Apr 2010

Irish housing stock update

Just a quickie. In my recent post (The next great wave of Irish emigration) about the collapse of the Irish property market and the mountain of debt it has created for us all, I suggested that there’s “an estimated quarter of a million newly built houses and apartments standing empty”. I must apologise as my estimate was somewhere between 20% and 40% out. It turns out, according to the most recent data, that in fact the number is “believed to be between 352,414 and 301,682”.

That’s a whole lot of vacant houses for a nation of 4.4 million.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2010

The Road

I read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning book The Road when it was first published. It was one of the first novels I read upon my return to Dublin and it royally pissed me off. See, I’d written about four chapters of a book that — had I continued it — would have been described as derivative at best, and a total rip-off at worst. In my version, a boy and his mother were walking across a post-apocalyptic America in the hope of somehow getting a boat that would take them to Ireland. I vividly recall the moment, not far into The Road, when my rising frustration erupted into a bellow of “Fuck it!”

I threw the book across the room and went to see if anything of my own work could be salvaged. It couldn’t. Not only were the plots too similar, but — once I’d finally calmed down and read the whole thing — the central themes turned out to be almost identical. It’s fortunate that I hadn’t got further, I suppose.

The Road

Anyhoo, that’s neither here nor there. Having just watched the film, it’s that I want to discuss. And it’s a film that merits discussion. As regular readers of my writing will be aware, I believe that humanity is approaching a crisis… may indeed be in the early stages of it. I don’t believe we’ve reached the point where disaster and complete collapse are inevitable, though. I feel that the sooner we begin planning and implementing steps to avoid calamity, the more chance we have of preventing the sort of bleak outcome envisioned by McCarthy.

Our writers and film-makers — artists of any kind — are often the best weather-vanes our culture has got. Fiction about disasters, whether on paper or celluloid, is certainly nothing new, but the huge amount of it over the past few years seems, to me at least, to be an obvious response to our collective anxieties about Climate Change, peak oil… unsustainability in general. Storm clouds are gathering on our horizon and this has not gone unnoticed.

None of which is meant to imply that the grim and very upsetting picture of the future painted by McCarthy and John Hillcoat (the director of the film adaptation) is likely to happen, or even that I think it’s a genuine possibility. The dark view of humanity presented in The Road isn’t one I necessarily share. Certainly people are capable of even the worst of the atrocities described in the story, but I tend to question the proportion of “bad guys” to “good guys” (to use the parlance of the film). In both book and film we are presented with a world where the people determined to keep the fire of human decency alive are vastly outnumbered by those who have resorted to savagery. It’s my belief, and fervent hope, that this is a pessimistic assessment of the human soul.

The film itself is an amazing piece of work. From the opening scene of vibrant greens, yellows and reds — trees and flowers soon to be extinguished — to the dark browns and greys that characterise the blasted landscape of the majority of the film, The Road is never less than visually impressive. “Visually impressive” may seem like a strange way to describe a film that draws almost exclusively from a palette of washed-out grey, but there’s a haunting quality to the cinematography that prevents it from ever being dull to the eye.

The basic plot revolves around a father and son (The Man and The Boy) attempting to make their way south to the coast. The planet has all but died and almost everyone who remains has resorted to cannabilism to eke out some extra time. The Man is played by Viggo Mortensen in yet another role that marks him out as a truly accomplished actor. He was brilliant in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and even more mesmeric here as a man torn between his willingness to do anything to protect his son and his desire to offer the boy a glimpse of something other than the ugly brutality of the world they find themselves in. He wants to raise his son to be good and decent and noble, but is aware that those traits might well turn out to be liabilities… could even get him killed some day. In one of the central scenes of the film, the boy rebukes his father by telling him that he can no longer tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.

Indeed, we soon come to realise that just as the father is trying to teach his son to be one of the good guys, it is only through this very effort that he himself retains a grip on goodness. Without the need to provide an example to the boy, we suspect that Mortensen’s character would himself be lost; if not to brutality then certainly to death.

The young actor who plays Viggo Mortensen’s son — Kodi Smit-McPhee — is probably the weak link in the film. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a criticism of the kid. He truly and honestly does as good a job as any actor his age could do with the role and he certainly doesn’t constantly irritate the way so many child actors do. But the fact of the matter is, the kind of performance required by the role isn’t one that any child has the emotional maturity to achieve. As I say though, he does as well as anyone his age could and never spoils things.

Quite aside from anything else, Mortensen’s something of a method actor and his haggard looks suggest several weeks of borderline malnutrition. In the one scene where we see the boy’s body, his shrunken torso is clearly the result of some clever CGI… subjecting him to the kind of dietary regime that left Mortensen looking genuinely underfed would be nothing short of child abuse, and this is revealed in his obviously well-fed face. Again though, that’s hardly the kid’s fault.

One of the two most unpleasant images of the book was omitted from the film, but the other was retained (albeit only briefly). Indeed I was quite surprised that the film so rarely strays from the book. On the one hand this has made it a good deal better than almost any of Hollywood’s other apocalypse movies. On the other hand, it ensured that the relentlessly grim atmosphere of McCarthy’s original seeps out through the screen and leaves you feeling rather drained and mildly depressed after watching it.

That said, I’d recommend The Road to fans of good, thoughtful cinema. It’s dark, horrific at times and rarely offers a smile (there’s a single blackly cynical line from Robert Duvall’s character that provides perhaps the only humour in the entire film). Overall, The Road will leave you feeling quite deflated and perhaps even a little troubled. But for all that, it’s a fine film that never betrays the original vision of the book. And how often does one of them come along?

1 comment  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Apr 2010

A personal note

Blogging will be rather light over the next couple of weeks. As you may have noticed, I’ve been trying to post more regularly of late (a combination of having time on my hands and a decision to be more disciplined with my writing… I’m committed to spending a certain amount of time every day writing; depending on my mood it might be working on fiction, the book of essays I’m putting together, or this blog).

However, the lovely Citizen S and myself will be getting married in a week and a half (I know! Who’d have thunk it? And so long as I can keep her from sobering up for the next ten days, it should actually happen). It’s going to be a very small (non-religious) affair and most of the planning and organisation is already done. All the same, I imagine I’ll have less time than usual to sit around in my dressing-gown posting stuff here.

I’ve got articles in the drafts folder that probably only need a few more minutes, so hopefully activity here won’t come to a complete halt. But do expect a lull for a couple of weeks.

Oh, and wish us well!

16 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Apr 2010

Drunk History

A few days ago, Gyrus emailed me a link to “Drunk History: Nikola Tesla” on YouTube. It’s very funny indeed, and happily, is part of a fairly long-running series. I’ve watched a couple more since then and both were of a similarly high quality. Check them out if you get a chance.

Drunk History: Nikola Tesla

And my personal favourite (if only for the hicupping)…

Drunk History: Oney Judge

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video

Apr 2010

Will write for food

Bit of a brazen post this, but I figured it’d be worth a shot. Some requests…

I’m currently planning to expand upon my Master’s research in the form of a PhD. There’s really not much work being carried out on the psychodynamics of sustainability… analysing our ecological psychosis… the schizophrenia of the group mind… call it what you will. Gregory Bateson’s pioneering work has largely been left to gather dust despite the incredible importance and relevance it holds for modern civilisation.

Certainly there have been some books written on the subject, often rather good ones too, but really not enough to do the subject justice. Also, they have a tendency to be somewhat inaccessible. Bateson’s own writing can be quite difficult to digest and while both Narby’s Intelligence in Nature and Kidner’s Nature and Psyche have much to offer the dedicated academic, they are unlikely to ever reach a large audience.

It’s my aim — and yes, it’s a lofty one, but why set the bar low? — to produce a PhD thesis that can be successful both academically and also from the standpoint of the educated but non-specialist reader. The subject deserves to be released from the confines of the ivory tower.

However, while I’m putting together my proposal and continuing my research now, it’ll be a year or so before I get officially underway. I’ve missed the various funding deadlines for this year and, well, there’s other stuff happening that preclude the kind of intensive, full-time dedication that starting a PhD might entail.

Therefore, I’m kind of twiddling my thumbs right now, which is why I’m writing this post. My readership is small but select and I’m hoping some of you might have a bit of advice to share. Obviously any input with regards to putting together a PhD proposal (in the broad field of philosophy) would be greatly appreciated. But in the meantime I’m also looking for one or two things…

Firstly, I’m a bit of a dab hand when it comes to building websites and web applications. It’s been my main source of income for a while but work has slowed down considerably of late so I’m looking to expand my client base. I have a web portfolio, with the rather grandiose title of Ring Forth Web Studio, which you might point people towards if you hear they need sites built (WordPress installations and ColdFusion programming in particular).

Secondly, I’d really love to know how to go about earning a crust (or even half a crust) out of freelance writing. Yes, I’m aware that’s the Holy Grail for every blogger but if, dear reader, you’ve worked out how to achieve it, I’d be eternally grateful for your advice. You can either leave a comment here, or contact me via email at ‘jim’ at ‘numero57’ dot ‘net’. There’s also a web form over at ringforth.com for getting in touch about web work.

I’m aware that this is something of a stab in the dark, but I figured it was worth a try. Thanks for reading. Normal service shall resume soon.

8 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Apr 2010

The next great wave of Irish emigration

For about 12 years starting in the mid-90s a bunch of private business concerns decided to buy large tracts of land in Ireland (particularly around Dublin) and “develop” them by building luxury apartments and hotels. Competition was high because every property developer in the country had bought into the same delusion. Somehow they convinced themselves that this was a no-lose proposition. Property values shot up. Greenfield sites in the Dublin commuter belt increased in value by a couple of hundred percent within a few years. And brownfield sites in the city centre rose by even more. It was sheer lunacy.

Which, in itself, wouldn’t have been a problem. No, it became a problem when this small group of developers succeeded in convincing the banks and the government to join their party. And so together, the bankers, speculators and developers — breathlessly urged onwards by politicians tripping over themselves to rezone land and dismantle regulatory frameworks — dragged the nation relentlessly into a deep dark hole. Massive loans were granted based on absurd valuations and overnight a mountain of debt appeared in Dublin’s financial district.

The half-dozen or so sane people left in the country shook their heads ruefully and suggested that there was only one way for this to end… the same way all collective delusions end… with a bone-shaking return to reality and lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Of course nobody listened. We were labelled doom-mongers and pessimists. “Shut up and let me enjoy the party”, they’d say, and we’d wince as they shovelled another gramme of future debt up their nose. It’s gonna be one hell of a come-down, we’d mutter as they gave us dark scowls and dismissive gestures. “Come down?! Don’t be such an arsehole”, they’d yell, “I can keep snorting this stuff forever”.

Sadly, there the drug analogy ends. A hangover or comedown may be managed via the skillful application of hair-of-the-dog. Not the case with a property crash. Especially not one that happens just prior to an energy crisis. The Irish people find themselves slumped, sweating and groaning, on the bathroom floor. The economy flushed to get rid of the stench. All that remains of it is a foul stain on our shirt and a few nasty dried flecks stuck to our hair. Ugly reminders of our willingness to trade our future and that of our children for a few years of hedonism.

You see, as was entirely predictable… indeed inevitable… property prices crashed. And how! The Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend, which has become something of a symbol of the insanity that gripped the nation, has seen an 88% drop in valuation since the bubble burst. Purchased for €412 million in 2006, it has recently been repossessed by the bank that provided the loan and is for sale for €50 million. There are no interested buyers.

There are now an estimated quarter of a million newly built houses and apartments standing empty in “ghost developments” around Ireland. This, in a country with a population of four million. Safe to say the prospects for a recovery in the Irish residential property market aren’t good. In fact, probably the only remaining positive aspect of the property boom is the new nomenclature that has sprung up to describe the folly. Ghost developments sounds pretty cool, but even better is ‘Zombie hotels’, which is the phrase being used to describe the dozens of brand new hotels that are slowly choking the life out of established businesses. The massive over-capacity is forcing equally massive rate cuts. Good news, you might think, for the consumer but it’s crippling the entire sector and — as is so often the case — the good news of short-termism often doesn’t stay good for very long.

But hang on a second… rewind a bit to the Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend. Did I say “repossessed by the bank”? Let me rephrase that… it has been repossessed by the Irish government who have generously agreed to absorb pretty much all of the hundreds of billions of euro worth of debt injected into the Irish economy by a small number of greedy fools. The people responsible for creating our ghost developments and zombie hotels aren’t — it seems — the people responsible for dealing with the consequences. It’s been suggested that every person currently alive in Ireland will have to pay €2,000 per year for the next 70 years in order to clear the total liability that’s been shouldered by our Fianna Fáil / Green coalition government. And given that not all of us have another 70 years to live, we’ll be bequeathing a massive burden to the next couple of generations.

You’re welcome, kids.

As soon as this all sinks in — and for most, it really hasn’t yet — expect to see the next great wave of Irish emigration.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2010

Comments policy

I just want to post a brief note about the comments policy on this blog. Earlier today I received a visitor, Dusty Johnson, who decided to post the following few words on an old post of mine: “you fucking fag you suck”. Now, I try to approve all comments that are not obvious spam, so I thought long and hard about whether or not to approve this one (well, I considered the issue for a minute or so… which is roughly as long as it merited). Ultimately I decided to trash the comment for two reasons.

Firstly, the internet is already full of banal insults published by morons with the emotional maturity of a 13 year old, and “you fucking fag you suck” doesn’t really add anything my blog… or to the world in general. In fact, I feel that the less morons posting “you fucking fag you suck” on the web, the better.

Secondly, if I approve the comment, then my spam filter will consider anything else posted by Dusty Johnson to be legitimate. And frankly I’m not sure Dusty is the kind of person to whom I want to provide a platform.

Therefore I suggest that anyone who decides to insult me in the comments do so in a clever or amusing manner. Dusty won’t get a second chance, though, as anything clever posted using that name or email address will clearly be plagiarism. Swearing is fine (I don’t have any vocabulary hang-ups) and insults, while not exactly encouraged, are perfectly acceptable. But I’ve got to maintain some standards here, and “you fucking fag you suck” really doesn’t meet them.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Apr 2010

Something for the weekend

Please Don’t
The first single from Here Lies Love
(vocals by Santigold)

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video

Apr 2010

Here Lies Love

As even a casual reader of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of David Byrne. Hell, the blog title is lifted from the lyrics to one of his songs. In 1986 I bought my first album; a vinyl copy of Remain In Light, arguably the best recording in Talking Heads’ magnificent catalogue. Arguably the best recording I own (and I have a large record collection). I bought it on the strength of a mix tape that my friend, P, had made for me. It wasn’t long before I’d bought everything Talking Heads had released, plus the handful of solo albums and collaborations that Byrne had put out up to that point. And they told us that Home Taping was Killing Music.

Since then I’ve gotten hold of everything Byrne has produced; the mainstream releases, the mail-order-only stuff, bootlegs, demos and one-off collaborations on other people’s records. These days my need to be a completist has fallen by the wayside, except when it comes to David Byrne (well, him and Stina Nordenstam, but she’s not exactly prolific). I’m still genuinely excited when I hear about a new Byrne record (or book or tour). His music does everything I want from music. It makes me think, it makes me feel and it makes me want to shake my body rhythmically. Often all three simultaneously.

Because he’s really not let me down in a career spanning 33 years*, I’ve learnt to trust his instincts. So if he thinks that a double-album about the life of Imelda Marcos and Estrella Cumpas (the woman who raised her) with a different vocalist on each track and Fatboy Slim providing beats on about half the record is a good idea, then I’m more than happy to see where he goes with that.

Here Lies Love

And true to form, he’s gone somewhere quite splendid. Here Lies Love is a glorious record. I’m not going to say it’s better or worse than any other thing he’s done, but it holds its own with the best of his work.

Kicking off with the title track sung by Florence Welch, I finally have a song that lets me see what everyone else sees in Florence and The Machine, who — I confess — don’t really do it for me (“overhyped advertising jingles” was how I described FATM recently… but then, I tend to say that about almost anyone who allows corporations to use their music for consumerist propaganda). Byrne’s trademark “strings-and-latin-beats” form the basis of the track, but Welch’s soaring vocals and Fatboy Slim’s thumping bass create a truly ecstatic chorus that I defy anyone not to be humming long after the song’s over.

And it’s this fusion that elevates the record above pretty much any dance-pop out there right now. The vocalists all bring something wonderful to their songs, Fatboy Slim’s club sensibilities are evident throughout, but it never stops being a David Byrne record. There are echoes of Talking Heads all over the place (in fact it’s possibly the most ‘Talking Heads’-esque thing he’s done in years) along with the strings and latin percussion that fans of his solo work know and love.

It’s all there and it all works wonderfully.

While concept albums are often justly criticised for the triteness of the story they shoehorn into the lyrics, this one works superbly. Byrne is one of the great lyricists, despite his tendency towards self-deprecation in this area (“lyrics are just there to fool people into listening to the music”, he once said) and he’s really on form here. The story is deftly woven around the beats. And what a story it is too. Byrne is less interested in the politics than he is in the psychological factors that drove Imelda from her humble beginnings amid the poverty of the Philippine slums to the palaces and power of her latter years. As he says in the publicity for the record… “no, the shoes don’t get mentioned”… instead the focus is on her early life and the burning ambition it instilled within her. Her hunger for power along with her willingness to use her sexuality and sensuality to manipulate the men around her are the central themes here. And remember, those men included Nixon, Mao Tse-Tung and Colonel Gaddafi amongst many others.

While there’s a tiny part of me that’s a little disappointed not to hear more of Byrne’s vocals (he sings American Troglodyte and features on a couple of others including a duet with the breathtaking Shara Worden), there’s honestly not a single vocalist out of the 22 that fail to impress. Steve Earle is the only male voice (aside from Byrne) which perhaps makes his song, A Perfect Hand stand out a little further from the crowd than would otherwise be the case. But each and every singer is perfectly matched to their song. Tori Amos makes You’ll Be Taken Care Of her own, so after a couple of listens you couldn’t imagine one of the others singing it. And the same is true of them all.

Cyndi Lauper’s vocal on Eleven Days is oddly reminiscent of Prince during the good years. The dialogue / duet on Every Drop of Rain is utterly captivating with its description of slum life and the struggle to retain dignity while living on scraps and handouts

They called us garage people
Where we lived there, you and me
When you’re poor — it’s like you’re naked
And every drop of rain you feel

When it rained we slept on boxes
There was water all around

But the people in the big house
Never bothered to find out
No clothes, no bed, no jewelry
Sometimes I had no shoes

A typhoon came — the house collapsed
And the neighbors passed us food

Of them all, though — if I had to pick one — the ambiguous ode to repression, Order 1081, stands out with Natalie Merchant managing to sound plaintive and powerful all at once. A genuinely cracking track.

And all the while, Byrne and Fatboy Slim are turning these strange psychological ballads into music you can dance to. I’m utterly captivated by this record and suspect I will be for some time to come.

* He’s released some stuff that I don’t listen to very often, but nothing I’d consider bad.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Reviews » Music reviews

Apr 2010

UK Digital Economy Bill

Last night the British parliament enacted a thoroughly regressive piece of legislation. Called The Digital Economy Bill (DEBill), it is ostensibly designed to — amongst other things — prevent internet file-sharing. In fact, what it actually does is allow large corporations to legally victimise individuals based on nothing more than suspicion. Once again the representatives of the people have sold them out to appease the power of private capital.

And people say the coming election actually matters? Fact is, who ever gets into government, it’s Big Business who stays in power.

According to DEBill, corporations are permitted to monitor the nation’s internet connections and demand that anyone suspected of filesharing be disconnected. Yes, warning letters must be sent out first, but the fact remains that there is no actual burden of proof involved. If your IP address is spoofed, or WiFi network hacked, or computer compromised by a custom trojan*, say goodbye to your net connection. If your 14 year old kid continues to download music without your knowledge, say goodbye to your net connection. If you share your own home movies or music with others and can’t prove that it’s your material (in this case there is a burden of proof… but it’s on you; you must take the issue to court at your own cost), say goodbye to your net connection.

And this has happened in a climate where the Minister for Digital Britain, Stephen Timms, claims that “[b]roadband is no longer considered a luxury — it has become an essential service delivering social, commercial and economic benefits”. A climate where Gordon Brown insists that “the internet is as vital as water and gas” (hyperbole certainly, but he said it, not the anti-DEBill camp).

So Britain now has a Labour-driven law designed to allow corporations to legally withdraw essential services from individuals on the basis of suspicion of wrongdoing.

But of course it wasn’t just Labour who passed the law. It pretty much had all-party support. The tories were firmly behind it. And while the Liberal Democrats claimed to oppose it, they couldn’t be bothered to show up for the vote, let alone the debate. This is supposed to be the liberal party, the one that in theory would be most opposed to this kind of corporate power grab, and yet less than a third of their MPs were present in parliament to speak or vote against it. While Nick Clegg and his liberal democrats jet around Britain talking like they’re an alternative to the two large parties, their actions tell a somewhat different story.

Creativity is The Enemy

Politicians are constantly lamenting the perceived public apathy with politics. Young people, they say, are disconnected from the political process. But here we have a bill that’s arguably of particular interest to young people and yet anyone tuning in to watch the proceedings last night would have seen a handful of disinterested and ill-informed MPs in a half-empty room acquiescing to the wishes of big business. If even the professional politicians can’t be arsed to attend a vote on important legislation, is it any wonder nobody else is interested in the bloody process?

UPDATE: It appears that the office of Stephen Timms, Minister for Digital Britain, is under the impression that IP (as in IP address) stands for “Intellectual Property”. I just don’t know what to say about that. Am I the only one who believes that perhaps MPs should actually understand the laws they are passing? That part of their job should be to research things before they legislate on them? Rather than merely being rubber-stamps to the whims of capital? Perhaps that’s why so few MPs showed up to vote… they were too ignorant to grasp the importance of the bill and too damn lazy to do anything about that fact. (via antonvowl on twitter)

* how long before such trojans are maliciously let loose in the wild by script kiddies… carrying a silent payload of a stripped down torrent client and instructions to download the album or movie of the moment?

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion