Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Wake Up America! You're ruining Thanksgiving.

Black Friday crowds
{Photo: thanks to}

Hey America you're wrecking Thanksgiving. Do you care?

Thanksgiving just ain't what it used to be. Back when I first moved to Ireland Thanksgiving was one thing that I really missed. I missed the simplicity of a day with no commercial implications. No presents to buy or cards to send or any of it.

A few years ago I wrote that Ireland should adopt Thanksgiving. I wondered why so many less-likable bits of American culture made it to Ireland, but not one of the best things America has to offer: Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately I'm less positive about Thanksgiving than I used to be. The Thanksgiving I was writing about, the one I wanted Ireland to adopt, is in the process of being tossed away by America.

I don't know why, but for some reason Thanksgiving has morphed into a sort of frenzied and frantic (and fake) Opening Day of the Christmas shopping season. It's a shame because one of the greatest things about Thanksgiving was that the stores were closed.

I know that back in the day the little candy store or gas station would be open – for newspapers and gas – but there was basically no shopping to be done on Thanksgiving. What bliss!

That is no longer the case. These days the stores are all falling over one another to shout out how they're open Thanksgiving Day! As if this is a good thing.

This is a disaster. Oh sure, the stores don't open til late in the day (5pm is late in the day? & Kmart is opening at 6am!), but that doesn't matter. They're open. Why?

How many family dinners will have to be rushed, dessert postponed because Mom or Dad has to be at work by 5? A holiday is a day, not a few hours in the morning. Only not any more. Now Thanksgiving is just another shopping day, albeit with the twist that the stores open in the evening and stay open for 30 hours or whatever. Some holiday.

I guess the retail stores feel they must do this to compete with Amazon, which – of course – takes no days off. Yet most of the stores that are opening Thanksgiving Day have web sites where you can buy stuff so why do they have to force employees out to work?

And really, what is it that makes people so desperate to shop that they can't resist going to the stores on Thanksgiving Day? Is shopping really all that important?

Maybe there is some great sociological explanation for all this, but I don't really care. Nobody needs to buy a sofa or a skirt or a Playstation on Thanksgiving Day. They may want to, but they don't need to.

Yes, I know, Black Friday and all that hoopla. Another ridiculous contrivance. Were the stores empty on Wednesday? Was there nothing to buy anywhere last weekend? No, of course not. The idea that nobody buys a Christmas present until the now shortened Thanksgiving Day is over is patently false. That's why Black Friday is noting other than a pernicious falsehood.

So come on America! Before it's too late, cut out this nonsense and return Thanksgiving Day to what it was: a day for food and parades and food and football and food and family. Especially food and family.

Best Buy will wait. Let's have Thanksgiving Day – a full day – as a day without stores, without sales, without shopping. Just a day to give thanks. And to eat.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Notre Dame Stadium in late November – a new experience for my daughter

Notre Dame plays BYU in what promises to be a cold
Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.
{Photo: thanks to the 
Deseret Morning News}

I'm an unsympathetic father. I have to admit I chuckled when my daughter told me of her fears, of what Saturday might be like for her. No, I didn't chuckle. I laughed.

I mentioned my daughter before: she's in her freshman year at Notre Dame. She's learning a lot about life in America.

She has visited America many times, but most of those visits were in the summer. Still she has been in upstate NY around Christmas time. She's seen snow. She's felt that cold – for a few minutes before retreating into the central heating.

Today is going to be something entirely different.

As I'm sure you know part of life at Notre Dame is football. If you're a student you go to the games and you cheer. You get there early and you wait til the end, which is after the team comes to sing with the students following the game.

She had to learn. She didn't know much about football before this year. Oh and sure, the football games were great fun in the warm sun of September, but the game against BYU scheduled for November 23 in South Bend, IN was always going to be a different kettle of fish. It's going to be cold. I mean COLD.

According to WNDU the forecast for the area is, "Windy and cold! Lake-effect snow showers in many areas, although southwestern areas will be sunny much of the day. High: 29, Wind: NW 15-25." Get that? High 29 (that's -2C for those who prefer their temperatures in the Celsius). Also, see that wind? 15-25 – pleasant if you're walking along the beach on a hot day, but tomorrow in South Bend? It will be something she's never experienced.

I chuckled again just putting that in there.

Ireland has a different cold. The kind of cold, damp weather that makes you feel miserable. It never makes you feel like parts of you are just about to snap off. That's what my daughter is in for as the sun sets over the stadium this evening.

Oh, and as she's learned already, football is not like rugby. She was once at the Aviva Stadium for a big Leinster rugby match on an unusually cold day a few years ago. The big difference though is time: rugby, including halftime, lasts about two hours.

By the time she's spent two hours in Notre Dame Stadium this afternoon/evening she won't even be half way to being able to return to her warm dorm room. Nope.

It will be a minimum of four hours outside. In the cold. And the wind. And the blowing flurries.

Maybe when the wind is particularly brisk, really kicking up, she might hear my laughter cutting through the distance to reach her miserably cold ears.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Train journey between Albany and New York is special (PHOTOS)

The winter sun breaking through the clouds over the Hudson River.

PHOTOS - The view from an Amtrak, Albany to NYC  

I had the opportunity to take the train from Albany to New York last week. I don't get that chance often, but when I do I always enjoy it.

No, I'm not talking about Amtrak, which annoyed me by promising me WiFi and then not providing it, but the actual route the train takes. It has to be one of the prettiest train routes anywhere.

Now I know there are some special tourist routes that exist simply to take you on a scenic tour of mountainous regions or coastal areas, but I'm not talking about that kind of train route. I'm talking about the regular train line connecting two cities.

The train between New York and Albany runs along the Hudson River and that is the source of much of the spectacular scenery along the way. Starting with the Palisades in New Jersey the opposite bank of the Hudson is picturesque. You get a good, up-close view of West Point, a number of bridges, islands in the river and just the general rustic beauty of 140 miles or so of a mostly unspoiled riverbank and hinterlands. Trees, mountains the occasional breath-taking home are all part of the package.

Yet when the weather turns from autumn to winter you get a different view if you look inland rather than towards the Hudson. For most of the year all you see is dense vegetation, but when the leaves fall from the trees and bushes wither up you get a view that's denied to travelers the rest of the year.

Many fantastic homes, some that appear to date back to the 19th century or earlier, many little streams and ponds – all seemingly featuring duck-blinds – and parkland are all there waiting to be discovered in the fall. You can even catch sight of some rock faces and cliffs that are hidden the rest of the year.

It seems odd to me now that I used to take that train regularly when I was in college, but I don't remember ever noticing the natural beauty along the way. Now I can't get enough of it.

It distracts me from my work or the frustration of not being able to do my work because the WiFi is broken. It entices me to try to capture a shot or two on my phone, none of which ever looks as good as what my eye sees on the way past. It causes me to just sit and wonder: are there are journeys along the Rhine or Danube or Seine or Vistula or whatever as beautiful as the one I took for granted for so many years? I kind of doubt it.

PHOTOS - The view from an Amtrak, Albany to NYC  

Photo gallery here.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Part Messier, part Mattingly and part LT, Roy Keane returns to Ireland's soccer team

Memorable Keane moment: in the must win 2001 match against
Holland Keane 'took care' of Dutch star Marc Overmars in the
 first minute, setting the tone for an Irish win.

If you follow soccer you probably know Roy Keane is back with the Irish national soccer team, this time as a coach, not a player. Tonight Ireland has its second match under its recently appointed regime with Martin O'Neill as head coach assisted by Keane. It's really Keane, however, who has Irish fans excited – not for what the team will do, but for what he will do.

If you don't know who Roy Keane is, if you never saw him play, well he was something else. Keane was a unique combination of will and anger, skill and thuggishness – a great player who made his teammates better players, but often let them down with his own indiscretions. He was never theatrical, but always dramatic.

He was like Don Mattingly, but without the even temper. He was like Lawrence Taylor, but without the cocaine and convictions. He was like Mark Messier, but without the smile (or tears).

Like Mattingly, Keane always seemed prepared, a professional. Like Taylor, Keane combined talent, will and aggression to become the most feared player in the league. And like Messier, Keane was a captain, a leader and a winner. Just as Messier willed the Rangers to victory in 1994 that was what Keane was like for Manchester United in 1999 when they won the Champions League.

With Ireland Keane played mostly with players who were not the caliber of his Manchester United teammates. Regardless, he played hard and lifted his teammates to higher levels. His greatest achievement with the Irish team was when they qualified for the 2002 World Cup.

Then came Saipan. To most of the world Saipan is a small island in the Pacific, site of a bloody WWII battle. To the Irish Saipan is one of life's great 'If onlys'.

The Irish team arrived in Saipan before the 2002 World Cup full of joy at having qualified, but without the equipment they needed to prepare for the tournament. A “Sure, it'll be grand” attitude ruled. Except with Keane.

Keane arrived without joy, but with a fire in his belly for the tournament ahead. He wanted to win – to win the World Cup. To Keane everyone else was 'just happy to be here.' He couldn't take it and what followed was a slow motion eruption that ended with Keane sent home by the manager, Mick McCarthy.

The people of Ireland were riven between those who backed Keane and those who backed McCarthy. It was a civil war with brother against brother. It was the main story on the nightly news for weeks. Would Keane return to the team or remain 'offside'? People beseeched the government: 'Fix this!'

In the end, Keane stayed home. The team played admirably, but they were eliminated in the second round when they failed to recognize that Spain was playing one man short during extra time – a definite failing of leadership.

Would they have done better with Keane? Undoubtedly. Would they have won the World Cup? Probably not, as the eventual winners, Brazil, looked far superior to every other team. However, given how things played out the Irish team may well have been Brazil's opponent in the final if Keane had been there. 'If only ...'

But it was not meant to be. What we learned then is that the Ireland of 2002 wasn't much different than the Ireland of 1902. Roy Keane, like other difficult geniuses Ireland has produced, could not cope with Ireland nor Ireland with Keane.

Yet, now he's back and the nation is agog. The media is following his every move, dissecting every twitch, seeking meaning in every word. 'How long will it last?' is what everyone wants to know.

For now all is peaceful, but more than any other people the Irish know that this is not how things stay. The plot thickens, the drama intensifies and builds to the climax which, inevitably, ends in tragedy. Then it will be 'Exit Keano – stage left.'

Saturday, November 9, 2013

HSBC survey says Ireland's a terrible place to live if you're an expat

The International Financial Services Centre in Dublin. One place in Ireland where
expats can be found in sizable numbers.
“There is no such thing as bad publicity” goes the old saying. Well, I'm not sure that holds true for Ireland this week following the publication of HSBC's “Expat Explorer Survey” for 2013.

This marks the first time Ireland has featured in the “Expat Explorer Survey,” now in its seventh year. The views of those expatriates living in Ireland who took part in the HSBC survey must be sending a nervous shudder up the spines of those whose job it is to entice overseas investment to Ireland.

Let's face it: Ireland has done remarkably well attracting FDI (foreign direct investment). Most of that investment comes from America, of course, but HSBC surveyed expatriates from all over the world, living all over the world.

This highlights the greatest issue with this report: HSBC doesn't tell us how they selected the respondents to their survey. How did they find them? How was the survey administered? Are those who took part representative of the expat community that lives in Ireland? How do the views of those who took part in the survey match those of the American business executives whose views would be pretty important to Ireland?

We simply don't know, which makes the survey less useful, but still it cannot be ignored. The Washington Post featured it on the World Views section of their web site. It will probably be picked up elsewhere. And the HSBC imprimatur may not mean much to you, but it may well mean a lot to those executives who are weighing up where to locate their European base.

So what did the report say about Ireland?

Well, nothing good. HSBC broke down the findings into four categories: Expat Economics, Expat Experience, Raising Children Abroad and Expat Expenses. Which ones did Ireland do well in? None.

The first category measured the expats' satisfaction with their earnings and the economy of the host country. Ireland finished 36th out of 37. Only Italy fared worse. Maybe this is to be expected given what has happened to the Irish economy lately, but if this is true then these are not the sort of expats who I would have expected to answer a HSBC survey.

I don't know why HSBC separated out expenses from earnings for the measure of Expat Economics, but Ireland finished 37th out of 37 on this list. Italy jumped up to 34th so we can say with certainty that in terms of standard of living for expats, the HSBC puts Ireland firmly in the bottom: below every other EU country surveyed, below America, Canada and Australia, below Taiwan and Brazil. Heck, Egypt, South Africa, Vietnam and Indonesia were all well above Ireland.

Obviously life for the average person in Egypt, Vietnam and Indonesia is much tougher than for the average person in Ireland. These are the expats' experiences. Still are the expats in Ireland that much different than those in Indonesia? If not, why do they rate Ireland so badly?

Those were the money categories. What about the Expat Experiences and Raising Children Abroad, the so-called “quality of life” factors?

Again, the results are abysmal. Childcare is expensive and overall, expat parents see Ireland as pretty poor for children in terms of education, health and experience. There were only 24 countries in the 'raising children' comparison. Ireland was 23rd, above Qatar, but below Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Mexico.

Then there's Expat Experience: quality of life, ease of setting up and integrating into the local culture. This was where Ireland fared best. Well, least badly. Ireland was ranked 30th of the 37 countries. However, of the seven states listed below Ireland only one could be called “western” - the Netherlands. The others are Indonesia, Vietnam, Kuwait, Oman, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Again, it doesn't seem a scientifically credible survey, but that may not matter. HSBC is a trusted source for many and the Washington Post for many more. With this sort of thing reality matters far less than perception and the perception is Ireland's not that great a place to live.

That's the sort of perception that absolutely cannot be allowed to take root in the boardrooms of corporate America, particularly in the IT and biotech firms that the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) has been successfully targeting for many years. It wouldn't be a bad idea for the IDA to begin working on a counter strategy.

The IDA is probably longing for last six years when Ireland was simply ignored by HSBC. Then it was a case of 'no news is good news.'