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annual report, 2008-9

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I think it’s time for another annual update, though I doubt that this one will be shorter than the last. The “shock of the new” has worn off, somewhat, and there have been fewer surprises. It hasn’t been a boring year, however.

university

The second year at University College Dublin (UCD) did not go quite as well as the first, but I’m still on track for a solid 2.1 degree, a.k.a. “Second Class Honours, Grade I” in B.Sc Structural Engineering with Architecture. A “First” is a little beyond me, since it requires excellent results on all subjects, and I don’t see that happening. In some subjects – not all – I’m running in to problems with the teaching and assessment methods.

My grade point average (GPA) was dragged down by two subjects in the second semester: in one, Theory of Structures, I enjoyed the lectures very much, and did well in tutorials etc., but when it came to the exam, I found that I could not remember every procedure and every formula. So much of it was empirical in nature, derived from experiment and not from first principles, so there was nothing “behind” most formulae for me to hang on to.

In another subject, Statistics, the problem was that the lecturing was frankly poor, with the lecturer often late and wasting time on silly things. He seemed to expect the students to be computers, remembering random pieces of information from his and other subjects. When no-one gave an instant answer to an integration problem (from calculus), the result was a 20-minute rant on how we were not trying hard enough. As if that was not bad enough, I found that Statistics affected me like no other subject ever has: an overwhelming, enervating, sense of “I don’t care”. I know that some of it is relevant to my future – I was already aware of some parts – but I could not help thinking that most of it was not, and I may never see any of it ever again.

In particular, I’m getting more frustrated with examinations. For most courses in my programme, I think it does not make sense to have the whole course depend on what I can cram in to my head and regurgitate on to paper, by hand, in a room filled with students, in a two-hour period. You end up studying to pass the exam, not to further your understanding of the subject – though you would expect those two goals to overlap. The degree to which this applied depended on the subject, an in one subject in particular, there was no exam, and the entire course was based on continuous assessment, i.e. assignments.

If this was happening in every subject, I would start to suspect that the problems lay primarily with me, but a few other subjects showed me just how good it can be. In Mechanics of Solids, the lecturer was excellent, focusing primarily on actual problems and not on abstract theory. The assignments were challenging but doable, and the exam fell in to place nicely, leaving me with a solid A-.

In my past work experience, the standard of work we had to produce meant that it was always necessary to check sources, and use whatever resources and tools were available to us, and not try to do it all from our heads with pen and paper. I do not expect my future to be much different: rather than using my head to store information, it will be used to process information in to knowledge, and (hopefully) wisdom. I thought about drawing a “wisdom pyramid” to illustrate what I mean, but a quick internet search shows that many are thinking along the same lines. The diagram to the right is courtesy of the Institute for Innovation & Information Productivity (IIIP).

At this stage in my degree programme, UCD seems to be expecting me to operate at the lower levels, wasting energy that could be better spent on a deeper understanding of the subject. It looks as if I that will have to wait for the Master’s years – if I can afford them.

health

The only thing to report on this front is that I’ve passed the end of the two year trial of FTY720, and am now on the extension phase of the trial. In this phase, I’m definitely on the drug – no more placebos – but I’m not being told what the actual dose is. I should soon be told what I was on in the first two years of the trial.

With multiple sclerosis (MS), the symptoms can be highly variable, and dependent on factors other than the MS itself. It changes how your body reacts to certain stimuli and situations; for example, I have been warned against extreme heat, a warning I definitely violated this past summer (which I will say more about later). In general, though, I can consider the situation well under control.

There are certain constants in my case: the L’Hermitte’s Sign in my neck can be considered a marker of permanent spinal cord damage: I can not bend my head forward without tingles shooting down to my feet. The severity varies: it’s worse when I am tired, but also first thing in the morning, after my spine stretches during sleep.

Some things vary, such as my memory performance, which partly let me down during the last university exams. I do experience fatigue, but it doesn’t just happen: I don’t get tired if I don’t do anything, but when I do things, I get more tired than I used to, and more quickly. I can still walk miles a day, but I feel the effects more. Still, this is turning out to be a very manageable condition.

summer

After a few attempts at finding work, I could see that the employment situation here in Ireland is such that I need not bother. Where there are openings, they are being bombarded with applications, with the result that you need to be a perfect match to the position, complete with plenty of relevant experience. (I saw reports of a thousand applications being received for one simple temporary teaching post.) At this in-between stage in my study, with only summers free, I am not a fit to any job at all.

May was largely taken up by university exams; June by preparations to move house – again – and the move itself. My new place is closer to the university in general, and much closer to the parts of the university I will be visiting the most, specifically the Civil Engineering department. July was a quiet month of settling in, with several hospital visits associated with switch to the FTY720 extension trial. Finally, August arrived.

On the last day of July I flew to Houston, Texas, to visit old friends of mine, staying in their house about 50km north for four weeks. The daytime temperatures rarely went below 30°C, usually exceeding 35°C, which explains why everything is air-conditioned. I think the kids were pleased to see me: there are photos of me, on the couch, with all three of them on top of me (a classic dogpile). We visited Johnson Space Centre, including Mission Control, had a good steak dinner, and even got to go to a baseball game. (The Houston Astros beat the Florida Marlins 4-1.)

My interests in architecture and cities meant that I really wanted to see downtown Houston too, which took some doing. My friends live in a different county, out where the Houston Metro buses don’t run, so the best way to do it was to travel to my friend’s office, which was closer, and get the buses from there. The service was surprisingly good: the buses weren’t that regular, but they did run to schedule, so you could plan the trip. best of all: a trip costs just $1.25, including a free 2-hour transfer if you use a smart card, which I did.

The scale of Houston made it slightly daunting to someone on foot, in that heat, but after a little research and familiarization, I found Houston scored highly on my “friendly city” criteria: you could tell where you were and where you were going, things worked as advertised, and it was possible to leave the map in the pocket and navigate by intelligent guesswork. The downtown area features a network of tunnels linking the various buildings, complete with coffee shops and restaurants; these cater to office workers, mostly closing by 3PM. Up on the street, though, the locals suffering the heat presented the other side of Houston: largely Hispanic or African-American, and clearly impoverished, some apparently refugees from New Orleans.

One pleasant surprise: it was possible to walk straight in to the tallest building in Houston, the Chase Tower, and take an elevator to the Sky Lobby on the 60th floor: no cost, no formalities of any sort, just an elevator that makes your ears pop. I also paid a visit to the Museum of Fine Art, wandered through a wall-to-wall Who’s Who of Impressionism, and found myself standing in a room holding seven Picasso pieces. The place was nearly empty, even though it was Free Thursday.

Back in Dublin, I’m preparing to start university again on Monday, though I’ve already been back there several times. I’m involved with the Mature Student Society there, and helped out on the orientation day last weekend, giving a short speech about my experiences and motivations. I still find it easier to speak in public than in private, for some strange reason.

technology

The Asus eee PC 1000 is still going strong, running the Ubuntu Linux Netbook Remix. It survived the trip to the USA with flying colours, and over the last year, about the only problems it’s experienced have been those I caused myself. In the university library it’s kept me typing for over five hours at a stretch.

My Houston friends gave me a parting gift, in the form of an Apple iPod Touch (8GB). I wouldn’t normally buy any Apple products, due to their corporate policies (DRM, lock-in, the walled garden, etc.), but this is turning out to be extremely interesting. It’s a very good MP3 player, but I didn’t know it had wireless networking, email capability, and more. It’s basically an iPhone without the phone, which coincides nicely with my current plans to cancel my current mobile phone account. (I’ve been overcharged by my current provider, and I’ve had enough.)

The applications are also very interesting. For example, I’ve found a version of the Ilium eWallet software I’ve used for years, for storing passwords and other sensitive information. There’s also a version of Skype, as well as some interesting games, such as Jelly Car and iMafia III. It’s only been about ten days at this time, so I’m still getting used to the iPod.

conclusion

Another year, another birthday, another 60 credits, another step closer to  … what? I ended the previous annual report with a hope that the world wouldn’t fall apart under my feet, and look at what happened. I was expecting a housing market crash, but I was not expecting such a monumental balls-up. Never mind sub-prime mortgages, I had much more to learn about insurance, derivatives, and the dreaded Credit Default Swap. Still, it could be worse: I seem to have picked a good time to be absent from the job market and living a low-income, low-expenditure lifestyle. I’m having health checks and receiving MS therapy at no cost to me, and I even had enough slack, financially, to afford a trip to the USA, so I have to say that life is pretty good. I think it’s time to put this report to bed, and follow it there. Until next year, good night.

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Written by brian t

September 6, 2009 at 1:47 am

op-ed: the intelligences of america

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I have hope: hope that Barack Obama is a liar.

By this I mean: I hope he has misrepresented himself, and his agenda, to the American people. The most obvious deception is in his platform of social reforms, reforms that garnered him the support of the working classes (which do still exist), but can not be paid for out of current funds. I don’t place much credence in the accusations of “socialism” that were tossed in his direction near the end of the campaign; despite the current financial crisis, money still talks. Banks have gone to the government for support, but the richest individuals in the USA are in no such difficulties, and will not permit explicit socialism to take hold.

A less obvious deception was the way Obama gained support from African-Americans, since a subtle distinction exists: he is not an African-American in the sense used by other African-Americans. His mother was a white lady from Hawaii, while his father was an immigrant from Kenya. Barack has no historic connection with Slavery, and no experience with the Civil Rights struggle. Was he justified in this deception? I think so; the alternative was yet another old white man as President.

The challenges facing President-Elect Obama are large, there are many of them, and they all require money. You can do most things if you are willing and able to throw money at a problem, but the money is not currently for the throwing. The baby Boom generation are aging, and the Medicare and Social Security bills are staggering. The cost of the military has to come down, both the direct costs (funding of the Iraq War and other adventures) and indirect costs (research and procurement). Obama’s stated policies do not talk about reducing these costs. There seems to be a temporary lull in the ongoing energy crisis, but it will be back. The Environment? Ouch.

During his Presidential campaign, Obama was occasionally accused of being an Elitist by the McCain camp, who portrayed their candidate as “the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with”. The Democrat candidate was a university professor, for Heaven’s sake – one of those lily-livered Liberals who only talk to each other, and don’t really understand what “the people” go through.

If the Republican campaign was appealing to “the people”, what was the Democratic campaign appealing to? Why, “the people”, of course. They just did it in a slightly different way and, it turns out, more effectively. Here’s where I have a problem, however: when it comes to politics, “the people” are stupid. I’m not talking about a lack of the kind of intelligence measured by IQ tests; there are many kinds of intelligence, not all of which are easily measured.

In addition to the kinds of scientific intelligence that the tests measure, there’s “Emotional Intelligence”, which I’m not sure I believe in. (A lot of people do, so it hardly matters what I think!) I could say the same about “Social Intelligence”, the kinds of inter-personal and group-related skills that hold communities together and allow them to operate effectively. The kind of intelligence that concerns me most, however, is what I call “Temporal Intelligence” (TI): the ability to look backwards and forwards in time. It is a trait that is in short supply, in my opinion, and not just in the USA. A low TI rating implies, among other things, a failure to imagine the future impacts of current actions. Unprotected sex today leads to pregnancy and STDs in the future; saving money today means more money tomorrow, but if you take on debt today, you must repay it in the future. You sign a 30-year mortgage, but do you know how long 30 years is, and can you imagine where you will be by then?

What does this have to do with the Election in the USA? My theory is this: to get elected, Obama had to appeal to the short-term interests of the electorate. Today we hear “Yes We Can!”, but will we hear “Yes We Will!” tomorrow, or next year? By the end of Obama’s term(s) in office, will we hear “Yes We Did!” just as loudly and frequently?

That will be the real test of his presidency. Those problems I mentioned are long-term problems with no quick fixes. If Obama has two terms in office, the work will not be completed by the end of those eight years; they may be just barely under way. This will not sit well with an electorate with short attention spans. “The People” are the ones who thought that taking out larger and larger mortgages on their overpriced homes was a viable financial strategy – which it might have been, in the short term, but can never be, in the long term. I simply do not trust voters – in the USA or elsewhere – to find, and hold, a solid grasp on the real long-term issues.

In other words, I hope that Barack Obama is (or becomes) a real Politician, someone smart enough to know what really needs to be done, or to listen to those who do know, and then to lie to the American people while seeing that it is done. The ability to carry off such a mass deception is the mark of a politician, or a diplomat; it is not a job for a “man of the people”. It is a job for an Elite Politician, someone much smarter than “the people”, and it appears that the people of the United States of America just elected one as President. This is where the Hope comes in.

It is possible that I am not giving the American people enough credit, or failing to correctly measure the cumulative effects of their various intelligences. It would be better if people were always fully informed and aware, and always acted in their own best interests, but I do not expect to see that happen outside Science Fiction. As for John McCain; you may get the chance to enjoy a beer with him after all. He’ll have plenty of time on his hands, and moderate alcohol intake can have a beneficial effect on heart conditions.

Written by brian t

November 5, 2008 at 5:33 pm

annual report, 2007-8

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Hello again. It’s exactly a year since I wound up the blogging, and a good thing too. What few readers I had would have been bored senseless, had I tried to describe the few events of the past year. I can probably summarize everything that actually happened in a few paragraphs – so let’s see how that goes, shall we?

university

I finished First Year with only minor problems, passing all 12 courses I had: six exams in December, and six in May, for 60 credits and 1/3 of a B.Sc degree. Each involved sitting in a shed, usually with over two thousand other students, all fighting to keep their brains oxygenated. However, I have noticed that there’s an awful lot of rote memorisation involved, which I am having some difficulty with. I had to cram like crazy for the Architecture exam, which was basically a case of dumping my brain on to the paper. I’m amazed I scored a B- on that one, with the amount of nonsense I spouted. (I now know where the Monadnock Building got its name –  as if I care.)

It was even true of Maths, which I was not expecting: we’re being expected to memorise long algorithmic sequences of operations, going in to far too much detail for an Engineering curriculum (in my opinion). Where are the Engineering applications that we were promised? Still, I didn’t help matters by skipping all tutorials in the second semester: I got very little out of those in the first semester, and attending the ones in the second semester would have required me to hang around the campus for six hours of nothing.

Second year starts in just over a week, and I’m raring to go, even more so than last year. It’s partly because more of the work is relevant to the degree, unlike the first semester. As for the Maths… well, at least I can see the hill I have to climb. This semester it’s Partial Differential Equations mixed with more Matrices, so I’ll have the pleasure of learning how to calculate the Curl of a Vector Field and more. I can actually see how those relate to Engineering, which is a change for the better.

summer

My new-found enthusiasm is also related to boredom, since summer has been a dead loss here. It’s been one long procession of apathy; not mine, but that of others towards me: job applications going unanswered, and silence from people who’d normally keep me updated on how they’re doing, including former work colleagues. I’m still looking for a flatmate, and replied to a dozen “room wanted” ads: nearly all fell on dead keyboards.

You know you’re turning in to a grumpy old man when you find yourself saying “it wasn’t like that when I was young”: it is common courtesy to reply to correspondence with something, even if it’s a “no”. It’s doubly annoying when you consider how trivial it is, these days: if you receive 100 applications for a job, it’s the work of a few minutes to paste 99 email addresses in the BCC field, and add a few lines of “get bent” boilerplate. Right?

So, I’ve been spending the time reading, computing, writing a bit, got a provisional driving license, and I even did my taxes. As on the previous occasions I tackled the full tax returns, I expected difficulties or disagreement about my figures, and on this occasion the result was also the same as before: no problems at all. This time around it meant a fairly hefty refund, and I received a cheque in the post.

technology

That refund was very welcome to a student with no job, and part of it went on a new laptop, my first for six years, which I can also call a belated 40th birthday present. (My birthday fell in the middle of the May “cram week”, just before the exams.) I plumped for a black ASUS eee PC 1000, the slightly larger version of the ground-breaking “netbook” that took the computing world by storm in 2007. This one is larger externally and internally, with a 10-inch screen, 40GB solid state hard drive (compared to the original 4GB), and a keyboard more suited to adult hands. It’s still much lighter than a typical textbook.

The power-efficient Intel Atom processor and larger battery have already given me over five hours of continuous use, which I know how to improve on by turning things off. It’s not as powerful as the commodity 15-inch laptop I could have had for the same price, but more than powerful enough as long as I don’t try to run Windows Vista on it. Solid state drives are still more expensive, but more reliable and quicker to respond (if not necessarily faster on bulk data transfers). This netbook is more suited to use in lectures or in the library: small, discreet, and dead quiet.

Not much else has happened in the technology area. My HTC S620 cellphone is heading for the two-year mark, still working perfectly, and even looks almost as good as new. Even the battery, the part that is expected to degrade over time, is failing to give me any trouble whatsoever, and synchronisation is still painless compared to the Nokia I had before this.

health

Another “highlight” of my July was a repeat of a “highlight” from January: the six- and twelve-month checkups in the FTY720 trial. These were full workups, including the usual pulmonary function tests (PFTs), optical coherence tomography (OCT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. I’m definitely getting better at the last mentioned, which came in handy in July when I was called back for additional scans. The drug company asked for some specific protocols that forced the MRI technicians to get the manuals out, swap bits around on the machine, and call a doctor down to inject me with some non-standard contrast-enhancing gunk. I just zoned out, lay back, and thought of Scotland, as Tesla’s Tumble-dryer tossed me around and spat me out.

Halfway through the two years, it’s hard to say whether I’m on the trial medication or not, which is a good thing, since I am supposed to be “blinded” to counteract he placebo effect. One danger is that the other supplements I’m taking – including Vitamin D – are a factor in my generally good health. Oh well. I mustn’t get cocky, and think I have the MS totally under control; if I do, it might come back and bite me on the bum, just as it did 18 months ago, after I returned from Denver.

conclusion

OK: it took more than a few paragraphs; this report is now well over a thousand words long. I’ll have another thousand words next year, give-or-take a thousand. I may also publish a 900-word short story I wrote a month ago, for the Writer’s Weekly 24-hour contest: if I win or place, they’ll publish it themselves, of course; that’s not likely to happen, even though this one was a substantial improvement on my first attempt.

While not much is happening here, plenty is going on outside: back in 2006 I commented on how house prices were soaring far beyond the ability of people to pay for them, and predicted “this can’t go on”: it hasn’t gone on. I hate to say “I told you so”… who am I kidding? I told you so. I’m looking forward to the day when houses and flats are no longer investments you can use to make money off other people, and revert to their traditional status: homes for people to live in.

Tonight, however, homes are under threat, but not just any random homes: the same New Orleans homes that felt Katrina’s hangover, almost exactly three years ago, might be side-swiped by Gustav in about twelve hours time. With just over two months to go before the US Elections, that country looks like a packed bus heading for a brick wall: the rest of the world can only observe, in morbid fascination, while two lousy drivers fight each other for the wheel.

Elsewhere… never mind. Between Russia, religious nutters, energy crises, terrorism, Ludditism, an Internet full of crap, poverty and overpopulation: this world is not one I recognise, or would want to. Nothing new there, then: I have plenty to do in the next two years, which may stretch to four (if I can do a Master’s degree); I’m not asking much, just that the world doesn’t collapse under my feet, while I take some time out of the rat race, and try and build myself a life I can live with.

Written by brian t

September 1, 2008 at 1:45 am

Posted in life, study

season’s close

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Earlier this evening, I walked out of the office after my last day as an employee in the IT industry. For now, at least, and for good if I have any control over my future. We had our “official” send-off in the pub two weeks ago, so today there was no fanfare, no send-off beyond a few handshakes, and electronic well-wishes from half-a-dozen time zones. That was how I wanted it; in most senses but the physical, I left long ago.

Tomorrow is the first day of orientation at University College Dublin, a day dedicated to we “mature students”. The main orientation starts on Monday, but I will not be involved until Thursday and Friday next week. The few days off were a welcome surprise that will come in handy. On the Monday after that, the real work starts; in the first year, my main worry is the Maths, since in my last years of school, the introduction of Calculus sent my marks in to a downward trend from A+ to B-. The same was not true of Physics and Chemistry, which I enjoyed all the way to my final A, and which forms a smaller part of my course.

The other side of the course is creative; it is a mixture of Engineering and Design, with the prospect of something more than mere numbers at the end of it. Outside the class, I’m looking for creativity in other fields too, and intend to get back in to playing music after too long away. I ordered a new Tune 4-string bass from Germany, earlier this week, a demo model at a knockdown price: I guess an amplifier is next: something portable.

I don’t expect to escape computers altogether, and I would not want to: I know they will be part of my future studies and work. If anything, not having to deal with a multitude of computer problems may rekindle some of my old enthusiasm for using them in creative ways, but I want and intend to live and work in the real world, once the studies are done. What I am leaving behind is the idea of computing for computing’s sake. Blogging is one example: it used to mean something, to me at least, but those days are over.

If a hunter shoots his gun in the forest, but there’s no-one there to hear it, did it really go off? In the real world, you can go and look at the hole in the squirrel tree, and you have the evidence that the gunshot really happened, and there were consequences. In writing this blog, I’ve been a poor hunter in a virtual forest, taking potshots at tempting targets, and never knowing if I actually hit anything. Today’s bloggers are more focused on a particular target; they know what they are doing out here, and wear better-fitting armour, but they are not much better at leaving holes in the real world.

As a hunting season ends when the majority of the hunter’s prey has migrated to warmer climes, my blogging season is now over; my reasons to be out here, in the chilly virtual evening, have flown away, so I am packing up my weapons and taking them home. There’s not much in my swag bag, but I did not go hungry. My pantry is well-stocked for the winter, and that will suffice. If a new season comes, will I step outside again, blunderbuss over my shoulder? I don’t know; that, too, must suffice.

Written by brian t

August 31, 2007 at 11:59 pm

Posted in blogging, internet, life

wind-up or wind-down?

with one comment

giving up blogging - © hugh macleod 2006 A while ago I stated my intention to stop blogging, as soon as I started university. That eventuality is now one week away, and I still intend to go through with it. I’m viewing this move as one step in a larger set of life changes, nearly all of which have been under my control.

It’s well over 5 years since I started blogging, and I’ve seen it develop from a niche activity to a web standard. A process of commercialization is already under way, even if it is not obvious from a superficial standpoint. This is understandable in purely economic terms: anything with mass popularity will be ripe for commercial exploitation.

This blog is hosted by wordpress.com, which was set up as a host for the WordPress “content management” software developed by the same multinational team. It does not charge users for a basic account. They do charge for extras, such as extra storage space or (in my case) the use of my own top-level domain, but these are genuine extras, and I don’t know if they are big cash cows for the developers. I get the impression they are still doing this because they can, not purely for commercial gain, even though the costs of running wordpress.com must be somewhere between “stupendous” and “horrendous”.

Will we see “professional bloggers”? In some senses, we already have them. Blogs, and comments on them, are major weapons in the arsenal of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) executives. We also have technology journalists and podcasters such as Robert Scoble and Adam Curry using these media to further their careers, even if stardom is not quite what they want. Me? I just enjoy writing, and found this blog a useful platform for stories about myself, my activities, and anything else that interested me.

Where I am going – for the next three years, at least – I will have plenty to write about, with little or none of it about me. In the remaining week, I may post a little more about the changes ahead of me, or I may not: they are not that exciting or unusual, and not all are guaranteed to take place. For now, I’ll resist the temptation to quote from Turn, Turn, Turn (by The Byrds), and enjoy the Debussy on the BBC Proms broadcast. This must be what old men get up to on Saturday nights.

Written by brian t

August 25, 2007 at 8:43 pm

Posted in blogging, internet, web 2.0

race of tralee

with 11 comments

It’s happening again: every year, the town of Tralee (co. Kerry) holds its annual Rose Of Tralee festival. Before I say anything else about it, I first want to quote what the official website I just linked to has to say about the festival:

The Rose of Tralee International Festival celebrates modern young women in terms of their aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage.

The official application form gives the following as one of the eligibility criteria:

Be born in Ireland or of Irish origin by virtue of one of her ancestors having been born in Ireland.

Am I the only person in Ireland who finds this just a little disturbing?

Reading between the lines, I see a claim of racial superiority: to be of ethnic Irish origin is something to be proud of, and celebrated. I had a hopeful suspicion that I might be wrong about this, and in previous years there may have been more ethnic diversity, but looking at this year’s International Roses was not reassuring. Each girl’s blurb details her county or counties of origin, and explains her surname when it is not obviously Irish. The hair colours were varied, but that was about all. They all just love Irish dancing, of course – at least the ones I looked at.

This is not some obscure provincial festival: for the next week or so the Rose of Tralee festival gets prime time coverage on RTÉ1, the main channel of the state broadcaster. (This is the same broadcaster who charges a license fee and shows advertising.)

In case it wasn’t obvious: I live in Ireland, but I’m not Irish. I’m Scottish, and knowing a bit of Scots history, that means there’s a fair chance that I have some “Irish blood” in me. I would not be concerned about that, however, mainly because I know there’s no such thing as “Irish blood”: Ireland was but one stop on a longer Celtic ancestral trail that goes back to Africa, possibly via ancient Egypt. “Irish origin” is, to be blunt, a transient delusion in historical terms.

More importantly, I don’t place much stock in one’s ethnic origin, not in this world of mass emigration and immigration. I’ve written before about my Scots heritage, which I identify as more of an attitude, or a way of viewing the world. It is the attitude that produced the Scottish Enlightenment, and I do not know or care whether David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns or James Watt were of “Scots origin”. I know that William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), was born in Ulster, but he made his home in Glasgow.

Why is it so laudable to be Irish? Wikipedia carries lists of Irish-Americans, created by its users. Everyone knows that John F Kennedy was of Irish Catholic stock – his father Joe made sure everyone knew – and the Irish papers are quick to latch on to any hint of Irishness in a celebrity. (It’s highly selective, naturally: legendary comedian Spike Milligan, and delinquent rock “star” Pete Doherty, were known as English with Irish parents, but which do you think has the Irish label attached in news reports?)

By way of contrast, how many Americans know that the steel magnate & philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, whose generosity established Carnegie Hall and Carnegie-Mellon University, was Scottish by birth? Heck, even fans of the TV show Dallas – a Scots name, just like Houston and Austin – failed to notice the Scots ancestry of the Ewing family, despite the fact that the family patriarch was nicknamed “Jock”.

I don’t see what the Irish have to be so smug about: the shadow of Tammany Hall still darkens the mayorship of New York, and when director Martin Scorsese shifted his focus to Boston, in The Departed, he found stories of Irish organized crime to rival the worst Mafia excesses.

I can understand the need to celebrate Irish culture. It’s this celebration of Irish ethnicity, of Celtic racial purity, that offends me, by what it is, and by the way it is seen as harmless. In my view it is representative of the Irish government’s institutional racism, which reflects a superiority complex that the Irish have exported to all corners of the globe. I simply don’t see what they are doing to justify it.

Written by brian t

August 21, 2007 at 11:38 pm

loan piranhas

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The word subprime is hitting world headlines today, as the cause of a global stock market “correction”. I subscribe to various news feeds related to economics, including those belonging to authors Tim Harford (FT), Bob Sutton, and the authors of Freakonomics., so I’ve been hearing the rumblings for some time now. Business Week did a very good article on it, back in March, which is online here. I’d like to give my take on the situation, which should be prefaced with the standard “I Am Not An Economist” disclaimer.

A subprime lender is a financial institution that offers loans to debtors who have poor credit records. They might not use the word subprime here in Europe, but we have them too: the kinds of companies that put ads on cable TV, offering credit to people who have been turned away by banks. These are people who need credit more than most: you get a poor credit record because you took out too much credit in the past, since “too much” is defined as the amount that you can’t pay back.

Unforeseen circumstances can turn a comfortable financial situation nasty, so it’s normal to have insurance of different kinds, to “smooth out” the financial impact of unforeseen events. In the USA, however, many poorer people have been hit hard by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, and can not afford health insurance in particular. The federal Medicare scheme is inadequate, covering only the very poorest, and a middle class family can be bankrupted by a single car crash, even if they have health insurance.

The result is that you have more subprime borrowers than before, and subprime lenders are created to cater to them. The added risk to the lender is handled primarily through the application of higher interest rates, which is a double-edged sword: those who pay higher interest are those who can least afford it, meaning they are at even higher risk of defaulting on their subprime loans.

If a loan is secured on property – a standard subprime loan requirement – the bank can foreclose on the property, leaving the lender out on the street. This is not a theoretical exaggeration: in the poorer parts of the USA, it is happening with disappointing regularity, and the frequency is growing.

Why, then, is the crisis in subprime lending having such a global impact? The most direct effect is due to the fact that the subprime lenders re-sell the loans (or derivatives) to other financial institutions, including some in the Far East and Europe. The third-party exposure is limited, however: to quote the Business Week article, “the buyers of the loans started exercising their right to sell the bad ones back to the lenders at face value. The true value of these delinquent or foreclosed loans was far less than face value, but the lenders were forced to swallow the difference.”

In other words, the subprime lenders are carrying the can. Even if they can foreclose, the debtors often have bankruptcy protection, and the lenders lose money in the foreclosure process, rarely getting back the full loan value.

Indirectly, people in financial distress are a relative burden on an economy, simply due to their reduced standard of living. Property prices are being affected, with lenders making less on foreclosure, and less on new mortgages. On a wider scale, property prices and mortgage lending are key economic indicators, and the indicators in the USA are not good; the property bubble, that got a lot of mortgagees in to trouble in the first place, is deflating. This is similar to what happened in the UK in the early Nineties: they called it Negative Equity.

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Written by brian t

August 10, 2007 at 6:16 pm

Posted in america, economics