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Monday, February 28, 2005

This is no longer a circus....

The title I used in a couple of past posts made reference to observations from 'the peanut gallery' -- a term familiar to those of us who grew up watching the US kid's TV show, 'Howdy Doody'. The set of the show was originally designed (so to speak) to provide the atmosphere of a circus, and the live audience of little children sat on seats right next to the 'action' similar to those you might find under a 'big top'. And thus the idea of a 'peanut gallery.' It was a great place from which to view the circus.

I am not the only one who regards Northern Ireland politics as a circus -- the local BBC TV show, Hearts and Minds, uses a three ring circus as its theme each week. But I now think events unfolding in Belfast require a different metaphor, for what seemed like a political circus only a couple of weeks ago has now emerged as a true political drama that is likely to have major consequences for the peace process in Northern Ireland. The murdered man's four sisters (with substantial support from their Short Stand neighbors) have become the center of a movement that is directly and very openly confronting the IRA and Sinn Fein and their own turf. They have done so using classic street-level political tactics and have been able to mobilize support not only in Northern Ireland, but at the highest levels of government in Ireland and the UK. Yesterday's protest march against the IRA received major coverage in the top media outlets in Dublin and London.

Anyone who wants to learn about the power of raw democracy would do well to keep an eye on Belfast over the next several weeks.

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The English and snow....

Posted at Randi Art

Although I am sure she would rather feature more flowers than snowy shots of our backyard, Randi can't seem to escape putting up photos of the white stuff. Our part of New England seems to be having one of the snowiest winters in recent memory.

On this side of the pond, the picture is mixed. Nothing much in the way of snow or wintry weather here in Northern Ireland, but the English seem to be getting quite a bit of it over the past week -- enough to warrant a nice little piece in today's Guardian G2 section on 'The World Made New.'

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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Foster-ing insights into Ireland

The label of "revisionist history" is typically applied as a rhetorical tool in the political world, and somewhat more seriously within the field of history itself where the appellation serves as a modern scarlet letter. As political rhetoric, it's applied to efforts made by politicians and their hired spin doctors to promote a favorable (as in self-serving) view of morally questionable past events. Among historians, the label is appropriately regarded as a negative assessment when applied to those who challenge the existing "interpretation" of historical facts in order to prove that the obvious is incorrect, e.g. the purpose and use gas chamber facilities at Auschwitz.

But there are some historians who suffer such labeling because their work challenges cultural and national mythologies by relying on evidence more than narrative. Irish historian Roy Foster has been accused of being a "revisionist" in his extensive body of work covering most of modern Irish history, and particularly his biographical works on Parnell and William Butler Yeats. Last year he presented a series of lectures at Queen's focusing on contemporary cultural, political, economic, religious and other social trends in Ireland, both north and south of the border. I was only able to attend two of the lectures, and it was clear that this historian whose work focuses mainly on the turmoil of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has considerable insight into the current of major changes taking place in Ireland. Aptly titled "Metamorphesis," the lectures seemed still a "work in progress" as evidenced by his decision to modify lecture titles and the arrangement of presentation at the last minute. But I heard enough to convince me to jump at the first opportunity to read the final product immediately upon their publication.

My appreciation and appetite for Foster's work was increased after reading his piece in yesterday's Guardian book review section an exhibition of paintings at London's National Portrait Gallery featuring works of Irish artists during the Victorian period in London. Called Conquering England, the exhibit provides an opportunity for Foster to highlight the pervasive influence of the Irish community not only in the arts and literature, but also in the politics and social life of the day. I am not a great fan of biography, but after hearing Foster and reading this and several other short pieces he's written, I'm about to invest some time in either the Parnell or Yeats books.

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Mr. Howard's Mo....

Political life in the UK is never really off the front pages. After all, this is a system in which all parties are geared up to go into campaign mode on (officially) six weeks notice. Of course, with large majorities on its side, New Labour has had the luxury of calling the electoral shots for the past two "terms", and not too long ago it looked as if it was in a position to easily win an election that it plans to call for May 5. That date has been the worse kept secret in British politics, and each day you can see the campaign machinery for all the parties going into second gear.

Despite Tony Blair's problems associated with his push for the war in Iraq, until very recently it seemed a no-brainer that Labour would win a third term with a smaller but comfortable margin in the House of Commons. But now that seems a not-so-sure wager.

Several weeks ago there was a news item that followed several days after the Australian elections in which the conservative incumbent Prime Minister won a significant reelection. The news was that Lynton Crosby, the man behind that victory -- Australia's equivalent of Karl Rove -- had been hired by the Conservative Party in the UK to run the Tory campaign. I don't know why I paid any more attention to that story than to any other political news, but yesterday the wisdom of that hire became evident. It looks like Michael Howard and his Tories have made the upcoming election into a real contest.

The story in yesterday's Guardian revolved around one particular poll indicating that Labour's lead over the Tories had been cut to three points from nine. Another poll pointed to a shift in direction, while a third gave the Labourites a little better news. Nevertheless, the spin generated out of these polls have boosted the Conservative Party by giving the impression that they might make this into a serious challenge.

As significant, the news seems to have stirred up some concern within Labour party ranks that there might be trouble ahead. It's clear to even the most casual observer that there is trouble within Labour. The anti-Blair faction is definitely small, but it is vocal and visible and perhaps just the tip of a larger iceberg. It is probably one of the reasons that the Labour campaign seems to be focused on using a strategy based on national media rather than relying on the traditional grassroots approach of pushing local canvassing. By doing so, they avoid having to make the internal compromises and changes that would be necessary to get some of the more disgruntled backbenchers onboard. Instead this will be a campaign based on mobilizing voter support for the Blair government rather than for Labour and its principles.

But even the national media approach seems to be shaky at the moment since Blair's major rival within Labour, Chancellor Gordon Brown, seems to be sitting on his hands rather than being fully engaged in the process. Brown, who in the past has sat at the campaign strategy table, was moved aside from that role about a year ago, and there is certainly no love lost between these partners. This may prove to be a major error on Blair's part as Howard gains strength.

This is likely to turn out to be a very interesting and perhaps surprising election....

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Friday, February 25, 2005

The break-in....

Came home to a surprise this afternoon. As I turned the corner near my apartment complex, I noticed that my bathroom window was wide open. Most apartments built since the 1970s here, and for that matter almost all "modern" public buildings, have awning-hopper type windows that are hinged at the top and open outward. In addition, all have a hook mechanism along one side that prevents the window from opening very far. But in this case the window was wide open and as I looked in I saw that it was more than merely a gust of wind that did this. I entered the flat to find a number of things scattered on the floor in my living room, including this computer. Checking out the door again I realized it had been jimmied open with a screwdriver.

A little detective work goes a long way, and given the fact that it was a bit chilly outside but not so much so inside, it was evident that whoever was in the flat had left just recently -- and rather quickly. Nothing was stolen; or I should say, I was lucky nothing had been stolen. My computer set-up in this small flat is so elaborate, and the wires so tangled, that the culprit was obviously baffled by the complexity of it all. It also seems like the would-be thief had been trying to do all this with a pair of "makeshift" gloves -- or at least I assume that's why I found two of my sweaty gym socks scattered around the wiring (either that or this was someone with a very strange fetish).

It's also clear that something scared him/her/them away, and that whatever it was was blocking their exit through the front door. Tossing all my toiletries off the ledge in front of the windowsill, this amateurish burglar stepped from the loo to the ledge and with a forceful push on the window broke through the latch to the bushes just outside.

It is also obvious that this was a crime of opportunity by some frazzled kid who happened to find the main door to our building open and picked on my flat because it was the first he came across. This was an individual in mental disarray. Sitting a few feet from the computer and in clear sight was a small stash of money -- a few US dollars (which even I would've passed up given the current exchange rate) but also a more reasonable sum of euros (which can be used in some places in Belfast, but definitely could be cashed in at any local bank, and of course spent on an evening out in nearby Dublin). I guess it would have been much easier for the thief just unplug my small TV and walk away without much notice. But I can imagine that the challenge of this nice little laptop was just too much to pass up, and I picture him running around the apartment trying to figure out how to avoid leaving fingerprints and then stumbling across my dirty laundry basket with the gym socks sitting on top. It is almost laughable -- ok, it is in fact very laughable since I was lucky and lost nothing to this idiot.

I believe this is the first time I've ever been victimized this way, and I have to admit that (as they say) I now feel more vulnerable. After all, even if this particular person is a jerk, someone now knows that there's a pretty fancy laptop sitting in this ground-floor apartment just waiting for a less inept thief to come along at another opportune moment. It ain't the Northern Bank, but it might seem attractive to some enterprising trainee for a local paramilitary group.... (Hey, you have to start somewhere!)

As it happens, I've recently been offered the opportunity to move to another flat in the same area, this one on the very top floor of the highest building in this complex of apartments. What made the possibility so attractive was the thought of working at my computer while watching the seasons change in Belfast. Two of my QUB colleagues now occupy that flat and are about to move into a newly purchased home, and I immediately went into "vulture mode" to see if a move would be possible. The Queen's University Estates office, which operates this group of apartments, said the move is possible, but I delayed making a decision because the move seemed like so much bother since I will be staying in Belfast only through the summer.

But tonight I'm rethinking my position, and may soon find myself hauling all my Belfast-worldly possessions up to several flights of stairs to get a new perch that is not only more secure but comes with a view. I guess there are silver linings behind some of those Belfast clouds....

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Making an obstacle of myself...

It's Wednesday morning, about 4:30 a.m., and the Substance-P side-effect of the capsaicin seems to be kicking in right on schedule and I'm awake and ready to blog. Randi noticed that I was online (thanks to our Yahoo Messenger connection) and gave me a call. With the five-hour difference, my (involuntary) return to an early wake-up schedule and her late-night editing work are setting a pattern that allows us to exchange good nights/good mornings. Even insomnia has its benefits.

One of the interesting aspects of academic life is that the patterns of your week change from term to term as your teaching and research schedule changes with each semester. It usually takes a couple of weeks, but eventually a regular schedule emerges not merely at work but also at play.

This term Tuesday has turned out to be the pivotal day in my week here in Belfast. I have a 10 a.m. lecture on US politics and an 11 a.m. tutorial now fixed in my Tuesday schedule, and by coincidence there is a weekly Law faculty football game scheduled from 4 to 430 at the Queen's Physical Education Centre that afternoon. It hasn't taken long for these set obligations to become the defining points of my entire life. Everything else seems to be falling into place around that schedule.

The football game is actually quite fun, although I am probably the weakest participant on the floor. One thing has been evident from the get-go: I am incapable of handling the required "footwork" involved in soccer. This rather surprised me at first, since I've got pretty good strength in my legs. But kicking around a soccer ball is not as easy as some people make it seem, and is clearly a matter of brain-limb coordination that's developed early in life.

An observation: in the US most of us of the baby boom generation grew up playing upper body games, while the rest of the world was kicking around their soccer balls. (For my kids, now in their 30s, the soccer option was available from the time they were in elementary school). When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, the street games I recall were things like "stickball," "punchball," and "handball" -- all requiring upper body work with lots of hand and arm action. Legs were for running, not for controlling the speed and direction of the ball. I never played American football, but even there the use of the legs is pretty straightforward and doesn't really require concentration beyond just booting the damn thing forward. If you wanted to kill time you "played catch" with a friend, literally just tossing the ball back and forth while simultaneously chatting away. And if you were alone you found a wall to just throw the ball against over and over again. It's clear that the same kind of "killing time" activities in the rest of the world involve playing around with a soccer ball for minutes and hours at a time. And I suspect that someone who grows up doing that probably feels as awkward throwing around an American baseball as I do trying to engage in European football.

When I mentioned this to a good friend in the US, he confirmed the observation with a story about a trip he took with his family to Israel several years ago. At some point there was a trek to the park where he and his daughter started "playing catch" on the open lawn. Pretty soon he observed that a small but attentive crowd had started to gather watching them just toss the ball back and forth. It was a unique sight for Israelis who would think nothing about seeing two people doing the kicking equivalent with a soccer ball.

The bottom line for me is that I spend most of my time in this casual pickup game of football each Tuesday either running around trying to play defense or doing my best to avoid eye contact with a teammate who might make the mistake of kicking the ball in my direction. When confronted with a soccer ball the most I'm able to do tap it very weakly in the wrong direction. In the meantime I watch in awe as my colleagues demonstrate an almost natural ability to control this round object with their toes.

I probably feel most comfortable standing in the goal position, for although I am not really effective in consciously and intentionally blocking shots on goal, I make a pretty good obstacle. When I first took that position several games ago, I found myself doing what came naturally -- that is, every time the ball came in my direction I would try to dodge it (another auto response developed from games we played when I was a kid). It didn't take long before I realized that my value to the team (if any at all) came from literally putting myself right in front of the oncoming player. So for the last two outings, I've taken the shots on goal pretty well. This doesn't take much talent, and in fact no skill whatsoever other than making sure you are in the wrong place at the right time. Yesterday I took a shot in the face (the rules of our little pickup game prohibit above-the-waist kicks, but they are unavoidable) that knocked my glasses off and caused slight cut on the nose bridge. The rest of the time I spent in goal I took the usual body hits, although I also allowed quite a few goals to be scored.

Unfortunately, the goal position is a rotating one -- a chance for others to take a break from running up and down the gym floor (with only four people on each side -- which is the typical turnout for this term -- there is an awful lot of running back and forth, which makes this a fairly active half-hour). As a result I do spend as much time on the run as I do in goal. But I'm getting over the embarrassment that comes from being so inept at this sport. And thanks to some tolerant colleagues, great fun!

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Monday, February 21, 2005

It's Belfast! (Well, almost...)

8AM: It's snowing in Belfast, and for that matter in most of Northern Ireland and in many parts of England and Scotland. I'm not just talking about the usual thin layer of slushy stuff that most people think of snow here, but real snowfall -- the kind we are all too used to in Massachusetts this year. The snowfall is light and sticking, and the flakes are of a moderate size indicating relatively low moisture content. Despite the dangers of walking on streets alongside drivers who don't quite understand how to compensate for these conditions, I'm actually looking forward to a pleasant trek to the office.

Although the Met (short for Meteorological Services, I suspect) is not predicting anything significant, this is the kind of event that actually gets folks talking about the weather. I've commented in previous posts about the nature of 3-D weather (dark, dreary, and dismal) in this region, and typically, short of extreme conditions, people rarely bring up the topic. I'm the one who usually initiates discussions about what's going on outside our office windows. What is truly interesting about Belfast weather is how radically it shifts from hour to hour. And coming from an area that is geographically located to the south of Belfast, I'm amazed at how generally moderate and seasonably stable the temperature ranges are.

But the snowfall like this, even though it is quite moderate and actually pleasant, will generate all sorts of conversation today. There will also be lots of picture taking, especially among foreign students from climates that rarely see the snow. Heck, if it continues like this for a sustained period, even I'll be out there taking snapshots....

11AM: Looked outside to find that it was all over...:-{

And the temperature has gone up well above freezing, and so there isn't much to look at.

Oh, well, maybe it will happen again... almost.

1230: OK, went to local coffee shop to read the paper and have a cup, and looking up I noticed bright sunshine -- and when I walked out it was actually quite comfortable, temperature wise. You could already see folks thiinking about taking off a layer or two of their winter outerwear -- perhaps even wnadering around with sweaters...

530: back in the office, having just come from another outing -- and now we are talking 3D weather....and cold too...

Remind me never to attempt a blog on Belfast weather again....

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

A genealogy of whiteness

Friend Domonic started his blog a week or so ago and is already drawing comments. His second post is especially intriguing, because he sets out an agenda for "critical hip-hop studies." Domonic has been talking about this for as long as I've known him (which is several years), and it's great that blogging provides a forum to share and test out his ideas. As has been the case in our continuing conversations over wide range of topics, I offered a challenging comment raising issues about what his agenda might be. And of course, as usual, he came right back with a clear response.

Domonic has put in a great deal of effort over the past several years trying to convince me of the importance of critical studies as applied to issues of race and culture. In fact, it really doesn't take much to convince me; I think I've been doing critical studies all my life. But some of what I read in the area of critical studies does not impress me, in fact some of the gets my blood boiling. But the tradition of critical studies (although it wasn't always called that) has been a major influence on my thinking since I first read Herbert Marcuse in the early 1970s. I've read a great deal about the Frankfurt school over the years, and more recently have enjoyed reading Adorno's critical analysis of American popular culture (especially our fascination with astrology) and the jargon of authenticity associated with Heidegger, Jaspers and the existentialists. While these works constitute the basis of modern critical theory, the term has been used as an umbrella to cover a number of other approaches that I believe to be of more questionable value. That's why Domonic's agenda raises issues with me.

Nevertheless, my doubts about critical (fill in the blank) studies is offset by specific examples. I came across one this afternoon as I sat down to read this week's book review section of the Guardian (which is constantly delivering high-quality and thought-provoking pieces). In an essay titled "Race card," Gary Taylor provides a really interesting analysis of the genealogy of "whiteness". In tracing the roots of the racial designations for "black" and "white," Taylor focuses on the emergence of the term in 16th and 17th century England. In Elizabethan times, Taylor argues, whiteness was not a racial term in the sense of differentiating Englishmen from non-Englishmen (e.g. Othello, the king of the Moors), rather it was a gendered characterization, applied to women of a certain class and behavior (e.g. pictures of Elizabeth I with her face painted white) as well as uncivilized barbarians from the north such as the Goths. Blackness, in turn, is associated with the more civilized and virile barbarians from the Islamic south. As for Englishmen, they did not regard themselves as white, but rather as "golden" which represented a mean between the black and white extremes.

Taylor pinpoints the emergence of a racial form of whiteness to an event that took place in the early 17th century when a visiting black Moorish king, looking over a crowd gathered for a celebratory pageant at which he was a guest, commented at how fascinated the white Christians were with the complexion of his skin and those of his entourage. This event was dramatized by one playwright (Thomas Middleton), thus setting to paper the key watershed event when whiteness became associated with racial difference. As the excerpted blurb from this short essay states it: "Shakespeare was a racist, but he didn't think he was white. Middleton thought he was white, but he wasn't a racist."

Historical critical analyses such as these are extremely important contributions to our understanding of race and its development and role in contemporary society. Interestingly, Taylor's essay is drawn from a book titled Buying Whiteness: Race, Culture, and Identity from Columbus to Hip-hop.

I think I have a book to recommend to Domonic....

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The flight of the (Tungsten C to) Phoenix....

I've become a bit of a gadget freak, and among those toys that I've played with over the past several years is the handheld computer that goes under various names. I think the generic term is actually an acronym: PDA, which stands for "personal digital assistant" (although in some text messaging circles those initials can be used to represent "public display of affection"). More often you'll hear people refer to their "Palm", reflecting the success of a brand name similar to the way the British refer to vacuum cleaners as Hoovers (an association less likely to be heard in the US where the Hoover brand is unfortunately and incorrectly associated with a former US President who carries the blame for the Depression among large segments of the older population).

Whatever the name, I've been using Palm/PDAs since they first came on the market as Palm Pilots. I've tended to move up the product ladder as new and more advanced versions hit the market. My latest investment was in the Tungsten C, a relatively expensive unit (listed at $499 at the time I purchased it, and still selling for around $399 at list, although you can get it for less) that I purchased around June 2003. This handheld is truly close to being a small personal computer, with a powerful processor, substantial amount of memory, and the capacity to operate as a WiFi wireless. I was so impressed, that I convinced my daughter to purchase one a month later.

In one sense this was overkill, for as it turns out my access to WiFi outside my home was rather limited at the time of the purchase. But in the US, WiFi has been spreading, and today there are many locations where it can be used either for free (as, I am told, in the town center of Salem Massachusetts) or for a fee in various bookstores and coffee shops (e.g., Borders and Starbucks). But as it turns out, my fellowship in Belfast began in September 2003, and I quickly found out that the availability of WiFi was very limited in this area.

What made things worse were the problems I started having with my Tungsten C unit. While over here in Belfast, I've had to get the unit replaced or repaired twice. The service and turnaround for PalmOne (the company's new name) products in the UK is actually not too bad, but it meant going for long periods without the use of or access to my favorite toy.

And then there was the final straw. Several weeks ago I made the mistake of putting both my Tungsten C and my cell phone in the same pocket, and at some point during the morning the pressure of the phone against the protective cover of the Tungsten C must have proven too much. Turning on the PDA, I found myself staring at what looked like a very interesting piece of abstract art. There was nothing wrong with the physical screen (not a scratch, and no indication of any external or surface damage), and it is obvious that the unit itself is functioning quite well (the alarm continues to go off at set appointment times). It even continues to make the appropriate sounds when I touch the keys. But there is nothing but a piece of interesting artwork to see on the screen.

I began the process of figuring out whether I was covered under warranty or whether I had to seek other ways to recoup my obvious loss. So for the past three weeks or so I've been e-mailing was speaking with folks at the UK PalmOne support office as well as the American Express Buyers Assurance office in the US (since I purchased the unit with the American Express card, my warranty had been extended an additional year under their plan -- one of the great benefits of using American Express).

During that time interesting things were happening with the Tungsten C. The pattern on the screen was actually changing from day-to-day, and it became obvious that some interesting liquid substance was running amok behind the screen without actually impacting on the operations of the unit. When I first saw the pattern involved an almost thumb-like imprint in the lower right corner of the unit that extended as a thin line arcing to the upper left corner. The thin line at that time showed splatters on both sides, with the screen colors being a darker blue shade below the arc and a very light shade above it. Like I said, very interesting.

Since the unit was useless to me, I put it aside while I made the various calls to the support center. Eventually they came back and asked for a picture of the screen. At that point I took out the Palm (which had been sitting in a box next to my desktop in the office, ringing its alarm at designated times) and to my surprise I found that the pattern of change in an interesting way. The thumb-print area had become smaller, and the splattering along the arc line had disappeared, presenting the picture that you see here when we scanned the unit face on 1 February. It is almost as if the Tungsten was healing itself.

{Thanks to Sociable Geek for the scanning}

As a process of trying to figure out how to deal with the problem went on, the Palm's alarm continued to go off on schedule and the "picture" continued to change. The scan below was taken a week later. Very bizarre indeed.

Yesterday I finally received the information I needed to ship the unit off to the American Express people so that they can deal with it. It looks like my Tungsten C is going to become "salvage" and that I will be able to get funding to replace it. This is turning out to be a costly process, for shipping it to Phoenix, Arizona cost me about 47 British pounds (about $90). I dropped it off yesterday at the UK equivalent of Mail Boxes Etc., and it will literally be flying off to the US by Monday night on its way to Phoenix for delivery on Wednesday.

But now it's decision time, for as anyone who has been a child knows, broken toys must be replaced. The question is, is there another Tungsten C in my future? Or is it time to take the next step up to a PDA smart phone, such as the Treo 650 PDA Phone that combines the look and feel of the Tungsten with the functionality of a cell phone?

Oh, the dilemmas we face in life....

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

...And while we are on the subject of bridges...

Posted from Randi Art

Last night Randi posted this shot of the Zakim Bridge, part of Boston's (in)famous Big Dig Project. I realize that there are bridges of similar design in many places around the world (e.g., in Rotterdam and along the Belfast-Dublin highway route), but there is something unique about this particular structure that was strikingly beautiful as it emerged from ugliness of Boston's elevated highway landscape.

As the bridge construction nears completion, much of the old and temporary highway structures that surround it have been (and are still being) taken down, thus making the Zakim Bridge somewhat like a butterfly shedding the last remnants of its cocoon. And from one angle you can see how it mirrors the old Bunker Hill monument oblisk that is not too far from the site.

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Ciarán's Keel Beach

Posted at Neither Indifferent Nor Sceptical

Friend Ciarán stopped by the office the other day to show me some matt prints of photos he's taken of various bridges, inlcuding terrific shots of Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge and another of two bridges near Portland Oregon taken from an intriguing angle. But it was this shot that struck me as the most fascinating, and I am really glad he posted it....

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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

More from the peanut gallery.... and then some...

A follow-up to the observations made about the current political turmoil in Northern Ireland. The problems facing Sinn Fein in its efforts to maintain some political legitimacy after being associated with the criminal actions of the Provisional IRA have taken another critical turn -- or so it seems if you watch the major news outlets in the UK.

This time a problem has emerged from within a republican neighborhood where a barroom brawl led to the stabbing death of a popular local resident who was coming to the aid of a friend. The murder took place in the street outside the pub on 30 Jauary, and it is clear that there were witnesses and the assailants were well-known in both the community and to law enforcement officials.

But intimidation in the community as well as an anti-law-enforcement bias means no one will come forward as a witness, and thus no arrests can be made. It is also clear that one of the assailants is a leader in the Provisional IRA, and that Sinn Fein is unwilling to support community calls for bringing him and the others involved in justice.

What seems different in this case is that there is an open groundswell of support from within the community for prosecution and punishment. The day of the funeral there were large crowds following the procession to the church, and the parish priest was explicit in his call for witnesses to step forward.

Today (this was first written on the 14th) both the sister and fiancée of the dead resident made very public calls for witnesses and prosecution on both the BBC and Channel 4 news. This has become more than a local murder story because of his political implications for Sinn Fein. The reporters stress that this is not merely a movement within a Catholic neighborhood, but rather one emerging in a very strong Republican area. Sinn Féin's response has not been well-received, and therefore adds to the challenges building against its claim to political legitimacy.

It remains to see whether this is going to developed into a major turnabout in Northern Ireland nationalist politics, or it is merely just another storm that the well disciplined Sinn Fein machine will be able to withstand.

FOLLOW UP to the follow up: As I posted the preceeding on the 14th, Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams was responding to the pressure with a more explicit call for cooperation.... Very interesting times, indeed.

FOLLOW UP #2 to the follow up: On Wednesday the 16th, the IRA issued a statement that effectively said to the McCartney family and the community that they completely dissociate themselves from the events and individuals involved -- thus opening the doors to arrests and prosecution for the murder. But we will see if this results in people coming forward -- or if this IRA response reduces the pressure on them and Sinn Fein in the local republican community.

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Divorce, marriage and taxes....

Reading an article in last Sunday's Observer, I was reminded of an old Alan King joke from the late 1950s or early 1960s. Let me state upfront that I am not one known among friends and family for my powers of recall, so the fact that I remember this particular joke is notable on those grounds alone. I should also mention that if I am anywhere close to accurate on the dates, I would need I heard this joke when I was around 10 to 13 years old.

The joke is really a single punch line: The 10 Commandments declares "thou shalt not commit adultery"; New York State says you must!

The context at the time was the fact that divorce laws in New York and many other states set quite high standards for breaking marriage vows. It was a time when Reno, Nevada was best known not for gambling but rather as the place celebrities and wealthy individuals could go for a "quickie" divorce (if I recall, six weeks residence in Nevada made you eligible for a divorce that was recognized as legal throughout the country because of the 'full faith and credit' clause of the US Constitution). Considering the current state of divorce laws throughout the US, as well as the number of divorces that took place during the decades after liberalization in the 60s, it's amazing to think that laws have ever been that conservative in the US.

I suspect the main reason this particular joke stands out among all those I've heard over the past 50 years is that it has served me well as an anecdote when I lecture on American federalism. Since I just spoke on that subject a few days ago, it's also probably the reason why it immediately came to mind when I read the story in question.

The gist of the article can be summarized by the phrase: You have the freedom not to marry, but British tax law says you must!

It seems that in the UK, a couple that has been happily cohabitating for 22 years, in a relationship that includes two children -- ages 19 and 15 -- and in all respects is quite stable without the assistance and support of a formal marriage arrangement, must come to an "end" -- that is, they must get married -- because of the country's inheritance tax (IHT) laws. Under the tax laws of Great Britain, if one of the partners dies, the other must pay a stiff tax on any "inheritance" over 263,000 pounds. That may seem like a lot, but for the UK middle-class that is less than the value of the average home in the London area (and probably in other parts of the UK where housing values have skyrocketed in recent years).

Now here's the twist. Under current UK law, if this was a partnership involving a gay couple, the inheritance tax laws would not apply as long as the couple had signed a civil partnership agreement. Heterosexual couples, however, cannot seek such an exemption by signing a partnership agreement. In the particular case written about in the Observer, the couple included a "news presenter" who was quite at ease approaching members of the House of Commons about correcting this inequity in the law. The response: "'We can't possibly do that.' They said that heterosexual couples had the option of getting married [and getting the IHT protection that way]. And it would cost the Treasury too much." And so while we have reached the point where society quite openly accepts long-term cohabitation with little or no fuss, public policy demands marriage -- at least among heterosexuals.

I just found the situation fascinating....

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Monday, February 14, 2005

All in good fun....

Having just posted my last blog, I turned on the TV and found myself watching a show so shockingly British that I'm sure hell will freeze over before I view an American equivalent. I'd seen it advertised for the past week, and thought to myself that this must be a satirical "put on." It turns out that they were serious -- sort of.

I'm talking about the "Channel 4 Political Awards" show in which politicians and political writers/commentators are presented awards in specified categories such as Opposition Politician of the Year, Political Book of the Year, Campaigning Politician of the Year, and the top award for the evening, the Politician's Politician Award. During this season when nominees for the Academy Awards seem to be popping up on every rerun of Leno and Conan O'Brien that I see on CNBC Europe, it was a bit of a shock to watch a similar ceremony dealing with real political actors.

Much of it, of course, is in good humor. But it is still quite strange to watch awardees give their acceptance speech for the work they do on some very serious issues.

One of the surprises of the evening was that Northern Ireland's Ian Paisley (he of "Never, Never, Never" fame) was up for the Politicians Politician award, and that he was sitting in the audience chuckling away with other MPs, Peers from the House of Lords, and various media types as the ceremonies went on. While he did not win in his category, another politician who did take home the prize was Clare Short, the Cabinet Minister who resigned over the Blair government's decision to invade Iraq (she won for book of the year). The top award for a House of Lords politician went to a woman who led the fight against banning fox hunting, while a backbencher who led the fight for the ban in the House of Commons lost in her category.

All very British, all very humorous, all very bizarre. As I said, I cannot imagine this kind of event taking place in the US....

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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Substance P -- and blogging

It is 3 a.m. in Belfast, and for the third night in a row I'm wide awake in the middle of the night. In recent weeks I've been tossing and turning at about this time because of discomfort due to a pinched nerve that has been causing me quite a bit of pain during the day. But typically I have been too tired or medicated to allow that discomfort to keep me awake.

However, a few days ago I began applying a capsaicin-based cream to the area from which the pain emanated, and that seems to be the source of this new problem. Looks like I've cut Faustian deal -- the pain level is definitely down, but here I am in the middle of the night, wide awake and wondering whether the trade-off is a good one.

It is one of the more interesting benefits of access to the Web that I can make this self-diagnosis almost immediately (more on that point in a later blog). I googled "capsaicin" and discovered a great deal more about this "medication" than discussed by my prescribing physician (this is not over-the-counter stuff we're dealing with) or on the little information sheet neatly wrapped around the tube. As is widely known by anyone who watches the Food Channel (at least in the US), capsaicin is that natural ingredient that makes chiles hot. How much heat can it generate? Here is one paragraph from an informative web site (, quoting from The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia):

Pure capsaicin is so powerful that chemists who handle [it in] the crystalline powder [form] must work in a filtered "tox room" in full body protection. The suit has a closed hood to prevent inhaling the powder. Said pharmaceutical chemist Lloyd Matheson of the University of Iowa, who once inhaled some capsaicin accidentally: "It’s not toxic, but you wish you were dead if you inhale it." "One milligram of pure capsaicin placed on your hand would feel like a red-hot poker and would surely blister the skin," said capsaicin expert Marlin Bensinger.

And it seems that the medicinal qualities of capsaicin have been known for quite a while, especially its capacity to ease pain when applied to the affected area of the body. Clinical studies show that it's effective in dealing with pain associated with diabetic neuropathy, osteoarthritis, postherpetic neuralgia, psoriasis and a few other ailments. While my particular problem is not that specific, I agreed with my GP that it was worth a try in lieu of all the pain pills I've been taking for weeks. And after a few days I can say it's working: the cream, applied four times a day, has elevated my pain threshold to the point that I can function most of the day without major discomfort.

But there are drawbacks.

First, it's obvious that the treatment is only working on the symptom (pain) and not the other dimensions of the problem. This particular pinched nerve episodically generates involuntary muscle "flutters" on my left side, particularly in my left arm. (This is as bizarre to witness for others who are standing nearby as it is for me to experience.) In addition, during those episodes I seem to lose strength in my left arm, a fact that is particularly annoying for a "lefty" like me. (This particular symptom gave us a bit of a scare when it first took place. My doctors were using words like "minor stroke" and such -- enough to get me into an MRI....) So while the capsaicin seems to have taken care of the pain, the episodes of muscle flutters and weakness continue.

A second drawback was a temporary one: the area where I apply the cream felt like it was on fire after the first few applications. The burning sensation doesn't occur immediately, but rather an hour or so after the application. So in the midst of some conversation with a colleague I would suddenly feel the urge to leap out of my chair and jump, back first, into a tub of ice water. Luckily for all concerned, our new offices at the Institute don't have those kind of facilities.... That effect (as predicted in the literature) only lasted a couple of days.

The third drawback is the impact the capsaicin treatment is having on my sleep. The capsaicin works by reducing the presence of something called "substance P" which is found around nerve endings and is associated with transmitting the feelings of pain to the brain. It's only speculation on my part, but it seems that the process of elevating my pain threshold by reducing substance P is wreaking havoc on my capacity to sleep through the night. Making things worse is that I'm not even feeling tired -- the effect is systemic; I am just "wide awake" rather than being kept awake by some specific discomfort. I guess I might have to learn to live with this for awhile and make good use of the time.

And so here I am, sitting in the dark at 4 a.m. in front of my computer screen typing a blog....

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Friday, February 11, 2005

Randi's phone turns Turner...

From Randi Art

It's snowing again back home in Beverly, and I suspect posting pictures of the accumulating snowfall is Randi's way of telling me she misses my snow shoveling powers....

What this image does being to mind, however, are those that were featured in the BBC's The Culture Show coverage of a new exhibition at the Tate that brings together the works of Turner Whistler Monet. The show is based on the premise that Turner's paintings, especially those of London's landscape along the Thames seen through the smoggy air of the times, had a major influence on the work of both Whistler and Monet, and was central to the development of modern art. The exhibition just came over from Paris, and I am hoping we get a chance to see it before it closes in May (after all, Randi needs a break from all that snow!).

And while I am on the subject, let me say a few words about The Culture Show. This is an on-air "magazine", organized as such (last night was "Issue No. 10"), and truly well done. Last night, for example, featured an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, an interview/essay on REM, a segment on space (as in outer) art, and a story on the latest opera by the team that brought "Jerry Springer, The Opera" to the stage (and more recently to the BBC, along with some degree of controversy). Interesting spots each, and it is really a pity that they don't stream these for viewing for those outside the reach of the BBC.

On a positive note, this is one TV distraction that I don't have to be embarrassed about....

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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Observations from the peanut gallery....

Northern Ireland politics has become even more interesting than usual in recent days. The rhetoric seems to have taken a new turn since the infamous £26m robbery of the Northern Bank before Christmas. It may just be my uninformed imagination at work, but it does look like that episode has put Sinn Fein on the rhetorical defensive while breathing new life into the SDLP. No doubt, it has strengthened the position of the Unionists in their opposition to sharing executive powers with Sinn Fein, but that might not be as important as the possible turnabout in the fortunes of the coalition of moderate nationalists.

All this was especially evident in tonight's Hearts and Minds broadcast on BBC Northern Ireland. Earlier in the day, the International Monitoring Commission issued a pretty blunt confirmation of the charge that has been made by law enforcement on both sides of the border: the robbery was an operation planned and carried out by elements of the IRA with the knowledge of that organization's command leadership. And since it is an open secret that some Sinn Fein leaders are part of the IRA command structure, there seems little reluctance on the part of public officials to accuse Sinn Fein's leadership of knowingly supporting criminal activity. "Criminality" is the term being used to characterize Sinn Fein without qualification by Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, police officials in the Republic as well as in Northern Ireland, leaders of both the DUP and Ulster Unionists, and representatives from almost every other nationalist party on both sides of the border.

It is all pretty damning, and the response of Sinn Fein spokespersons has been surprisingly ineffective in stopping the uproar. They are relying on three approaches. First, there is indignation expressed not only by Sinn Fein, but also by the IRA. This reached a new level today when Gerry Adams challenged the police in the Republic to arrest him if they were so certain of his role in the robbery. (This seemed a rather bizarre challenge since the crime was committed in Northern Ireland. I must've missed something.) Second, there is the threat of a return to violence by the IRA implied by both their withdrawal from the decommissioning process and the strong statement that followed that action when the statement drew nothing more than a yawn from the other parties involved in the Agreement. The third approach has been the constant refrain by Sinn Fein leaders that any action taken against them would amount to punishing and disenfranchising the 300,000 plus voters who supported them in the last election. As I said, none of these approaches have been very effective.

But most interesting has been the debate over the meaning of "criminality." On Hearts and Minds, the Sinn Fein spokesperson was challenged to declare that the bank robbery was indeed a crime -- a point he was willing to concede (under considerable pressure), but in a way that implied that not all such actions should necessarily be considered criminal. If I understood his position correctly, what is criminal or not criminal is a political question. In defense of this position he cited several acts of violence by Loyalists and British agents which went unprosecuted and unpunished in the past, and thus (by implication) arguing that some violent actions taken by the IRA should also go unpunished -- perhaps even this particular robbery....

On the surface, the situation seems to be spiraling downward. But there is also the sense that things are not likely to deteriorate to the level of violence. Sinn Féin is definitely faced with the crisis of legitimacy, and the only way out is one they seem reluctant to take; that is, dissociating themselves from the IRA entirely. At the moment it doesn't look like they are capable of taking that step, and that leaves the door open for the self proclaimed "democratic" nationalists (a phrase used frequently and effectively by the SDLP spokesperson on tonight's show) to mount a comeback on the political scene.

In earlier blogs I mentioned how much more complicated Northern Ireland politics was than I had imagined before coming here 15 months ago. And these recent developments have in one sense made the situation even more complicated for an outsider to understand. At the same time, the crisis that seems to be brewing ath the moment has also clarified things to the point where we might see some interesting and surprising changes in the direction of Northern Ireland politics.

It's nice to be sitting in the "peanut gallery" in times like these.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Circling the audible block...

Two or three years ago I subscribed to There were several reasons to do so at the time. If I recall, the immediate attraction was some promotion in which they gave away their in-house "audio device" (called an Otis) in exchange for a one-year commitment for 12 audio books. But it was also a time when I was commuting by car each week between my home in Beverly, Massachusetts and my job at Rutgers in Newark, New Jersey (a post-9/11 adjustment; I use to fly when it was cheap and convenient to do so). After a month or two I was growing tired of both my CD collection and listening to the same old radio programs. (I was also becoming self-conscious about how it looked to other commuters along the Merritt Turnpike (Route 15) in Connecticut when they saw this bearded, white-haired 50+ year old singing along to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, putting special energy into the "Galileo" and "Scaramouch" bits.) Also, a colleague who did a great deal of commuting suggested I might want to try listening to books I would not otherwise read during the (typically) five-hour drive to and from New Jersey.

I made good use of that initial subscription and actually enjoyed some of the readings. But eventually I found the choice of interesting titles to be limited, and the need to keep driving around the block until the reader completed the current chapter became annoying....

My son picked up the subscription from where I left off, and given the titles I found accumulated in the "My Library" folder at my account he made very good use of it. Since I've been in Belfast for the past year and a half, I really had no reason to visit the site. On my last trip to the States however, I picked up an iPod mini and noticed that the iTunes software had some special download process for the site. Going back to my account page I discovered that I had 12 unused book credits that needed to be used by May 2005 (and I vaguely recall my son telling me that he created his own account).

Looking over the list of titles, I can see a few that would be worth downloading and listening to, but overall the selection is pretty thin for my tastes. What they have built up over the past couple of years are the subscription services to the New York Times, National Public Radio news shows, and a few worthwhile interview shows (e.g., Charlie Rose, Terry Gross). I'm tempted to subscribe to those, but most are easily accessed on the Web. Instead, I've downloaded a number of titles that I might listen to on the iPod during my mile-long daily trek to and from the office in Belfast.

The folks have also posted a number of free "public service" items which can be accessed for no cost. This includes major speeches, testimony at commission hearings, and a series of lectures being given at the Library of Congress on the digital future. Today I listened to the first of these, a lecture given by David Weinberger on November 15 last. Weinberger is affiliated with Harvard's internet center and the author of several books and articles on contemporary 'online' life. I had not heard of Weinberger before, although he is obviously well known among bloggers (he was introduced as a 'key advisor' for the now famous Howard Dean campaign blog, although he plays down that role). But after listening to his relatively short and entertaining presentation, I plan to read as much of his work as I can possibly access. During the lecture he kept making references to some visuals, thus highlighting one of the obvious drawbacks to an posting of such things, but I later discovered a C-SPAN link to the same lecture that can be viewed with RealPlayer online.

I hope to post comments on -- and reactions to -- the Weinberger lecture over the next few days, and I'm looking forward to listening to (or viewing) the other lectures from that series in the near future. If they're anything like the Weinberger presentation, they'll be worth the time it takes for me to keep walking around the block....

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Monday, February 07, 2005

I say. Good show!

Right up front, let me say that I am not a regular "fan" of American football. Yes, I watch it from time to time, and yes I will read the occasion sports news story on how a local team is doing -- but I do not go out of my way to do so. I am capable of getting a bit "fan"-atic about a sports team, as I did during my last year at the University of Kansas (1987-1988) when the Jayhawks went to (and won) the Final Four. But typically you won't find me in front of the TV at a scheduled time or place to take in a game of football, basketball or baseball. It just ain't the kind of thing I enjoy doing.

That is supposed to be different for the Super Bowl -- it is estimated that 120 million Americans now approach Super Bowl Sunday as a national holiday, and by all measures it is the watershed event of the first two months of the year in the US (far surpassing the few official holidays we have). But even when in the US, Super Bowl Sunday is nothing special for me or my family -- sort of like New Years, when only some invite to a special event might pull us out....

But last night I did catch the first half of the Super Bowl from my perch in Belfast -- tuning in around 11PM or midnight and glancing over at the TV while I typed away at last night's blog and chatted with Randi over the Yahoo Messenger program. After all, I do live in New England, and it is the local team (the Patriots, for those who don't know) attempting to win still another Super Bowl (unlike with the much discussed Red Sox World Series' effort last fall, over the past five years New Englanders have come to expect the Patriots to be in contention and at the Super Bowl). And it was a good game -- if you like lots of turnovers and big plays, all going for naught. The half ended in a 7-7 tie -- all very exciting. But that is not really what kept me tuned in. I really just wanted to see Paul McCartney's halftime show, and was rewarded by his performance of three or four classic Beatles/Wings tunes (too tired to recall). And then to sleep. Like I said, not a really big fan....

There is another attraction to taking in the game from over here -- and that is the very "British" commentary that took place during breaks in the action and halftime. It is strange enough to hear a discussion of American football in a British accent, and the fun was made moreso by the presence of a retired US football player on the panel of commentators (didn't catch the name) who provided a stark contrast in phrasing and tone as well as accent. That was also worth staying up for.

But best of all was the BBC web site story on the game that I clicked to this morning to find out what happened -- it is terrific, and almost reads like a Monty Python skit. My Northern Ireland and UK friends might not get it, but any American who reads this write up will fall over laughing.

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Sunday, February 06, 2005

The "inner me"....

I recently had a series of MRI scans of my head -- I suspect to prove that there was something floating about within -- and I've been waiting for just the right opportunity (that is, excuse) to post one. Randi provided me with such by posting her self-portrait.

Obviously there is no way for me to match the artist's rendition in a self portrait, nor can I provide any comment about my intensity at the time of my scan, other than to note that I had consummed two valium (I am a bit claustrophobic) and was listening to "Appalachian Spring" at the time.... So this is Dubnick's brain on Copeland....

And here, by the way, is the inspiration for this post (and lots more):

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Serendipitous triangulation....

Last evening I began reading Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. The choice was a result of serendipitous triangulation.

First came the suggestion from Ciarán after my reference to the hoax behind the Priory Sion that formed a key to the plot of Brown's The Da Vinci Code. A few moments later, I came across an article in the Saturday Book Review section of the Guardian that made reference to the book as one of several novels by Eco. And finally, there's that copy of the other Foucault's The Order of Things that I am carrying around in my backpack (a copy borrowed from a colleague that I needed to use in one of my research projects). Too many "signs" pointing me in the direction of this book. And since I happened to be near the Waterstone's bookshop in Belfast's city centre, I surrendered to the coincidences and purchased my second copy of the book (I know there's one sitting on a shelf at home in Massachusetts).

Seriously, I am finding it increasingly desirable to have one book on my current reading list that is not part of any research or writing project I am engaged in at the moment. In the past I would have regarded this kind of "side reading" as an unnecessary diversion to be avoided rather than relished. But now these diversions have turned into pleasurable substitutes for spending time in front of the TV and other brainless pursuits of entertainment. Not that I am giving up on the "telly" -- as past blogs indicate, there were some shows that serve as a "Distraction" during quiet evenings in Belfast. But I am finding a good read to be a more satisfying -- and less guilty -- way of filling the time.

Of course, the same thing can be said for my obvious growing attachment to blogging....

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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Debunkity bunk.....

Watched a wonderful piece of 'debunking' TV the other night -- The Real DaVinci Code on UK's Channel 4 was a terrific reaffirmation of sanity in the world of popular culture that thrives on myth and conspiracies....

Awhile back I gave into curiosity sparked by the enthusiasm of at least two members of my immediate family for Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code and read the book -- only to be extremely disappointed by both the quality of the work and the fact that very intelligent people find the 'storyline' minimally credible. On the first point, there is little to add beyond the comments I made in a post at (my comments are there somewhere...). On the second, however, I was frustrated by my inability to point to some source to counter the obvious claptrap found in the book -- that is, until viewing this Channel 4 documentary.

Hosted by Tony Robinson (who I understand to be a familiar figure on British TV), the show focuses on the five basic 'factual' premises of the Brown book and effectively debunks each, especially the 'Priory of Sion' which turns out to be rooted in a hoax traced to a 'surrealist prank' spawned in the 1950s by three French men 'with time on their hands and some spare cash.'

For me this is truly 'must see TV' -- and I hope it gets an airing on US TV soon!

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Friday, February 04, 2005

But first a trip to Mansao....

From Randi Art
Continuing my morning tour of blog-viewing (I still haven't opened those curtains...), I went to Randi Art and found this painting on a recent post. Do I really have to go to work?

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Before opening those curtains....

Pic from Neither Indifferent Nor Sceptical

I've been preoccupied with the logistics of teaching my first undergraduate course at Queen's Belfast (Politics of the US), and so have had little or no time for blogging or blog visiting. What time I have had between typing of the required "module guide" for the next twelve weeks of lectures and tutorials (I am paying for my past procrastination -- this should have been done weeks ago!) was filled pleasantly enough with visits (and extended chats) with past colleagues who happened to be on campus.

It is Friday AM, and having stayed up until 3 in the morning, I am getting a late start. But rather than open the curtains to see what kind of 3D (dark, dreary, dismal) weather I might be facing, I immediately went to friend Ciarán's blog where he had posted two pics taken earlier this week from his perch on the 10th floor (or so) of one of the few multistory buildings outside of Belfast city centre. It was difficult deciding which one to swipe for "cross posting" on this blog....

OK -- it is time to open the curtains and get back to work....

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