Thursday, July 31, 2008

Croatian sunset

One from last summer this, from Pula in Croatia. They have amazing Roman ruins all over the two, it's definitely worth a visit.

In other news, the Guardian quoted my previous post, so I was happy with that given that I'm only a week back blogging! I'll have a couple of posts over the weekend including thoughts on the intriguing Freakonomics which I've just finished, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Wielding the knife?

David Miliband is a man who has, on paper at least, my ideal life. He got a first in PPE from an Oxbridge college. He went on to work in a think tank, and then became Tony Blair's head of policy. They liked him so much, that they parachuted him into a safe Labour seat so he could come sit with them on those plush green sofas they like so much. Within a year he was a junior minister and not too long thereafter he was promoted, to cabinet secretary and then minister for the environment. With the advent of Gordon Brown, he was made foreign secretary, in a move that was seen by many as a reward for holding off on his ambitions for the top job. Not bad going really. He even managed to get married and have a couple of kids along the way.

However, I think the man that Alastair Campbell once nicknamed "Brains" has today made a very large error of judgement. The just posted comment piece on the Guardian website, will be seen by all as the sound of the Guillotine swooping down on the head of the hapless Gordon Brown. Although he doesn't call directly for his ouster, any political observer knows that calls for 'clarity of leadership', and the need for Labour's case to be made 'afresh', with no mention of the current Prime Minister, is nothing other than a mutiny.

The article he's written reads like a manifesto, laying out the areas that he feels Labour should attack David Cameron on, such as his conservatism, faux environmentalism, and his exaggeration of the problems facing Britian's ''broken society''. The closing of the piece says it all really:

New Labour won three elections by offering real change, not just in policy but in the way we do politics. We must do so again. So let's stop feeling sorry for ourselves, enjoy a break, and then find the confidence to make our case afresh.

So why is it such a big mistake, d'apr├ęs moi? After all, Gordon Brown is about as popular as George Bush, but lacks even his meagre vestiges of personality. You certainly wouldn't call the dour Scot ''folksy'' or be intrigued enough to think that you might have a laugh over a pint. The Labour party's donors would be afraid of touching him wearing a HazMat suit His hapless leadership, the declining economy, feeble data security, by-election bumbling, problems with the NHS, the excrutiating back-track on the EU Constitutional referendum, an election that never was... it's not exactly a CV that you'd like to hand your employer when discussing your previous occupation (as he surely will be shortly).

Let's be clear, he's owed no loyalty either. The insidious way in which he operated from the treasury and forced Tony Blair from power means that he can expect no better from those he placed around him. No, the real reason that I don't think Miliband should be striking is that things are too bad for Labour at the moment.

They are almost absoloutely certain to lose the next election, they're almost 20% down in the polls, and managed to lose one of the safest seats in Britain last week. (To put it in perspective, the Conservative's hold no seat as statistically solid as Glasgow East.) David Cameron is in the ascendancy and most importantly, the electorate feel like straying from their regular menu item and trying something different. On paper, Miliband is the perfect opponent to Cameron. Both youthful, well bred, eager to tout their environmental commitments.

Which is why I think it would be a shame for one of Labour's brightest young stars to burn himself out. Much better to let someone like Jack Straw replace Brown, lose the election and be forced from the party leadership than to do so himself. By stiking now, he would be like a gormless cartoon character who chases a diamond that has been thrown in the air. For a fleeting moment he'd stare at it Gollum-like only to realise that in the process of catching it, he managed to jump off a cliff.

Photo: Nick Wheeler

Monday, July 28, 2008

Ten Word Answer

In The West Wing, the president's adviseres fret about '10 word answers' that manage to sum up a candidates position succinctly in a neat little sound-bite for the morning's papers. I noticed that Barak Obama, when asked at a black media members convention about his position with regard to reparations, used a beautifully crafted exaple of the species:

“The best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed.”*

Undoubtedly pre-packaged and re-heated, but I think it works.

*If anyone mentions that it's actually 20 words, I'm going to thump them
... you've been warned!

Touting the taboo?

IRELAND is a small country, whose western coast is the exposed and routinely battered edge of Europe. In the same way that Ireland is exposed to the elements, we are also more exposed to ebb and flow of the global economy than many of our mainland colleagues.

In reality, we don't have a huge amount going for us economically. We're isolated geographically, we don't have large stores of natural resources, our industry is mainly footloose, and we face increasing competition over the coming years from the states who have recently entered the EU, eager to copy our success.

Yet, there is no need to panic. We have our advantages too, such as a high concentration of technology companies and a youthful population. Those companies were attracted here by our low corporation taxes and unfettered access to EU markets. It is no coincidence that Google and Microsoft both have their European headquarters in Ireland. The question we face is how to keep those companies here, and how to keep ourselves ahead? The answer is straightforward: education.

What we lack in natural resources, we must make up for in a well educated, dynamic workforce. We all know it, it's pretty straight forward; it's why we put it in the national development plan...Which makes it all the more baffling that the government continue to dramatically underfund 3rd level education, with colleges expected to cut expenditure by 3% in the coming year. Given that the majority of universities are already running deficits, jacking 4th level fees and turning to the private sector to make up their shortfalls, it's hard to see where that money is going to come from, unless they carry through with their threat to cut courses in 2009-10.

The universities are crying out for money, but it's not forthcoming from the short-sighted government; student's don't vote en-masse and most people are more concerned with their own pocket, so cutting back at 3rd level is politically acceptable. That's why I think it's time that we reconsider 3rd level fees. They were scrapped with the admirable aim of encouraging greater participation beyond second level. However. they didn't address the underlying reasons that poorer people don't go to college such as a lack of role models, poor understanding of the university system, and the feeling that they need to get to work straight away. That's why schemes such as the Trinity Outreach Programme and UCD's New Era work, wheras free fees didn't; they address the root casues in a targeted way.

What ''free fees'' (a rather stupid way of saying it I think, but it's caught on!) have done is to let the middle classes (of which I am undoubtedly part) further themselves a step down the ladder with fee paying secondary schools and grind schools. It shows that people are clearly willing and happy to invest in education. An investment which will just be shifted back up to 3rd level from 2nd, and an investment that will not effect the number of people going to college.

By re-introducing fees for that bracket (perhaps income tested at the highest tax bracket or households over €100,000) we can increase funding for Universities, and ensure high quality eduction is provided, protecting the most important assett Ireland holds. With the extra money, we can also expand funding of the initiatives that genuinely make a difference to the poor people free fees were meant to help. Not bad for a days work.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

A picture!

Swiss Mountains
Canon 5D 17-40 F4L

This is one from the Swiss Alps taken in May. There's something about the slope and sweep of it that really appeals to me. I took all the photos on that holiday in black and white as a bit of a challenge! The snow really lends itself to B&W with really strong contrasts between light and dark.

Thoughts on The Undercover Economist

I've just finished The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning (or refreshing their memory) about the fundamentals of economics. He manages to liven things up with interesting examples and writes in a very straight-forward, readable way. There were a couple of really interesting things in it which I thought were worth sharing.

The first is that placing a tariff on imports has the exact same effect as taxing your exporters. That seems a little crazy at first, but makes sense when you think about it. In very simple terms, if people in a foreign country buy your good in their currency, then you have to buy one of their goods with that currency (or trade it with a bank or individual who will). If there's a tariff on buying their goods, then your efficient export industry have to pay more to buy foreign goods because of the tariffs on them, in order to protect the inefficient industry that the tariff is designed to protect.

He also explains the reasons underpinning fair trade very well, and gives the lie to many of the myths which surround globalisation.
  • Is it bad for the environment? No.
  • Does it make poor people poorer? No.
  • Do people work in worse conditions than they did before multi nationals arrived. No.
I can't do justice fully to his arguments, you'd have to read the book for that. However, he did use one striking example that addresses it's effect with regard to the second two points; in 1975 China's economy, in spite of holding one sixth of the world's population, was only the size of Belgium's. With a more liberalised economy, they are now the fourth largest exporter in the world. Meanwhile, the isolated, insular economies of North Korea and Zimbabwe continue to expose their people to crippling poverty and autocratic rule.

All that got me thinking about the current Doha round of world trade talks, started in 2002 and currently reaching the make-or-break point in Geneva. In Ireland, we stand to gain in cheaper food and greater spending power by reducing the subsidies which we give to our farmers. But won't it make food more expensive? Mean that there's less at a time of international crisis? Cripple farmers economically?

Not really. There was a striking statistic in Thursday's Irish Times; the average full time farmer in Ireland makes a little over €43,900, about €12,000 more than the average industrial wage. Meanwhile, farmers in poor countries, who are already suffering because we cut our foreign aid (disgracefully) in the recent mini-budget, lose out. Our food would not be more expensive, because we would no longer be spending half the EU's budget subsidising our inefficient farming industry, and could instead spend that money on buying cheaper food from poorer countries, with the added bonus of helping those poor farmers and their countries to develop. If that doesn't happen, it will because of vested interests and not the interests of our countries, international ethicacy or common sense.

Friday, July 25, 2008

sub editors everywhere, fear this man!

The Guardian today carry a letter that the Times's restaurant
critic, Giles Coren, wrote to his sub-editors, after they made what he felt to be an
egregious error while editing his copy. It turns out this isn't the first time he's submitted an angry email or two. One of the earlier offerings he dished up contains one of the
best put-downs I've ever come across

never ever ask me to write something for you. and don't pay me. i'd rather take £400 quid for assassinating a crack whore's only child in a revenge killing for a busted drug deal - my integrity would be less compromised.

Now that's anger

Thursday, July 24, 2008

5D 24-105 L

I've decided (with more than little cajolement) that it's time to bring this blog back to life. Here's a photo to get the ball rolling. From Dun Laoghaire Pier in April this year. It wasn't a great sunset until the sun went down, but then the clouds really started to glow.