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Friday, August 26, 2005

Doing the hours....

Friend Ciaran and I commiserated yesterday on the implications of the daylight savings move by the US -- not only in practical terms (I can hear myself now when thinking about a call to Belfast: "let's see, is the time difference this week five hours or six hours -- or four hours...."), but also for the political challenges it raises in forcing folks in Europe to confront their status in the global economy.... See his post for relevant links and comment....

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

America's future is in their hands....

A colleague at UNH has drawn my attention to an all too interesting list put out by Beloit College each year. It certainly puts things in perspective for some of us older folks....

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Wabbits and fuds....

I cannot help but comment on two "worthless words" that have come up on Yesterday's word was "wabbit", and of course I had the standard pop culture reaction -- it is what Elmer Fudd called Bugs Bunny and his like (if by some incredible misfortune you have no idea what I am talking about, go here). Of course it means no such thing ("[origin uncertain] Scot. tired out, exhausted; slightly ill"). But since one thing leads to another, today's word is "fud", and again wwftd has come through:
[origin uncertain]
Scot. and Brit. dial.
1) the backside or rump
2) the tail of a hare or rabbit

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Rethinking the situation....

I am not one given to panic when reading some of the many doomsday scenarios put out on a regular basis by authors and publishers seeking to make a fast buck by playing on the fears of the general public -- especially those which rely on conspiracy theories. Hell, despite feeling really, really down about recent events in American politics, I have retained some sense that we are not facing the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. Call me foolhardy -- but more appropriately, call me sceptical....

But I have to admit that I am starting to get a bit nervous about things taking place in the oil fields and at the pumps. I guess it started when I got home from Northern Ireland in June and faced the propsect of paying more than $2 a gallon for "petro" on a regular basis. In the past I'd regarded such prices as temporary at best, although I had resigned myself to the belief that the price per gallon will slowly increase overtime a cent or two every few months. The fact that my friends in the UK were already use to paying the equivalent of $4-5 per gallon also provided some solice. Hell, if they could live with it, so can we. It will just take time to adapt....

More recently, however, my remaining optimism (if you can call it that) about the incremental pace of oil price changes (and out capcity to adapt) has been put to the test. First came the reality of the price changes. Over the past two months (in which I have been doing a good deal of commuting to work by car), we have seen the price of petro go up(often by leaps and bounds) at least 40-60 cents a gallon. (Some perspective: Today's posted price at the pump is 2.63 for regular -- 87 octane -- at a reasonably priced station in Massachusetts. When I was back in the states in the spring it was in the 1.80-1.90 range.) Some analysts are saying things will return to a "normal" level after Labor Day (early September in the US), but what "normal" is has not been made clear.

The bigger hit came in today's NY Times, where Peter Maass provides a Sunday Magazine article that offers a pretty convincing analysis that all but undermines any remaining hope for avoiding a big shock in the future. It is beginning to look an awful lot like the 1970s....

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Saturday, August 20, 2005

The NY Times Discovers The Real Belfast!!!!

I have given up counting the number of times I have pointed out in posts on this blog just how different Belfast and Northern Ireland is today from the popular images that still seem to dominate in the media. In recent posts I've even had to defend some public comments I made to that effect.

Well, thanks to a nice piece in this week's travel section of the Sunday New York Times (free subscription required), I will at least have some place to point for support. Listen up folks -- here is an excerpt:

Sixteen years later [after the writer's previous visit], Belfast is almost unrecognizable. The city center is now a thriving social hub - with young, well-dressed couples whiling away their weekend afternoons at a series of fashionable cafes. A clutch of boutique hotels and first-class restaurants has opened up in recent years, and there have been sightings of visiting celebrities like Bono, Colin Farrell and Brad Pitt regularly reported by The Belfast Telegraph. Parts of the formerly neglected downtown are now vast construction sites, as developers have moved in to convert decaying mid-19th-century buildings into luxury condos and retail spaces. Striking new public buildings dot the waterfront, itself the recipient of a handsome promenade that rings the city's perimeter.

Most surprising, during a three-day visit in late June, I saw almost no policemen on the streets, I experienced no searches by armed guards as I entered public buildings, and witnessed none of the fear and paranoia that seemed so common in 1989. And all this was still weeks before the announcement by the I.R.A. that it was renouncing all use of violence, the most significant step in the peace process since the 1994 cease-fire - giving even more hope to the locals that the violence of the city's past might one day be a distant memory. (One thing hadn't changed, however: there were still no lockers at the train station.)

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Friday, August 19, 2005

Second loss....

For the second time in a month, the UK suffered the loss of one of its more interesting politicos. Mo Mowlam's legacy is signficant for her work in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s, as the tributes from Clinton, Mitchell and others highlight. From the stories I heard about her during my time in Belfast, it is obvious that those statements are more than mere formalities.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Life in Northern Ireland....

I got myself in a bit of a critical exchange with Scott from Brooklyn who was taken aback by the comments I made to a local reporter in New Jersey who was asking about conditions in Northern Ireland.

The occasion for the story (published August 9 in the Bergan County Herald News) was a court hearing involving whether to grant asylum to Malachy McAllister, a former member of the Irish National Liberation Army who was convicted in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s for his paramilitary activities. The details of the McAllister case are posted here and here, and it seems to me that that nothing much is to be gained by the US deporting Mr. McAllister, especially after his wife (now deceased) and children were granted asylum by the courts already.

As for my comments, they related to current conditions in Northern Ireland, and nothing more. I realize that Northern Ireland is not heaven, and that there are still quite a few examples of violence that can be linked one way or another to past sectarian conflicts. Scott pointed out that "there are thousands of sectarian attacks each year in Northern Ireland, documented in the daily press and by the Pat FInucane Centre (". Yes, there are many incidents -- although I would think the term "thousands" seems a bit of an exaggeration; I suspect that almost any item on the PSNI police blotter can somehow be attributed to sectarianism. And the Finucane center certainly does a great service in tracking and highlighting many real and potential incidents (although most of their resources are appropriately devoted to tracking and seeking justice for past criminal acts).

But the impression that Belfast is a war zone, or that hit squads from either side of the sectarian divide are roaming the streets seeking revenge for past crimes, is just plain fantasy, and perpetuating that image serves no one's interest.

Belfast is, quite frankly, a heck of a lot more livable and less scary than many American cities. Yes, there are nieghborhoods I would not walk alone in at night -- and I know from my acquaintances that there are some norms that govern whether folks from one area would walk into the pubs in another area. But this is life in any urban area where current or past tensions still linger.

Scott also noted that he had just come back from Derry, and according to him, he and his wife "could indeed tell that there were any troubles at all". I don't doubt that, especially this time of year when the tension of the annual "marching season" reaches that part of the region (in Belfast it is the week of July 12). Sorry to say, all this is the residual of the Troubles, and it will probably linger on for years. But no one I met in Northern Ireland would compare this to past circumstances, just as no one in LA's Watts section or in Newark would compare the intermittent confrontations of this summer with those of the past. (In fact, in Watts they actually hold a Watts Festival to mark the anniversary of the worse riots....)

All I would suggest to Scott and others is that they visit Belfasst and other parts of Northern Ireland during the fall or spring and experience the daily life there. Yes, take the Black taxi tour and let the driver show you the murals and tell you of all his near escapes and dangers -- enjoy the show, but also notice how friendly everyone is, how the normal pace of life goes on along Falls Road, in Shankill and in City Centre on any business day. Stay a bit and enjoy the reality of Northern Ireland -- I think you will find it pretty near normal....

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Thursday, August 11, 2005


A few posts ago I spoke of Ignatieff's "Virtual War" and the questions it raised about how (at least in 1999) the nature of war seemed to be undergoing a significant -- and morally challenging -- change. The greatest concern was the extent to which modern technology was eliminating the human contact factor in warfare -- at least for those on one side of the battlefield.

The post-9/11 wars (on terror and in Afghanistan and Iraq), however, have proven to be very real. And as John Hockenberry's piece on 'miliblogs' in the current issues of Wired Magazine makes clear, technology is having quite the opposite effect by making personal reflections on combat almost widely accessible and almost instantaneous.

An interesting piece....

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Press 2 for authenticity...

The American (HBO) TV series "Six Feet Under" is coming to an end in a couple of weeks, although in an odd twist (perhaps not so odd for this bizarre series) the main character (Nate Fisher) has already died and been "put to rest" (so to speak). The most recent episode was devoted to Nate's funeral/burial and all the reactions to it -- and it was unique enough to draw the comments and analysis of a New York Times writer (Virginia Heffernan) who used the opportunity to reflect on the relevance of Lionel Trilling's distinction and tension between "sincerity" and "authenticity" in American culture.

A colleague and I got around to discussing this point this morning as it relates to the growing number of automated voice response systems we confront in our lives. This may seem a bit of a stretch, but bear with me....

As one who appreciates and leans more toward "authenticity," I am driven a bit mad by the tone, pace and falseness of the "sincerity" that all these systems promote. Each time I hear those syrupy scripted recorded voices, I am ready to toss my phone against the wall (good thing I am on beta blockers -- it is enough to give me another heart attack...). If I am lucky, the system provides an 'opt out' choice early in the process ("...or say 'operator' for assistance"), but more often than not I am left to circumnavigate the multiple menus for several minutes longer than would be necessary if there was a live operator on the other end to begin with.

As if it isn't bad enough that I have to contend with this computerized sincerity when I call my bank or health insurance, I now have to listen to it when I ring up colleagues. I even have a version of it in my car which has a GPS navigation system that talks you through your trip in the most sincere voice they could find for such things (from what I understand, a good deal of research went into developing the optimal voice for these systems....). Every once in awhile I would like to hear "Vona" (the name we've given to that sweet female voice -- short for 'voice navigation') say "Damn it, I told you to turn right, schmuck!"

We came up with the obvious solution to this problem, and it would be relateively costless.

Just as the current systems now offer you language options at the start of most calls ("For instructions in English, press one..."; my car's navigation system gives the option of French or Anglish when turning on the vehicle), why not install an option allowing for the caller/user to chose between sappy 'sincerity' and good old 'authenticity' for directions or instructions. If you select sincerity, you get the current pleasant, 'have a nice day' banter that can make you feel better while trying to get to someone who can (supposedly) solve your problem, answer your question, or deal with your complaint.

But if you don't want to put up with all that nice-ness and want to get right to the point, just "press 2 for authenticity...." And if doing so does not lead directly to some live operator you can yell at -- and who is not allowed to apologize, and who would be allowed to "authentically" tell you to take a flying leap -- then the recording you get should be an honest and forthright statement about how the institution you are calling really feels about being bothered by all these silly complaints and requests....

I think we might seek a patent on that....

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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Narratives in a post-9/11 world....

Reading the respective books sections from this week's Guradian (UK) and New York Times, I was struck by the prominence of the "fiction/nonfiction" debate that has obviously been percolating close to the surface for awhile among writers and critics.

In its most extreme form, the issue is whether fiction (particularly the novel) is being "overtaken" -- i.e., made increasingly irrelevant -- by nonfiction and the narratives of reality we see in print and (heaven help us) on TV. Leading the charge on this point is V.S. Naipaul, a writer who engages quite successfully on both sides of that fiction/nonfiction line. As it happens, Naipaul was profiled in the NY Times this week, and the author of the profile, Rachel Donadio, penned an essay focusing on the issue. In her essay, Donadio highlights the evidence that Naipaul's sense of the decline of the fictional form is widely shared among editors and publishers who are devoting more publication space (in magazines) and resources (in choice of books to publish) to nonfiction. She adds fuel to the argument by contending that with one notable exception, fiction writers have just not been able to meet the needs of readers in a post-9/11 world by capturing the sense of these traumatic times.

Turning to the Guardian (actually the Sunday Observer), one finds a featured essay by Jason Cowley that makes just the opposite argument, noting that this year's crop of Booker Prize "longlist" titles is proof positive that fiction writing is alive and well and meeting the post-9/11 challenge. (I especially like the Philip Roth quote...)

I point this out not because I've read any of the referred to titles (although I have read about several of the titles, and I am tempted by a couple), but because I am in the midst of considering the pros and cons of using different types of narratives and genres in my fall ethics course, and this debate among the critics has me thinking about how people relate to different types of narratives.

And that will be the topic for a followup post....

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One Cook too few....

American political science is filled with anglophiles, and I count myself among that group -- especially after my two year stay in Northern Ireland and the resulting exposure I had to the UK media. While part of the atttraction to things "anglo" is rooted in our discipline's (and country's) genetic attachment to British political institutions, there is also something quite admirable about the quality of the politicians who emerge through the UK party system. Articulate and thoughtful for the most part, they put our political elite to shame when it comes to sheer rhetorical talent. The politically informed in the UK, of course, are less impressed than we with most of their leaders, and they have a difficult time understnading why Americans are so taken with the likes of Tony Blair.

I bring this up because on Saturday the British lost one of the truly exemplary politicians of the current era, Robin Cook. Cook died on an outing in Scotland -- actually while walking near the summit of Ben Stack.

He was a controversial figure whose private life became the subject of scandal awhile back; but he remained nevertheless a highly visible member of Labour who once served as Foreign Minister and leader of the Commons -- a post he resigned in protest of the Blair government's decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.

That all happened before I even got to Northern Ireland, but there was rarely a week that went by over the past two years that did not include some comment or commentary by Mr. Cook on some issue or other. His OpEds often made headlines, and he was somewhat of a celebrity who would pop up on the tellie or in some of the more frivolous articles (e.g., during the last election he ocntributed a piece on what kind of car a Labour MP should be driving...).

As more or less the vocal spokesperson for the Labour backbenchers, he was not shy about expressing his opinions and the media obviously sought him out on every occasion they could. Despite being blessed with the stature of a garden gnome figure (or perhaps because of it), he developed into a surprisingly telegenic personality. It is unlikely that he would have ever had another shot at a leadership position in Labour -- his time had passed as Blair and Brown took center stage in the early 1990s -- but the future of Labour will certainly be different without his presence....

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Friday, August 05, 2005

Enough said....

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Virtual and real wars....

In an example of a brilliant analysis that was badly timed, back in 2000 Michael Ignatieff published an interesting analysis of the brief Kosovo conflict under the title "Virtual War". Had the events of 9/11 not completely altered the world scene, his assessment of future wars would probably be regarded as prescient.

I am intrigued by Ignatieff as an intellectual figure, especially since reading The Lesser Evil (which was the subject of an earlier blog post here) and even moreso since his name has emerged as a possible future Canadian PM under the Liberal Party banner. And it is a pity that his work on the dangers of "virtual war" is now relegated to the "bargain book bin", because the important lessons he put forward in that pre-9/11 world are in fact quite relevant to the current conduct of the "real war" going on in Iraq.

Ignatieff's major point, to summarize it much too simply, is that from the perspective of the US, the actions of the US and NATO in Serbia and Kosovo in 1999 amounted to a "good war" because it was essentially and effectively "virtual" for those who fought on our side. While the benefits of virtual warfare seem great -- few, if any, of our combatants are put at serious risk while considerable fear and losses are visited upon the enemy (notably the civilian population rather than the actual military forces of the enemy) -- there is a high moral cost to be paid as we lose connection with the real world consequences of war and the unavoidable suffering that war causes.

I bring this up because we seem to entering a period when the real nature of the Iraq war is increasingly intruding on the American consciousness. In recent days the death toll of US Marines killed has been exceptionally high, and the fact that the most recent casualties pushed the total of US military killed to over 1800 added to the sense that it might not be possible to keep our collective sense of "distance" from what we have wrought there.

I suspect we are by nature a people prone to obliviousness, especially when the reality is too hard to fathom. But I think something else is at work as well, for what seems to constantly trump the reality of Iraq is the incessant replaying -- in various contexts at various times -- of the images of the events of 9/11. The reality of collapse of the Twin Towers seems to become more vivid with each showing -- and the anxiety of Americans that the potential for additional 9/11s provide the rationale for feigning indifference about the daily violence in Baghdad and its environs. But the body counts are growing, and news of 14 Marines killed one day, and eight the next, will surely provide the kind of "reality check" that Ignatieff argues is necessary for the health of a world in which virtual wars are possible.

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Worthless -- in a fascinating sort of way....

In case you haven't noticed, I added a little feature to the sidebar that links to the "Worthless Word of the Day" (wwtd) site -- something I stumbled across while looking up some such term. After reading a few of the entries I was hooked -- and decided it was worth included such worthless material on the blog.

Today's top two in the box (if they are still visible) are "logofascinated" and "arghness". One of the unplanned consequences of the way that box is situated is that what is visible at first is just enough information to permit a few seconds of "guessing" what the term might mean -- and then clicking to find out just how wrong you are. When I first saw "logofascinated" for example, I thought this was some creation of the folks in the advertising world who come up with things like "cool hunters" and "tipping points". But as it turns out there are two surprises -- the term means exactly what it says (fascinated by words) and its referenced use was from 1642! Fascinating....

And when I first saw "arghness" I was certain this is a term generated by some Simpsons fan to reflect a condition associated with young Bart's common reaction to just about anything. Here again, however, a bit of a surprise -- the word means cowardice, and truly is obscure -- and worthless....

I guess my interest in such things reflects a logofascination....

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Globe OpEd on Northern Ireland....

An thoughtful OpEd in the Boston Globe this morning by THERESE MCKENNA of the Irish News is worth a read....

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