on the road, they shouldn't have bothered.

The M3 Motorway was controversial from the day it was first mooted because the whole area around the Hill of Tara is of tremendous historical significance. Tara was the primary center of prehistoric Ireland and remained so for thousands of years. At different times Tara was an ancient burial ground, a place of worship, and the spot where Ireland's high kings were crowned. According to archaeologist Joe Fenwick, Tara is "acknowledged as one of Europe's foremost cultural landscapes." {Watch documentary on Tara and the road here.}

Despite all that - and I don't say this lightly - I was in favor of the proposal to build the M3 when the government first suggested it. Why? Because despite the historical significance of Tara the people who live in Counties Meath & Cavan have a right to live as modern Irish people and to expect that they would have the same economic opportunities as everyone else; because the government promised the route would be sensitive to Tara; and because the road the M3 was replacing actually ran nearer to the Hill of Tara and anytime I was on it that road seemed to be overtaxed with cars, trucks and buses trying to get where they needed to go. The old road was insufficient and a new four-lane highway would relieve the pressure.

Oh, yeah, and because those who protested about the new roads in north Wicklow and south Dublin near where I live were way over the top with their complaints and exaggerations of what could be lost. They also totally ignored the need that people in these areas had for those roads to be completed. I just figured that some of the same people were out to stop Meath's new, needed road just as they did around here.

However, from what I saw Tuesday it hasn't worked out that way. I drove up and down the M3 and nearly had it to myself. It wasn't rush hour, true, but there were so few people on the road that I couldn't help wondering why the government bothered with the project given the risk to history, the protests, the costs, everything.

Virtually no one was on the road. Why that is I can't say, but maybe it's the tolls - €5.20 ($6.60) for a round trip - or maybe the "sensitive to Tara" route is too inconvenient for those who live in that part of Meath or maybe it's a combination of the two.

I can tell from reading some bulletin board posts that many local people have decided to stick with the old road, formerly the N3, despite moves to lower the speed limit on that road in a bid to force people onto the new tolled highway.

Whatever the reason, it seems a shame when you consider the damage to the historical region around Tara (and the damage shown on the video above is greater than I realized at the time.) Maybe when vacation season ends the traffic will be greater. Maybe the road isn't the white elephant it appeared on Tuesday. I hope so because to me, now, the M3 was a waste of money and history.

{I should have posted these before now, but here are the links for Part 2 & Part 3 of the documentary on Tara. It is, as Searlit says below, "really informative."}

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ikea can soon turn to 'I'll keell ya'

Over the weekend I had an experience that many of you have had before: assembling furniture bought at Ikea.

I had never been to Ikea before and, well, we'll see if I ever go back. This weekend's experience was not a good one.

First, let me own up. I'm not a natural when it comes to fixing or making things. In fact, my brother - cruel person that he is - often mockingly refers to me as Bob Vila, particularly when I reveal something about myself like a few years ago when I told him that I'd never actually drilled a hole in a wall before. I don't deal much in power tools.

My lack of prowess with power tools has nothing to do with Ikea, however. In case you don't know, Ikea furniture comes flat-pack, which means all the pieces are there and all the holes are there and all you have to do is assemble it. Should be easy. Truth is, I've assembled other things following the instructions and generally I'm pretty good at it (so long as nothing more challenging than turning screws and hammering nails is required).

Unlike a lot of men I know, I'm quite willing to follow such instructions to the letter. I don't feel a manly need to prove that whoever put the instructions on paper didn't know what he was doing.

So I was very confident as I started work on my son's new 6'6" bookcase. It was going great. This piece connecting to that piece and in no time I had the full case assembled. All that was left was the back, which was a flimsy piece of thin fake wood that had to be slotted and nailed on.

That's when my troubles began. The instructions (all pictures, no words) called for me to lie the bookcase down flat and slot the back in from the top. However, that meant I needed a space 13' long and 3' wide, which wasn't available to me upstairs thanks to the size and configurations of the rooms and width of the doorways. I had to 'make do.'

After an hour of trying to 'make do' the sweat was pouring off me and the cheap back was frayed and even torn in one or two places. Worse than that my temper was completely shot. I wanted to kill someone, anyone I didn't care.

Another half an hour and I was calling down damnation on Ikea, all who worked there, all Swedish companies, the Swedish king and queen and eventually all Swedish people, although I exempted Anders Hedberg who was my favorite NY Ranger back in the early 1980s.

My wife, who wasn't home, called a few minutes later to ask a simple question. She probably thought I sounded like I'd been attacked by a rabid dog. She came straight home to help and within 15 minutes the two of us had managed to get what was left of the back into the bookcase and I nailed it in. Done. It didn't look great, but it was done.

I went to turn it upright and then I saw it: the bottom piece, which was the very first piece I'd picked up and connected, was facing the wrong way. The painted side was to the wall and facing out was the ugly, unfinished, unpainted side.

That very nearly started me off again, but my wife calmly told me to go get a can of paint we had in the house, one that was pretty close to the bookcase's color, and slap that paint on the piece. She said no one would see it anyway - it really is out of the line of sight unless you're crawling around.

I muttered and mumbled as I went to get the paint and brush, muttered and mumbled as I painted and even muttered and mumbled as I waited for the paint to dry. Eventually it was ready and I turned it up and put it in place.

Now two days later with all my son's books and other things on the shelves it looks fine, almost nice. My nerves have returned to normal. It's almost something I can laugh about. Almost.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

What was the last record you bought?

I've often found myself talking to people and the question of "What was the first record you bought?" arises. I've always been able to answer that question (Elton John's Greatest Hits). That was around 1976 or 1977. I can't remember now.

That was my first record. Yesterday I found myself wondering what was the last record I bought and I wasn't sure.

A new radio station will soon be launched here and for the first time Dublin will have a "classic rock" station. To prepare for the launch the station is testing its signal by playing nothing but music hour after hour, day after day. No ads, no news, no weather, no DJ. Nothing but music.

Yesterday evening I was listening when I heard Vanz Can't Danz off John Fogarty's Centerfield, a record I have a clear memory of buying. That was 1985.

The album came out in 1984, but my copy had the altered title to the song "Zanz Can't Danz" that Fogarty was forced to release after he was threatened with a defamation lawsuit by the owner of Fantasy Records, Saul Zantz (might have name wrong). So, I'm sure it was 1985, probably that summer.

Was that the last record I bought? I don't know, but I think it might have been. I have no memory of buying any records after 1985. I know I was determined to resist CD's - I was fighting 'the man' - and bought cassettes for a couple of years before I capitulated and bought a CD player and a couple of CD's.

When I think back to those times it's funny how I knew records were being phased out, but I never imagined a generation coming behind me that would basically never know records. (I know they're still around and that rap music kept them going through the 90s to some extent, but really the record is a relic.)

As far as I know none of my children has ever heard a sound I was all-too-familiar with, that of a scratched record. I think they may have once or twice heard tapes I made from scratched records, but even that's not quite the same. In fact, unless you own the record, the scratch sound doesn't have the same impact. Whenever I hear a song off a record I owned I still expect to hear the pops or skips that I experienced thanks to my own mishaps with my records.

Today's download generation can't imagine such a thing, but for the CD generation a scratch was pretty much a death knell for the CD and you had to replace it.

If you were born after 1970 there's a good chance you never bought a record and possibly never even heard one. That probably means I'm only talking to those born in the 60s and earlier, but do you remember your last record?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ireland voted away "anchor babies" in 2004

In June 2004 the Irish people voted to amend the Constitution to change the laws on citizenship and eliminate the automatic right to citizenship for anyone born in Ireland. I would have completely forgotten about that vote if I hadn't been seeing so much comment on the so-called "anchor babies" in the American media, including from Niall O'Dowd of these parts.

When the votes of that referendum were counted, 79% of the electorate approved the 27th amendment to the Irish Constitution (see article 9.1) and ended Ireland's "anchor baby" issue.

The campaign wasn't all that contentious (or it would have been more memorable). The two biggest parties were in favor of the change, but some of the smaller parties were opposed and there was some debate in the media and we had the usual election poster slogans to try to energize the voters.

In the early years of this decade there were many stories in the media about "non-national" women coming to Ireland to have their babies here in order that their babies have Irish (and, thus, EU) citizenship. We didn't have the phrase "anchor baby" – "maternity tourism" was tossed around a bit – but the basic premise was the same: women were coming to Ireland to have babies so that they could stay in Ireland or any other EU state.

During the campaign leading up to the vote the Minister for Health referenced these well-known anecdotes when he implied that "maternity tourism" (and not government mismanagement) was the reason our national health system's maternity facilities were so stretched. Those leading the 'No' campaign asserted that there was no facts or figures to back up any of the "maternity tourism" claims, but the general impression stuck.

The 'No' side claimed that racism was at the core of the 'Yes' campaign. This caused Brian Cowen, then the Minister for Foreign Affairs, to reply that some of those in the 'No' campaign were "congenitally incapable of dealing with this issue without losing their head."

In addition to those direct arguments, there were hints and opaque references to possible tensions with Britain thanks to our liberal citizenship laws. We heard that refugees and illegal immigrants resident in Britain were flying to have their babies in Belfast, which automatically entitled the baby to Irish (& EU) citizenship, something not available to them in Britain.

Given all the talk in America about this "anchor baby" issue, that might be the most interesting aspect of the Irish experience. Prior to the 2004 referendum, Ireland was out of line not only with the United Kingdom, but with every other member of the European Union.

However, thanks to that June 2004 referendum Ireland's citizenship laws are now consistent with those in all EU member states. That is, no EU country automatically grants citizenship to those born within its boundaries. There are no longer any EU "anchor babies."

Pictures of election posters from the Irish Election Literature Blog.

Monday, August 16, 2010

U.S. should not charge tourists for their own background check

From September 8 anyone who holds a passport from one of the 36 visa-waiver nations will have to pay a $14 fee to enable the American government to run a rudimentary background check on them.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program was introduced in 2008 and made mandatory last year. The program and was intended to provide an extra layer of security. Intending travelers provide their details to the Department of Homeland Security in advance of their travels, which gives the American authorities time to check the intending traveler's name against the 'no fly' lists and other terrorist databases.

I don't have a problem with the requirement that people who want to visit the United States should provide this information to the government. Ideally the government wouldn't need to know anyone's travel plans and wouldn't need to maintain a database of names, passport numbers and other facts, but information is a key element in the defense against a second September 11 type attack. So it has to be this way.

I do think, however, that asking someone to pay $14 to have their background checked by government officials is, well, not all that welcoming. Remember this charge comes on top of recent additional security measures like finger-printing and photographing all visitors.

Whether foreign visitors feel welcome in America may not matter to many Americans, I'm sure it's crucially important to those who run businesses in the tourism industry. Those foreign visitors are an important segment of their market and all Americans benefit from the wealth generated and jobs created by foreign tourism.

There is, of course, a balance between security and friendliness. Unfortunately, since September 2001 the balance has tilted much more towards security. Rightly so, although like a lot of people I hate all the extra inconvenience that is now part of flying.

The ESTA is just another layer of inconvenience we Americans have added to tourists from Ireland, Britain, France, Norway, German, Japan, Italy and others. Now on top of the inconvenience the American government is going to make ESTA a cost as well as an inconvenience. An extra $14 on top of the other government charges added to all international airline tickets: U.S. International Transportation Tax, U.S. Immigration User Fee, U.S. Customs Fee, U.S. Security Service Fee, and the U.S. A.P.H.I.S. User Fee (something to do with agriculture).

The total of all these taxes is about $50 per ticket (and I've omitted local taxes and airport charges) and now tourists are going to be asked to pay another $14. Only this time they're the only ones paying - to check on themselves. {No ESTA required, thus no charge for American citizens.} Even the most pro-American foreign visitors will find this aggravating. Some may well say, "The heck with that," and go somewhere else.

Who'll be the losers then? The tourists, sure, but so will restaurants, hotels and other tourism businesses n America. It's just not worth it. Keep ESTA free.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hidbin - a reminder of Celtic Tiger stupidity

Yesterday I received a newsletter from our garbage company that contained a small item about a new product they were offering for sale: a hidbin. The hidbin is basically a fake bush front & top for your garbage can.

Later on, each time the image of the hidbin popped into my head I chuckled to myself. Were there really people out there who were so embarrassed by the fact that they had a garbage can (in Ireland, your "bin" is your trash can, so hidden bin or hidbin. See?) that they felt they needed to pay $128 (€99) to surround it in fake, plastic bush leaves?

Today when I thought about it again I thought to myself, well, back before 2007, during the Celtic Tiger years, lots of people would probably have bought hidbins. To my mind this is just the kind of silly item that people were prepared to pay for during those days when the nation took leave of its senses.

When I first came to Ireland I used to get a lot of good-natured ribbing from people here about some of the things Americans would spend money on. When they spoke of dishwashers and clothes dryers - things that were only then becoming the norm in Ireland - they were clearly speaking about items that they'd love to own themselves.

However, I remember in the mid-90s listening to a woman on the radio here talking about her daughter who was in America as if the daughter was now a member of an alien species. Her daughter had been waxing lyrical to her Irish mother (in her mid to late 50s, I guessed) about her bread-maker and how she couldn't live without it.

The woman explained how she'd reminded her daughter that she had taught her how to make bread when she was 7 or 8 years old and what possible need could there be for her to own a bread-maker now? Each time she said the word bread-maker her tone conveyed equal amounts of scorn and disbelief, as if only a fool wool would spend money on such a thing.

Yet, not long after that interview I saw bread-makers for sale here. To be honest I don't really have much of a problem with bread-makers, although I'm pretty certain families can survive without them seeing as my wife and I have never owned one.

I guess the hidbin is to me what the bread-maker was to that woman 15 or so years ago - a complete waste of money, something you can easily live without. If this were 2005 or so I'd feel the same way, but I'd also be pretty sure that hidbin would be a winner with homeowners because, well, everything seemed to be a winner with them then. Back then Irish homeowners spent money on all sorts of ridiculour things and I see no reason to assume a hidbin would not have been a 'must have'.

Today, however, I'm not so sure, although I imagine that some people will buy one.

Believe me I'm not knocking the people behind the company because I admire entrepreneurs. If they can sell these things and make a profit and a successful business for themselves, I'll tip my cap to them. However, that won't stop me laughing at anyone whose trash can I see surrounded by a plastic bush.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

At Fredericksburg the Irish proved they could be Americans

If asked most Irish-Americans would probably point to the day John Kennedy was elected President as the day that that they knew the Irish had 'arrived'. But what about the day that Irish-Americans first glimpsed the possibility of acceptance and respectability in America?

I'm sure some of you might argue otherwise, but for me that day was December 13, 1862. On that day the Irish Brigade marched up hill into a storm of bullets and shells in what was an effort to break the Confederate troops dug in behind a stone wall on Mayre's Heights on the hills outside Fredericksburg, VA.

The Irish weren't the only Union troops to die valiantly, but futilely, that day, but the ability of those Irishmen to do their duty, to march into what they knew could likely be death, to persevere and endure what they did for their new country did not go unnoticed. After the battle the northern press was full of stories about the exploits of the Irish, of their gallant charge.

The Irish had performed well in many earlier engagements, especially at Antietam, but Fredericksburg was different because they surely guessed that defeat and death were all that was on offer that day. As they began their ascent up the hill they could see the dead and wounded of two other brigades that had already been smashed against the Confederate defenses. And again it wasn't that the Irish Brigade necessarily did better than any other Union units, but they certainly didn't do any worse or achieve any less. This despite the fact that the brigade had not recovered after the slaughter at Antietam and was the most understrength brigade sent into action that day.

That day - December 13, 1862 - the Irish proved themselves to be as committed to the cause of the United States as any other troops in the Union Army. They were Americans.

Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee said, "Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry on that desperate occasion." Lee's subordinate, General Pickett was also impressed: "The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. … We forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines."

Even the Times of London was inspired by the Irish at Fredericksburg: "Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, or at Waterloo, was more undaunted courage displayed by the sons of Erin."

All of that explains why while I was in Washington a few weeks ago I went on a detour 50 miles south to see the Battlefield myself (I also went to Spotsylvania & to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine nearby.) Most surprising was how little of the battlefield is actually preserved. It's not at all like Gettysburg, which looks untouched since the 1860s. The city of Fredericksburg has eaten into most of Mayre's Heights, although the stone wall and "sunken road" are still there. {A very knowledgeable, friendly young female park ranger explained why so little was left: Fredericksburg was a massive Union defeat and there was little interest in preserving anything about the site of the defeat in the years after the war. It was 70s years later before any move was made by the Federal Government to save some of the battlefield.)

Despite that I'm glad I went. Although the field the Unions soldiers, including the Irish Brigade, marched over is now a suburban neighborhood, you can still get a sense of how daunting the uphill attack would have been. The incline is still steep and the stone wall has been rebuilt, providing a glimpse into how impossible the task of dislodging the entrenched rebels must have seemed.

The adjoining cemetery is full of the simplest little - often unnamed - headstones you'll ever see. A name and a state is the most you get on nearly all of them. The visitor's center houses a small collection of artifacts, including Irish Brigade commander General Thomas Francis Meagher's sword, which I believe is only temporarily on loan to the site.

Well worth the visit if you're in the area and a place of pilgrimage if you're a devotee of Irish-American history.

(You can find lots about the Irish at Fredericksburg at TheWildGeese.com.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Baseball in DC won't last

I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago and went to see the Nationals. I love going to baseball games and I knew I wouldn't be able to see the Mets this summer for the first time in years (and it doesn't look like they'll be drawing me back in late October for any big games) so I was looking forward to this one.

The Nationals have a new ballpark and it's nice, I guess. There's a part of me that recoils at the shopping mall/food court model of modern stadiums. I've been to Citi Field in New York and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and those are nice stadiums too. Actually, both of those are better than Washington's park, but maybe only marginally so.

Washington has its nice new stadium and, from what I can see, a team on the rise. The Nationals have a core of good, young talent and more on the way. The future is rosy for the Nats.

Or is it?

They have everything going for them - except their fans. In fact, I doubt Washington has many fans at all.

The game I went to had almost a full house because Stephen Strasburg was supposed to pitch, but he was injured and replaced by a spot starter. The crowd booed the starter. Loudly.

Okay, they were disappointed. I was disappointed too, but I didn't boo. And, if you're a fan of the team you still root for the team to win - that means rooting for the replacement if a star can't play.

That was only a small thing, but it was indicative of what the Nats' have in DC. Strasburg is clearly the crowd favorite even though he's done very little. It was pretty obvious that Ryan Zimmerman is playing second fiddle to Strasburg even though Zimmerman has been with the Nationals since their first year and he's young, an excellent ballplayer and a legitimate star. Yet, the Nats fans are all about Strasburg.

This focus on a pitcher you've seen, what? - four or five times?, rather than an established hometown (Zimmerman's from Virginia) star is a sign of a phoniness and a fickleness among the Nats' so-called fans, whose interest will pass quickly and leave the team with virtually no fan base.

Want more evidence? By the end of the 6th inning the stadium was way more than half empty - on a night when a stand-in starter and the bullpen had the Nats in front of the first place Braves 3-0. {I took this picture just after the 3rd out in the bottom of the 6th. Those fans are all heading for the exit.}

Strangely, the crowd arrives early, very early. We got there more than an hour before the first pitch and the place was buzzing. The Nationals announced that the first 10,000 fans through the gate would get free tee shirts, but they were all gone when we entered. (I should note here, that when the announcer asked the fans to wave their shirts it looked like 2-3000 people had shirts and not the 10,000 who should have had them.)

Yeah, they get there early because, I think, it's the place to be. Yet, the place to be seemed to be not so much in the seats, but walking around, sampling the various concession stands, etc. In fact, the Nats' fans seem to spend as much time out of their seats as in them despite the fact we had beautiful weather and it was an excellent game with a home team victory in the offing.

Of course you can read too much into one experience, but the one impression I left with is that compared with New York or Philadelphia, this team, in fact baseball itself, is just a fad in DC. I really doubt that franchise will be there in 10 years.