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race of tralee

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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.

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Written by brian t

August 21, 2007 at 11:38 pm

top gear heads south

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The BBC TV show Top Gear has recently come in for some major criticism over a new “special”: a trip to the North Pole. The criticism has revolved around the environmental impact of driving three cars to the North Pole, especially if they leave their customary trail of parts behind them. If you haven’t seen the show, and don’t want to know what happened before you do, stop reading now: there are spoilers coming.

I’m prepared to overlook the environmental concerns, for the simple reason that the show is unlikely to inspire many more such jaunts: it was expensive, complex, and hardly easy on anyone involved, even those in the three cars. I came away with a general impression of “we did this, so you don’t have to, and we even got it on HD Video”.

After many scrapes, including one that required several parts and left a pool of diesel on the ice, the car with Clarkson and May got to the North Pole first, before Hammond’s dog sled (which he wasn’t driving). The truck needed a backup team of Icelanders to help them, who pulled off tricks such as re-inflating a tyre with a bottle of butane and a lighter. That’s alright, then isn’t it? It’s just TV, right? Not so fast.

I’m hardly a Geographic geek, but the shot of the truck arriving at the North Pole raised more questions. They showed the truck’s GPS screen hitting the mark: N78˚35’7” W104˚11’9”. The North Pole is at N90 latitude, of course, and all the Longitudes at once. What’s the difference? According to the Great Circle Mapper, the difference is 792 miles, or 1275 kilometers. You can see the positions on a map, here.

A-ha, I hear you saying: they must have gone to Magnetic North, then? Yes, I thought of that, but it still doesn’t add up: throughout the program, they always referred to the North Pole: no mention of the word “magnetic” that I can recall, though I could be wrong about that. There’s another problem: they didn’t actually go the North Magnetic Pole.

The latest coordinates I can find for the location of the North Magnetic Pole are those from 2005, which were estimated at 82.7°’N 114°4’W. This is quite a long way from the show’s “North Pole” location: 307 miles, to be exact, according to another Great Circle Map. To be fair, however, the North Magnetic Pole has been near the location they used in the show: in 1994, according to the this map and other historical figures I looked up.

How does that compare to how far they actually went? They started at Resolute, in Nunavut, which is at 74°41’40.27″N 94°50’23.64″W. I know they didn’t go in a straight line, but if they had, another Great Circle Map tells me how far the crow flew: 308 miles.

In other words: their trip to the North Pole took them almost exactly halfway to the North Magnetic Pole. Come on, Jeremy: care to talk your way out of this one? If you were following the 2007 Polar Race route, you didn’t say anything about that…  🙄

Written by brian t

July 25, 2007 at 11:12 pm

one sad ending

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I had high hopes for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I really did. The previous series by creator Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing, is at the top of my favourite TV show list, even surviving Sorkin’s departure, lasting a full seven seasons. Studio 60, on the other hand, was cancelled after just one season. As with The West Wing, Ireland is not far behind the USA; there, the last episode went out about ten days ago, while I’ve just seen the penultimate episode here. The following might be considered a “spoiler”, so stop reading if you expect to see it later.

There is still one episode after tonight’s episode K&R Part III, and I’ll watch it, but it’s over for me. It was refreshing to see a Christian character on a prime time show who was not some holier-than-thou stereotype, the character of Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson). With Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) in surgery after pre-natal complications, and Danny Tripp frantic in the hospital waiting room (Bradley Whitford, another West Wing veteran), the show was already treading uncomfortably close to soap.

That was only half the drama, because the brother of show star Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry) is being held hostage in Afghanistan, and the press are camped on the studio doorstep, prompting colleague Simon Stiles to launch a Quixotic rant in their direction, and almost lose his job as a result.

Enough drama? Not quite: in this episode, the aforementioned Harriet pushed the “no atheists in foxholes” button I had hoped the show was canny enough to avoid. Danny is tearing out what remains of his hair, as Jordan suffers complications of her complications. What does Harriet do? She offers to “teach him how to pray”.

Why do I find this offensive? It’s a modern Hollywood cliché: treating religion as a “down home” value, something “real” in comparison to the “glamour” of modern life. It encourages the kind of religiously-intrusive behaviour I’ve seen for myself: preying on people in their time of need, offering delusional comfort and a distraction from their immediate concerns.

And Lo! Jordan doesn’t, well, “cross the Jordan”. She pulls through, and all is right with the world. To me, this was Studio 60’s Jump The Shark moment. If you follow the link, you’ll see how many other reasons other have to say it Jumped, but for me, that was it. I just cast my vote against “Harriet”.

Written by brian t

July 11, 2007 at 10:45 pm

Posted in atheism, humour, television

storage matters

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There’s been very little happening on the home front since my return from points East. It’s been almost four weeks, filled with little more besides work, sleep, and watching the final series of The West Wing.

Of The West Wing, all I will say is: those critics who claim the quality declined in later series’ are blowing bubbles; sure, things changed, quite radically, but it reflects the reality of what happens in the US Government (Executive Branch) in an Election year. Each Presidential term is a real roller-coaster ride, from which only some of the characters climb off at the end, having earned the privilege of walking away in the certain knowledge of a job well done. Highly Recommended.

It’s happened before that I’ve gained new insights on a topic by writing about it here; it’s at least as useful to talk about it, to a bunch of people who may have a different take on the subject. That was the case last month, when I gave two weeks of consecutive training courses to my company’s new recruits in Bangalore, on our Storage product line. Some of them had worked for our competitors, and it was fun to see the contrasts between product ranges that came out.

Sometimes it was “oh – our stuff couldn’t do that” or “we charged for that, you gave it away free”. On other topics, they had experience at an “Enterprise” level that I just don’t, and customers with Enterprise budgets. On at least one occasion my natural response, to a question like “why doesn’t this product do X?”, was something like “sure, it’s possible, but why would you want to, here? It would be hard to manage, and cost too much”.

Technological advances have a way of turning last decade’s impossible in to last year’s unworkable, then in to this year’s impractical, and next year’s you-should-be-doing-it-already. Without going in to too much detail here, one of the topics of contention in our discussions was that of “storage virtualization”. I have a certain take on it, from my work on our mid- and low-end product ranges, that is focused on the nuts-and-bolts of how getting spinning metal platters to do what the customer needs. The first difference between a standard PC and a Server is the use of multiple disks, how they need to be arranged to work, quickly and reliably, without costing the earth. Beyond that you get in to dedicated external Storage systems, which is where I make my living.

There’s another level beyond that, an additional layer of virtualization that hides the complexity from the customer and allows them to treat storage as a utility (like electricity or water), but that comes at huge financial cost, without actually removing the underlying complexity. I would use a vehicle analogy; modern cars, with all their engine management and monitoring, can run reliably for longer than old cars can. That is fine when they’re working, and a real problem when they go wrong, since the driver doesn’t have the knowledge or tools to fix it any more. There are people who do, but they’re expensive, even with service contracts, and that leaves you at the mercy of the service personnel.

Worse, this dumbing-down of the end users leaves them unable to make fully-informed decisions about their next purchase. My company has Storage customers who are the technological siblings of SUV-driving Yuppies in cities; they fall for the sales pitch and a misplaced conception of safety. Others buy the equivalent of a VW Golf from us – great for its purpose, but these customers then turn round and complain to us that it doesn’t perform as the sales pitch said, after they pour diesel in the petrol tank, and load up the back seats with a ton of cement. They have a service contract, so we must fix it. Right?

Anyway, to get back to the main point: I’m going to have a go at writing up my ideas on Storage, starting with the most basic abstract view of what it is and isn’t. There are so many storage types, real and virtualized, and while it can be confusing, you can cut through it all with a solid grounding in the fundamentals. What I write will appear under the “storage” heading under Pages, not as blog entries in the usual way, though I will refer to them at times. It won’t be quick!

Written by brian t

January 27, 2007 at 8:55 pm

the pray-off

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Link: a segment from the Jon Stewart Daily Show, in which Islam and Christianity are given the “straight” treatment. This serves only to highlight the idiocy of both, such as the way both claim infallibilty and superiority over the other. This culminates in a “pray-off”, in which each asks to their respective deities to smite the other.

Both remain unsmitten, of course, and end up agreeing that they don’t like Jon Stewart, who is Jewish. “Hey, we have something in common!”

Written by brian t

September 29, 2006 at 9:46 am

pushing up dizzies

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Ever since my last boyfriend tried to kill himself, robbed a store, and shot at a guy, before disappearing off the face of the earth, (Mom) wants to meet everyone I date.

Claire Fisher, in Six Feet Under, inviting her new boyfriend to Christmas dinner. I’m halfway through Series 2, and eventually expect to see it through to the end, in Series 5. I already know how it will end but, as a self-professed connoisseur of Black Humour, I have to say this is about as good as it gets on TV. It helps that it was made by HBO, the cable-only TV channel in the US, who don’t have to answer to the FCC Broadcast regulations, any more than they did with Sex and the City.

More black humour arrived yesterday in the form of a book, Blood, Sweat & Tea, created from the author’s blog, Random Acts Of Reality. It’s quite hair-raising stuff, based on the author’s daily work as an Emergency Medical Technician in Newham, London. I’m only about 1/5 of the way through it, and the author has already had a HIV-positive patient blow chunks in to his mouth, necessitating two months of “prophylaxis”. So far it appears that most ambulance calls are the result of age, alcohol, and a surprising number of people in diabetic shock, possibly due to being overweight.

Back in the Fisher family funeral home, meanwhile, Christmas dinner is a non-starter: besides Mrs. Fisher’s employer Nikolai, stuck there with two broken legs and a lot of painkillers, there’s a biker funeral that threatens to go on all night, complete with airbrushed casket and cases of JD. What else? Oh yes, it’s the anniversary of the death of Nathaniel Fisher, the first of many cadavers we meet, who refuses to stay down where they put him. Why should he, when there’s so much happening to his family up top? Rest in Peace? Like Hell.

Written by brian t

August 22, 2006 at 7:46 pm

Posted in books, humour, television

on TV, we trust

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A Sunday indulging in one of my favourite television shows: The West Wing. We’re currently a few episodes into Series 7 here in Ireland, ahead of the UK for once, and this will be the last series, ending with the election of the new President.

Over the last few months I have been slowly catching up with the previous series on DVD, and am coming to the end of Series 6. The second half of this series has covered the fight between three contenders for the Democratic nomination, with occasional detours following the single credible Republican candidate, Senator Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda.

In the episode I just finished, In God We Trust (6-20), Vinick visits the White House to broker a deal on an economic bill headed for Congress. That doesn’t take long, but Vinick is in no hurry to leave, in case it looks as if he gave in too easily, so the next question is: “where do you keep the ice cream?” This is an excuse for Vinick and President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) to head down to the kitchen, raid the freezer, and have a less formal chat.

Vinick is frustrated and unsure how to proceed in the face of media questions about religion, a core issue for Republicans. Viinck hasn’t been to church in years, since his wife died, and has to decide whether to accept an invitation from a prominent preacher and Republican – a fictional Pat Robertson, if you will – to attend his church that Sunday.

The question of whether to hide his “lapse” from the voters quickly leads to a discussion on health, and President Bartlet’s battle with Multiple Sclerosis, which he did hide. “A speeded-up version of ageing” is what he calls it, before noting that previous US Presidents had concealed their medical issues – Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and others. Vinick concedes the point, then goes on to describes his position on religion;

“One Christmas my wife gave me a very old edition of the King James Bible. 17th Century. It was a real find, for a book collector. It was a thrill, just to hold. Then I read it.”
“You can’t take it literally.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what my priest friends kept telling me. The more I read it, the less I could believe it. I could not believe there was a God who said that the penalty for working on the Sabbath was death. I couldn’t believe there was a God who said that the penalty for adultery was death.”
“I’m more of a New Testament man, myself.”
“I couldn’t believe there was a God who had no penalty for Slavery. The Bible has no problem with Slavery at all. Lincoln could’ve used a little help from the Bible.”
“You think Lincoln was an atheist?”
“I hope not. That would mean all those reference to God were purely political.”
“He didn’t make any until he started running for office.”
“He certainly was a doubter.”
“What about you?”
“Are you going to try to save my soul?”
“Sorry.”
“Let’s just say that I struggled for a long time, with that book, and finally just gave up the struggle.”

Bartlet goes on to offer Vinick advice which appears to suggest that he did not need religion to do the job of President:

“The only thing you can pray for in this job is for the strength to get through the day. You can try coffee if you want. Prayer works better for me. Try the Pistachio.”

The result? Vinick walks out to face the press, and excoriates them for focusing on religion:

“I don’t see how you can have separation of Church and State in this Government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this Government… if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicans, you are just begging to be lied to. They will all lie to you, or a lot of them will, and it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes.
“So, every day until the end of this campaign, I’ll answer any question anyone has on Government. But if you have a question on religion, please, go to church. Thank you.”

If anyone still has any questions on why I hold The West Wing in such esteem, even well after the departure of creator Aaron Sorkin, I could explain in great detail, but one need look no further than this. A crucial point about separation of Church and State, made in a dramatic and creative fashion – I can’t ask for much more from modern popular culture.

Written by brian t

February 12, 2006 at 5:40 pm

Posted in culture, television, travel