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Because they’re worth it… RTÉ ‘stars’ earnings… our beloved leader and other such stuff… February 29, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, media, Television Shows.
8 comments

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You know, it’s hardly a surprise to say that in the past I had quite a bit of sympathy for our beloved leader. There he was, put upon by Tribunal, probes into his financial affairs and his private life. Clearly, upset by all three. But, as time passed and as the drip drip drip of information from that same Tribunal has worked its peculiar magic that sympathy has become – how shall I put it – strained. Yes. Strained is a good word.

It’s fascinating, because I’m fairly certain that when the histories come to be written the matters of the past eighteen or so months will be but footnotes while other achievements will loom large. But them’s the breaks. The general public doesn’t write the history books and the general public is the arbiter of the present. There our beloved leader may well fare rather worse. I’ve noticed that in the past three or four weeks there has been a shift against Ahern in public sentiment. It remains to be seen whether that is significant or merely another will o the wisp.

Either way, reading the pseudonymous Sean Sexton in the latest issue of Magill, while I agree with him in theory that only two dates actually count as regards the future of Ahern, those being the Referendum and the Local Government Elections, the stray thought struck me that other events may well overtake him in the meantime leading to an unhappy conclusion (incidentally, what to make of Derek Fannings curiously edited article in the same issue about “An ashram for Ahern” which charts his off again on again respect for the leader?).

And, remarkably, I felt a faint echo of that sympathy when I read the news yesterday in the Irish Times about how Pat “Kenny keeps top spot in RTÉ earnings list”. Because here is another cause for a bit of upset:

Pat Kenny remains the top earner among RTÉ presenters, earning nearly €850,000 in 2006, according to figures released by the broadcaster today.
….
Topping the list with earnings of €849,139 was Pat Kenny Media Services. Kenny presents the Late Late Show on Friday nights and a daily morning radio programme on RTÉ Radio 1. He was the station’s top earner for the seventh straight year.

I like that Pat Kenny Media Services. Don’t buy the man, buy the product. But hold on… consider that before Christmas Ahern was attempting to implement wage increases that would see his wage move to about €310,000. Unconscionable? Indeed. Wrong? I said so at the time. Acquisitive? Without doubt.

And while Ahern and the government have snatched the fig leaf of not implementing it this year… well, yes, that will no doubt make a big dent in their expenditure plans… I’d like to see some sustained public pressure to ensure that they don’t pay themselves the increase next year either. Or ever as it happens.

But our ‘leading’ public broadcaster makes almost three times that sum. And he too is paid out of the public purse. But wait… not just him.

Seven of RTÉ’s top ten earners in 2006 were contractors…

Gerry Ryan and Marian Finucane remain in second and third place, unchanged since 2002.

Ryan, presenter of the Gerry Ryan Show on RTÉ 2FM, was paid €558,990 through his company Balcom Management. His salary was €520,685 in 2005.

Finucane’s company, Montrose Services, was paid €455,190 in 2005. Finucane, who switched from a daytime to a weekend show in May 2005, earned €436,413 the previous year.

Is it me, or do these seem stunning salaries for people to be on? I’m curious as to the rationale for them. I mean, I’m as open to the next guy to the argument that struggling actors or suchlike should be paid a bit over the odds because work is hard to find and often sporadic. But Pat Kenny is unlikely to go hungry in the near future. Marian Finucane is hardly going to find mikes being switched off every time she passes by. And there must be a legion of the discontented who would rise up in self-righteous anger should Joe Duffy vanish from our radios at an hour just about perfect to ensure a bit of dyspeptic bile can be brought up for a grateful nations consideration.

Indeed our Joe is no slouch in these matters, and I have to admit that the distance he’s gone from the back of a USI truck parked on O’Connell Street at some protest in the early 1980s (oh, yes, I still remember that) is something to be at least slightly in awe of. Probably for the wrong reason.

Joe Duffy overtook Ryan Tubridy to become RTÉ’s fourth-highest paid presenter. The Liveline star’s Claddaghgreen was paid €367,804 for his services in 2006; Tubridy’s Trocity Productions earned €346,667.

Derek Mooney, who earned €242,408 in 2006, is the highest-paid RTÉ employee on the list.

Trocity Productions you say… and a sum worthy of a lottery ticket. But this one keeps winning, year after year.

Then we descend to the lower reaches of ‘stardom’ to discover: Prime Time presenter Miriam O’Callaghan’s Baby Blue Productions [natch!] (€221,383); John Kelly (€204,675) and Six One News anchor Bryan Dobson (€193,610).

And for those who might, just, barely be argued to be engaging with life at the hard end? Well their raw wattage is obviously diminishing…

[Marty] Whelan and Dobson nudged journalists Tommie Gorman and Charlie Bird out of the top ten in 2006.

Still, not to worry. Whatever about inclement economic weather ahead none of these ‘stars’ need worry (and nor, I’ll bet is Ahern either about next years late implementation of the wage rise – unless he gets the chop). Because as the Irish Times notes:

Tánaiste and Minister for Finance Brian Cowen announced in Budget 2008 that RTÉ will get a 7 per cent increase in its funding this year, from €195 million to €208 million.

Last November, the Government approved a €2 increase in the annual television licence fee, bringing the annual cost to €160.

The US Presidential Campaign…It’s turning… not so nice. Good. February 28, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in US Politics.
10 comments

I’m sort of enjoying the current phase of the US Presidential Campaign a bit better. And sadly, this is probably for all the wrong reasons. But, I have some hope that perhaps something good will appear.

The thing is that in the last number of days the campaign has turned, if not exactly nasty, well… certainly not very nice. We had the ‘debate’ the other night between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama where both candidates accused the other of running negative campaigns against them. Difficult to say who suffers most from this. Clinton hardly has a halo worth talking about left, while Obama has become – perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not – increasingly tetchy as the campaign has progressed (although to be fair, he has been a perfect gentlemen in assisting Clinton out of her seat in a not entirely convincing display of old time courtesy). I can’t tell from watching the debates if they actually detest each other as some claim. It might be true but who knows. Of course for those incorrigibles who believe that this is merely the facade of capitalism and that secretly they’re both delighted to be doing the bidding of big pharma or the military industrial complex then their personal feelings are rather redundant. But I’ve seen and been in campaigns of my own and know just how raw such emotions can become even amongst nominal ideological allies. And really, aren’t they so similar in policy terms as to have been produced by what I think Americans call cookie cutters (in both sense of the term)? Indeed to hear them arguing over healthcare is to actually think that Nader for all his faults and flaws (unelectable in any year might be his slogan) might have a point in running. Not that that is a good thing if the Republicans sidle back into the White House with McCain next year.

I’m fairly certain that Clinton’s complaints against the soft soaping Obama has been receiving at the hands of the media was wide of the mark. It might well be true (and certainly few candidates have been as blessed by their friends and admirers) but it sounds awful.

As the Irish Times noted:

In their final debate before next Tuesday’s primaries in Texas and Ohio, Mrs Clinton sought to present herself as a fighter and to portray Mr Obama as a lightweight media darling. Pointing out that she usually got the first questions in debates, allowing Mr Obama to react to her answer, Mrs Clinton referred to a parody on media bias on the comedy TV show Saturday Night Live.

“Maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow,” she said.

In fairness to her, this is a genuine problem of language and its capacity to deal with such as Obama. If the candidate is indeed a ‘lightweight media darling’ then engaging on that terrain, as she did, only seems to diminish her credibility. But what, she could quite justifiably ask, to do?

And ironically it was on a point of policy and principle where Obama was able to land a decisive blow.

Mr Obama’s best moment came in response to Mrs Clinton’s claim that their records on the Iraq war were identical since he became a US senator in 2005. Mr Obama said Mrs Clinton could not escape from the fact that she voted to authorise the use of force against Iraq. “The fact was this was a big strategic blunder. It was not a matter of, ‘Well, here is the initial decision, but since then we’ve voted the same way’,” he said.

“Once we had driven the bus into the ditch, there were only so many ways we could get out. The question is: Who’s making the decision initially to drive the bus into the ditch? And the fact is that Senator Clinton often says that she is ready on day one, but, in fact, she was ready to give in to George Bush on day one on this critical issue.” Towards the end of the debate, Mrs Clinton said she would like to take back her vote for the Iraq war.

That’s a great piece of political cover for Obama (whatever the potential unpleasantness about the future it may conceal). Being right at the start is arguably better than coming to the right conclusion in retrospect.

And Obama was able to push issues onto Clinton. Consider how he dealt with the issue of Louis Farrakhan’s support (incidentally Farrakhan is termed a Muslim, but I always had the impression the NoI was very very far from mainstream Islamic thinking…anyhow perhaps someone could enlighten me).

Mrs Clinton suggested that there was a difference between denouncing the minister’s statements and rejecting his support.

“There’s no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it,” Mr Obama said. “But if the word ‘reject’ Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word “denounce,” then I’m happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce.”

It both strengthens his position by underlining his rejection and denunciation (although I’m not sure what good such rejections and denunciations actually do), and it makes her seem petty for pushing him to do so.

But there is a bigger picture.

A new poll showed Mr McCain leading both Democratic contenders in a national match-up, with a two-point edge over Mr Obama and a six-point lead over Mrs Clinton. The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll shows Mr McCain running ahead of Mr Obama on every issue except healthcare. The Republican has a 13-point advantage on Iraq and a 37-point lead on terrorism.

It’s very early days yet, and I wonder how long or how well that poll lead will sustain itself. But it’s notable how already Obama and McCain are slugging it out (and that 2 point as against 6 point lead will be certain to concentrate minds amongst Democrats, and perhaps provide Republicans grieving the loss of Mitt Romney some solace in these dark days).

John McCain pouring scorn on Barack Obama’s statement that he would consider reinvading the country if al-Qaeda was forming a base there.

“When you examine that statement, it’s pretty remarkable,” Mr McCain told a crowd in Tyler, Texas. “I have some news. Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. It’s called al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

Which is sort of clever. But not very. Still it came on the foot of one of Obama’s less fluent lines in the debate where he reserved the right to send US troops into Iraq to deal with insurrection or civil war. Erm… which is sort of similar to today… well, anyway… moving on swiftly.

Obama responded by, taunting the Arizona senator over his promise to follow Osama bin Laden “to the gates of Hell” to bring the al-Qaeda leader to justice. “All he has done is to follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq,” Mr Obama said.

Interesting. But I wonder how that line of attack will work against McCain. Expect more… much much more of this over the next half year or so.

Arts and class… new research demonstrates something that might seem sort of obvious. February 28, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Art, Culture.
12 comments

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For those of you who peruse the ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute) website you are likely to come across the following. For the ESRI and the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF) have sponsored a report entitled “In the Frame or Out of the Picture? A Statistical Analysis of Public Involvement in the Arts”. It’s quite interesting, but the conclusions… well, they’re hardly surprising.

And a piece that announced this in the Irish Times on Monday noted some of the main findings:

PEOPLE FROM less well-off backgrounds are many times less likely to go to the cinema, music concerts or art exhibitions, new research shows.

Although education has the strongest influence on whether people attend arts events, people of higher income or social class are also much more likely to attend.

For example, people with a degree are nearly three times more likely to go to a film and twice as likely to attend a play or art exhibition compared with the rest of the population.

This can hardly be news, can it? Many years ago I was involved in arts administration. It was an interesting opportunity to get an insight into how the arts are structured in Ireland, and have at least some insight into the NI and UK experience. A couple of fairly obvious impressions. Firstly the arts live in a curiously symbiotic embrace with the state. Their individualism (and collectivism) draw directly upon state funding. I’m well past the argument of why we benefit from such funding, but…that said we’re not necessarily all benefiting equally, or anywhere close to equally from it. Secondly those involved tend, in the main, to be drawn from the middle classes. Neither of these is, per se, a problem, but it does indicate the terrain upon which we tread. Now, lest it seem that my second point there is an outrageous example of classism consider the following:

“What is striking is the range of events affected,” said Dr Lunn. “Social background strongly influences attendance right across the arts spectrum, from a classical concert to a gig in the pub, or from the school play to the latest blockbuster.”

Other findings show that those from less well-off backgrounds are not as likely to read for pleasure.

But the same pattern does not occur for direct participation in the arts, such as playing an instrument or performing in shows, where social background has a much weaker influence.

This is probably less true for those who organise the arts, a reasonably significant group. No, hold on, it is true of those, and moreover, as the report itself (available as PDF from the ESRI here – go to the publications page) notes:

A third policy implication arises from the finding that awareness of arts officers is heavily skewed towards higher socio-economic groups. This raises a concrete example of the kind of resource trade-offs that policy-makers must make. The result does not imply that arts officers do not do a good job, for that depends on how much emphasis is to be placed on reaching out to more disadvantaged communities as opposed to other duties. Certainly, it suggests that if cultural inclusion is to be taken seriously, a degree of redirection and training, as envisaged in NESF (2007) will be required.

Still, what are the reasons for all this? I can guess of one in particular… but let us turn to the conclusion of the Report.

It argues that:

the number of potential causal routes between socio-economic status and involvement in the arts is such that to offer a single explanation for the primary conclusion just arrived at is a daunting task.

Which is true, but… some effort should be made…

Take educational attainment. An individual with higher attainment is more likely to have been born to educated parents, who in turn would be more likely to be involved in the arts themselves. She or he will have spent longer in full-time education, surrounded by people also more likely to have a connection to the arts and, in many cases, to be studying them.

So, it’s a cultural thing.

After moving into the labour force, the individual is more likely to be surrounded by a network of other educated people, who have experienced the same advantages. Note that all of these advantages listed thus far do not take into account the simple possibility that education itself stimulates interest in the arts and promotes faculties useful for comprehending and enjoyingthe number of potential causal routes between socio-economic status and involvement in the arts is such that to offer a single explanation for the primary conclusion just arrived at is a daunting task.

No wait, that sounds like class to me, at least in part.

Still, something is missing, some factor which might in the past have predicated, even before acculturation through the relatively recently developed upper working and middle classes extant on this island, against widespread participation by those from less well off socio-economic groups.

After all, the report also notes that:

Nevertheless, there is some evidence arising from the present study that the impact of socio-economic factors extends beyond their influence on interests and tastes. The models described in Section 5 show that even comparing individuals who profess the same interest in the arts and who watch or listen to television, radio, CDs or DVDs of a particular artform, those in more advantageous circumstances are still considerably more likely actually to attend an event.

Which means there is some other factor. Something… like…perhaps…

cost – it is more expensive to attend arts events than to watch or listen. Recall that a more accurate measure of household income would be likely to be still more strongly related to involvement in the arts than is indicated by the figures presented.

Cost… who’d have thunk it? Well, actually no end of people. We see in a report available here that “Barriers to participation” include:

Family commitments, time, cost, transport, literacy, social & psychological barriers (Dec 2006 survey)

Indeed a press release from the Department of Arts, Sports, and Tourism notes that the Arts and Culture Plan 2008 will:

Also, as part of the increased access initiative, [see] proposals will be drawn up this year for the launch of a new National Cultural Day, which will begin in 2009, during which admission prices will be removed or reduced for events at publicly funded organisations.

But this is the point. If there is already a ‘social or psychological’ barrier extant that somehow arts and cultural activities are in some sense beyond the pale or elitist (not an entirely incorrect notion as it happens) then the very costs of engaging with such activities reinforces precisely those barriers and prejudices.

It is revealing, to me at least, that in Section 9, under Further Research the authors admit that:

In particular, no details of individual and regular involvements with the arts were collected, such as duration, time, context, cost, frequency, initial contact etc. Moreover, the range of background characteristics was narrow.

Yet the report suggests that:

The data analysed here also provide some suggestion that cost may be a factor for them, and so subsidies to reduce ticket prices associated with targeted marketing could be fruitful.

I’m certainly not arguing that cost alone is the determining factor. As the report notes…

Another potentially important factor, as implied by the example of educational attainment just described, is networks. We do not have data on how people first become involved, or what leads them to develop the habit of attending arts events, but social and family networks may be very instrumental.

But cost is crucial to the process of engaging with the arts and pivotal to the reinforcement of negative attitudes towards the arts. And as the report notes this isn’t restricted to the ‘high’ arts but also to cinema, music and other seemingly less elitist pursuits. And this fact that even supposedly ‘popular’ events such as music are in actual fact still tilted towards middle class participation is almost, but not quite, entertaining. Or as the Irish Times notes:

They [people with a degree] are also significantly more likely to attend music events such as pop, traditional or classical music concerts.

It makes sense when one stops and thinks about it (although it certainly sheds a certain light on claims of authenticity and credibility appropriated by those who perform). And here education is crucial. Because as qualifications spread cross class they pull, through the processes developed in secondary and tertiary education, people into engaging with the arts and culture.

Is notice being taken of these issues? In the Arts and Culture Plan launched by the government this week we read that:

[the Plan] commits additional funding of €40m for arts and culture infrastructure projects countrywide, restoration of the Heritage Fund for the acquisition of works of artistic and cultural significance, extended and more flexible opening hours at national museums, cultural venues, galleries and libraries, and a doubling of funding for national touring programmes to bring drama and cultural events to a wider audience.

And it is true that across a range of public museums, as the Plan notes: Ireland is the only country in Europe where the cultural experience is largely free of charge.

But, that is to draw a smaller circle around a specific range of cultural ‘experiences’. It is the broader area of cultural activity which is important and there cost is a factor. It is notable that the mention above in the Arts and Culture Plan is the only one that refers to cost.

Of course, much of this debate depends on how we define ‘arts’ a tricky and contentious issue in itself. It also depends on what value we accord these ‘arts’. But… to me the most interesting finding remains the fact that even supposedly middlebrow pursuits remain locked off from participation.

I have this image of a void in our society where many people simply don’t go beyond their house or their community and engage in cultural activities – other than the television. This too, the physical distance between activity and individual, is an issue. And beyond that is the sense that arts and culture are activities engaged in and produced by others. This is in no way to diminish those both from within and without communities who are working in precisely this area, but when the broader cultural narrative is one where culture is something that is locked into through education and disposable income the barriers to engagement are perhaps too high to be removed without active intervention by the state.

Talking of art and class, and perhaps the middle class in particular, can I direct you to this link which refers to the image used above…

When stars fade out… a disturbing prediction of the future of the universe but a consoling thought about our present. February 27, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Not entirely sure why, but I find an article in this months Scientific American somewhat disturbing. Written by Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer (Scherrer is a cosmologist and science fiction writer – something of a busman’s holiday, I suppose, for him) it posits a logical outcome of the expansion of the universe.

Essentially the deal is as follows. In the last ten years astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. This has very real effects. Individual galaxies of which our Milky Way is one will be pulled apart from each other to the point where they are so far from each other that they are impossible to see. This means that hypothetical astronomers of the future will have no reference points by which to judge the previous history of the universe. They simply may not be able to find evidence that the universe started with the big bang and expanded outwards.

The discovery of a speeding expansion necessitated a rethink of previous models.

The acceleration of the universe implies that empty space contains almost three times as much energy as all the cosmic structures we observe today: galaxies, clusters and superclusters of galaxies. Ironically, Albert Einstein first postulated such a form of energy to keep the universe static. He called it the cosmological constant’

This has profound implications.

With cosmologist Glenn Starkman of Case Western Reserve University, Krauss explored the implications for the fate of life in a universe with a cosmological constant. The prognosis: not good. Such a universe becomes a very inhospitable place. The cosmological constant produces a fixed “event horizon,” an imaginary surface beyond which no matter or radiation can reach us. The universe comes to resemble an inside-out black hole, with matter and radiation trapped outside the horizon rather than inside it. This finding means that the observable universe contains only a finite amount of information, so information processing (and life) cannot endure forever [see “The Fate of Life in the Universe,” by Lawrence M. Krauss and Glenn D. Starkman; Scientific American, November 1999].

Long before this information limit becomes a problem, all the expanding matter in the universe will be driven outside the event horizon. This process has been studied by Abraham Loeb and Kentaro Nagamine, both then at Harvard University, who found that our so-called Local Group of galaxies (the Milky Way, Andromeda and a host of orbiting dwarf galaxies) will collapse into a single enormous supercluster of stars. All the other galaxies will disappear into the oblivion beyond the event horizon. This process takes about 100 billion years, which may seem long but is fairly short compared to the wilderness of eternity.

In other words it will be impossible to see other galaxies. Nor will it be possible to trace the prior history of the universe from their movement. And the odd thing about this is that it almost seems to deliver us back to a viewpoint which was extant at the beginning of the 20th century when it was believed that our own galaxy was an ‘island universe’ in an infinite space.

General relativity gave a first pillar (as Krauss and Scherrer put it) of our contemporary cosmological models by demonstrating that space could not be unchanging, that it had to expand or contract. Hence this delivered us the conceptual underpinning of the ‘big bang’.

Next measurements by American astronomers Vesto Slipher and Edward Hubble, working individually, provided the information that galaxies tended to be moving away from us (not all it must be noted – which is why our Local Group will collapse into a supercluster) and that their velocity was increasing. This provided the second pillar.

Cosmic microwave radiation gave us a third pillar… a legacy of the early expansion of the universe, indicating that the big bang was both hot and matter was dense within the growing universe.

Finally, nuclear fusion itself, the processes of which used certain elements, specifically the lightest ones producing helium and deuterium. These processes match models of the big bang and better still account for contemporary conditions.

The problem is that each one of these pillars is subject to change as the universe ages. Relativity grew out of observations of the universe as it is now. But this universe is not constant. The retreat into the darkness of the galaxies is only the most obvious problem. Cosmic radiation will dissipate to levels that are impossible to record. Analysis of chemical elements will be obscured by later production of helium in stars.

And this leads to problems. As the article notes:

Although the observational abundance of light elements will not provide any direct evidence for a fiery big bang, it will nonetheless make one aspect of future cosmology different from the illusory cosmology of a century ago. Astronomers and physicists who develop an understanding of nuclear physics will correctly conclude that stars burn nuclear fuel. If they then conclude (incorrectly) that all the helium they observe was produced in earlier generations of stars, they will be able to place an upper limit on the age of the universe. These scientists will thus correctly infer that their galactic universe is not eternal but has a finite age. Yet the origin of the matter they observe will remain shrouded in mystery.

Nor is this unlikely. Let’s consider the timescales. 5 billion years from now we can expect the Andromeda galaxy to be filling the sky as the local group collapses in on itself. 100 billion years from now we will be part of a globe like supercluster and all other galaxies will be invisible. 100 trillion years form now the last stars will burn out. Now, granted, let’s put this in perspective, the universe is, according to our best models about 13.7 billion years old, so we are talking about unimaginable depths of time. Empires may well rise and fall. But that’s the problem. Our universe appears to be infinite both in terms of space and time. Knowledge will almost inevitably be lost… assuming we, or others, survive to pass it on.

And that infinity only really refers to its compass, not to the matter within it. For that we can only expect that…
It will consist of an island of stars embedded in a vast emptiness… The ultimate future of the observable universe is to collapse into a black hole, precisely what will in fact occur to our galaxy in the distant future.

It’s a remarkable thought, that the universe will in effect be dotted with black holes marking the sites of not merely galaxies, but collections of galaxies, each of those holes become ever more distant from each other as the inexorable expansion continues. Forever.

And Krauss and Scherrer point to an oddity of the present period (let’s use the term ‘period’ loosely, we’re talking billions of years here).

The window during which intelligent observers can deduce the true nature of our expanding universe might be very short indeed. Some civilizations might hold on to deep historical archives, and this very article might appear in one—if it can survive billions of years of wars, supernovae, black holes and countless other perils. Whether they will believe it is another question. Civilizations that lack such archives might be doomed to remain forever ignorant of the big bang.

So, we, are privileged to see past and future of the universe. But wait. Lest you start cheering the Anthropic Principle (which argues that the universe is of its nature – whether deliberately or not – conducive to life) our two authors take a different line.

They argue that…

First, this would quite likely not be the first time that information about the universe would be lost because of an accelerating expansion. If a period of inflation occurred in the very early universe, then the rapid expansion during this era drove away almost all details of the preexisting matter and energy out of what is now our observable universe. Indeed, one of the original motivations for inflationary models was to rid the universe of pesky cosmological objects such as magnetic monopoles that may once have existed in profusion.

More important, although we are certainly fortunate to live at a time when the observational pillars of the big bang are all detectable, we can easily envisage that other fundamental aspects of the universe are unobservable today. What have we already lost? Rather than being self-satisfied, we should feel humble. Perhaps someday we will find that our current careful and apparently complete understanding of the universe is seriously wanting. 

Who is to know what artifacts of the earliest phase of the universe have already vanished, what echoes of their existence we have missed or simply ignored because they are scattered in fragments impervious to analysis? It reminds me a bit of the arguments used to counter ‘intelligent’ design which point out the myriad flaws in our physical makeup. To reify an idea that we are more than simply coincidentally fortunate to be able to see this unfolding history and future of our universe over the reality of our probable ignorance is of dubious utility. But that’s not to ignore the fact that we are fortunate and that in an immensity of time we get ringside seats. Somehow, despite the end of it all, and I admit that philosophically I find the idea of an empty void somewhat less than great, that is in itself cheering. Perhaps this is the price we pay for living in an entropic universe. But then again, we also get to see the big lights and the show looks set to continue for quite a while.

A smallish holiday caravan of reaction? Éamon Ó Cuív looks towards a future Fianna Fáil/UUP coalition in the North February 27, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Northern Ireland, The North, Unionism.
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And so this is what it comes to when you address Ógra Fianna Fáil. As reported in the Irish Times (which is going through a redesign, a reformatting and an increase in price this week, to no clear purpose that I can make out):

THE ULSTER Unionist Party (UUP) will consider Fianna Fáil as future coalition partners in Northern Ireland in years to come, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív has predicted.

Fianna Fáil, which recently started cumainn in the University of Ulster in Derry and Queens University in Belfast, is currently examining options for development in the North.

It’s quite a leap into the unknown.

Mr Ó Cuív rejected the argument put forward by some in the party that it should establish grassroots organisations in Northern Ireland, but not actually contest elections. Fianna Fáil could very quickly, he said, face applications for membership from people who were already elected to bodies in Northern Ireland and who would want to run again.

“We could find ourselves in a situation where we are confronted by Northern elections in a short time after organising there.”

He noted that Ulster Unionist Party leader Reg Empey was the only senior Unionist politician to criticise openly Fianna Fáil’s Northern expansion.

Which, it has to be said, does present at least some problems, doesn’t it? On the other hand, isn’t this rather fantastical. I’ve mentioned before how I suspect it would take a considerable length of time for Fianna Fáil to operate successfully in the terra incognito North of the border. That is, assuming it can operate at all. The example of the Northern Ireland Conservative Party – that exotic bloom translated into the so far unyielding soil of the six counties – hardly gives comfort to those eager to progress the national agenda by cross border political means. Of course the NICP was, arguably, a bit too exotic. Fianna Fáil at least has the qualification of coming from this island and that border is fairly permeable.

Despite this, Mr Ó Cuív, who is Éamon de Valera’s grandson, said: “The question that Ulster Unionists will be asking is that if they are bound to share power with a nationalist party, would they prefer it to be Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or do they think that the SDLP can reverse the tide.”

He believed that the Ulster Unionist Party could see Fianna Fáil “as the favoured party. The answer to this is not black and white,” he told the Ógra Fianna Fáil conference.

Fianna Fáil should not limit its catchment just to nationalist voters who supported Sinn Féin, or the SDLP, or who did not vote at all.

Still, why the Ulster Unionists? Why not the DUP? Or is that a bridge too far for Fianna Fáil. And yet, one might suggest that the DUP had less historical baggage as regards Stormont than the UUP, and arguably a greater – albeit newfound – appetite for economic and political pragmatism that would chime well with that of Fianna Fáil. But of course the DUP has taken up with Sinn Féin, so that option is off the table for the moment. Whether this indicates some calculation by FF that the big soggy centre of NI politics will swing UUPwards in the future is an interesting thought to contemplate, but I doubt it.

And yet, then again, why not the UUP? Mild, centrist, polite, used in a former incarnation to government and to all the messy compromises that come with government. Able to forge and use a cross class coalition of interests for the best part of forty years. Less in thrall to the religious dimension than the DUP, but still aware of and able to play to that dimension. And how convenient that it should slip the shackles of the Orange Order. Yes. That would do nicely when one thinks about.

That we are talking at base about parties of the centre, centre/right, does not appear to faze Ó Cuív one iota. After all, the UUP has – despite something of a liberal strand – never been recognisably ‘progressive’ in any meaningful sense. And one might argue that, ironically, this makes it a very typical Irish political party indeed. The DUP, despite having a more populist and working class base perhaps makes fewer concessions still to the centre left. And that too places it firmly within a spectrum of broadly unsurprising political activity found on this island.

Also, ironically, despite the jibe that class always lost out to national identity in Irish nationalism, the charge is perhaps even more appropriate to Ulster Unionism in all its variants. The parties of Unionism were as noted above, and remain, great pan-class constructs which have reified identity above more local or specific concerns. And even to suggest the DUP is more populist is, in some ways, merely to ascribe features based upon their membership rather than to indicate any specific ideological component. One of the banes of leftism has been a tendency to project revolutionary or ideological aspects onto groupings which have only the vaguest and most transitory relationship with same. I’ve yet to see a convincing argument about the proletarian nature of the DUP, but no doubt it’s being written up somewhere. Feargal Cochrane in his “Unionist Politics and the politics of unionism since the Anglo-Irish Agreement” touched on some of this when he noted that:

“another complicating factor within the DUP was provided by class divisions between the party’s urban working-class heartlands and the increasingly middle-class composition of the leadership, and more importantly, the conflicting political agenda’s of the rural middle-class Free Presbyterian voters and their urban working class secular bretheren. Clifford Smyth argues that the extent to which the DUP became a working-class party is a matter for conjecture, commenting that it is impossible to prove Paul Arthur’s hypothesis that ‘Political Paisleyism was proletarian, but religious Paisleyism attracted lower middle-class congregations which crammed the ample car park with their Cortinas”.

Tellingly Cochrane doesn’t address the UUP in class terms at all, other than tangentially.

Having said that, what is interesting about this is that it points to a new future political structure in the North where southern political formations would vie for votes in the North and also attempt to be part of the governing institutions. It’s not quite a unity agenda, in the sense that there is no impression from Fianna Fáil that it intends to use any future position in government to leverage the situation forward. And in that respect Ó Cuív’s words about “…they are bound to share power with a nationalist party” are revealing. The Good Friday Agreement status quo remains just that. Sure, there will be greater emphasis on cross-border links, but no hurry. And then there is his question about ‘reversing the tide’. Does he mean the SF tide? Or that which has ensued after the GFA? Or has a certain rhetorical vagueness entered the equation? And is that last sentence of his to be interpreted as a call to move beyond nationalism? What sort of Fianna Fáil is being offered here? Certainly it stretches the definition of catch-all to undreamt of extremes.

Strange times. But rhetorical times. Before any of this becomes even slightly persuasive it would be necessary to see concrete action. I don’t see any prospect of that in the immediate, or even the medium term. And so Ó Cuív’s comments should be regarded if not necessarily with cynicism, then certainly with scepticism. I don’t follow the old DL line that say and do nothing to upset Unionism (you’ll see examples of it in upcoming Times Change when they’re added to the Left Archive). Unionism is a fairly robust entity, even at the worst of times. But rhetoric is another thing entirely. Don’t say it unless you mean it. I don’t really believe they mean… at least not yet.

Samantha Power and the Obama Campaign February 26, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Books, Democrats, International Politics, Iraq, United States, US Politics.
60 comments

Via Normblog, a rather disappointing Sunday Times interview with the very intriguing Samantha Power.Power’s an interesting character. She’s a strong human rights advocate who doesn’t fall into any easy ideological categories. Her opposition to the invasion of Iraq distinguishes her from both the hawkish elements within the current US administration who use the language of human rights to cloak a rather more base military adventurism and the Nick Cohen-ite ‘muscular liberals’ so comprehensively ridiculed in the always brilliant Encyclopedia of Decency. However, she’s by no means a pacifist and her support for military intervention in certain cases puts her at odds with much of what might loosely be described as the broad-left anti-war movement.

Power’s 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide is a compelling and illuminating piece of work which analyses the evolution of the international community’s understanding of genocide as a distinct crime, and the responses of various US administrations to it throughout the 20th century. The material on the Kurds is particularly good, specifically in detailing the internal politics driving the State Department’s response to the Anfal campaign.

Her new book, Chasing the Flame, is a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the senior UN diplomat most notable for overseeing the transition of the then East Timor to independence and for his death at the hands of jihadists in a car bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003. Even prior to his death Vieira de Mello was a fascinating figure and was profiled in Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists as one of a number of soixante-huitards (the others including Joshka Fischer and Bernard Kouchner) who came to a difficult accomodation with the defence of human rights and the need for humanitarian interventionism in the 40 years since the riots of the summer of ’68. Berman’s review of Power’s book can be found here:  ironically, his main criticism of the work

But the biggest difficulty, or so my reading of Chasing the Flame leads me to suppose, is a problem of the imagination. A philosophical issue. It’s the same problem that keeps popping up in Power’s earlier book as well: an inability to imagine why some people might set out to destroy whole populations. Vieira de Mello participated in U.N. missions that followed any of several logics—the logic of peacekeeping, or of establishing safe havens for the persecuted, or of providing humanitarian aid. But each of those logics presumes that if horrific conflicts have broken out, it is because otherwise reasonable people have fallen into misunderstandings and a neutral broker like the U.N. might usefully intercede. Yet conflicts sometimes break out because one or another popular political movement has arrived at a sincere belief in the virtue of exterminating its enemies, and horrific ideologies lie at the origin. Neutral mediations in a case like that are bound only to obscure the reality—which has happened several times over, as Power usefully demonstrates.

is precisely the aspect of Berman’s own writing which is the weakest. Particularly in Terror and Liberalism, but also elsewhere, he has a tendency to move from relatively well-considered fact-based arguments to vague theorising about ideology – in particular about the ‘irrationality’ of certain ‘death-cults’ – which isn’t really supported by convincing evidence and which one suspects is only thrown in to allow Berman to make spurious analogies between Fascism, Stalinism and (for want of a more accurate term) Jihadism.

While Chasing the Flame isn’t published (this side of the Atlantic) until next week, I hope it will examine in some detail how possible the post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq was at the time of Vieria de Mello’s death. Recent books like Imperial Life in the Emerald City and The Occupation suggest that the reconstruction efforts were always doomed to failure, due to the, at best, incompetence and, at worst, criminal and deliberate negligence of the Coalition Provisional Authority. However, what the argument that the current morass in Iraq was the inevitable and unavoidable outcome of the invasion doesn’t consider is what might have happened had the initial reconstruction effort been headed up by the United Nations rather than Paul Bremer and co. It’s something of a pointless debate, of course: we have no real way of knowing what might have happened had things been otherwise, and it certainly doesn’t assist in considering a possible solution to the present situation. However, it’s an argument worth having, to inform future questions of military intervention (however unlikely these may be in the short term).

What’s so disappointing about the Sunday Times piece, though, is that there’s so little in it. Power’s close involvement with the Obama campaign certainly cause me to pay closer attention to his campaign (although her somewhat star-struck descriptions of him in the interview do tend to grate). However, nowhere in the article is the question of what US foreign policy under an Obama administration might look like, particularly in the area of human rights and humanitarian intervention. That said, her presence is still something to keep an eye on in the course of the campaign and certainly if Obama manages to win the Democratic nomination and becomes an actual Presidential candidate.

The New Dispensation continues: Sinn Féin and Labour put forward their first joint Private Members’ motion… February 26, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
2 comments

And lo, it came to pass. That the parties of the left (absent the Green Party who were away on business building government North and South) came together to produce a joint Private Members’ motion.

The motion will call on the Government to introduce legislation to force employers to treat workers recruited through employment agencies on the same basis as permanent staff.

It’s good sensible stuff which attempts to erase a loophole in currently existing legislation. It is churlish to argue that it comes perhaps half a decade too late. But… it comes half a decade too late.

Sinn Féin employment spokesman Arthur Morgan said yesterday that agency workers were often employed on inferior pay and conditions. Such developments were unfair, and could also undermine existing arrangements for permanent staff.

The Sinn Féin/Labour motion says that without legislation which ensures that agency workers are subject to the same terms as directly-employed workers “employers will always be tempted to cut corners on terms and conditions and casualisation, and exploitation will take hold”.

The motion calls on the Government “to immediately introduce legislation to protect the equal rights of agency workers, compared to their permanent counterparts, whereby employment agency workers would be subject to a collective agreement specifying terms and conditions of employment”.

This is a profoundly serious area. The ability of companies to deal inequitably with staff dependent on such matters is a real problem. SIPTU (and indeed Des Derwin has publicised this here) have been doing good work in this area recently. But it remains an employment minefield with unscrupulous employers willing to utilise the legislation – or lack of same – to their advantage. I’d suggest that as we move into an economic slowdown it is essential that the framework of legislation affecting workers rights should be as comprehensive as possible. The alternative is an overly flexible labour market which leaves marginalised workers unprotected, and what happens on the fringes today can easily become mainstreamed tomorrow.

For some details on Martin Ferris’s contribution to the debate on the motion read here

Oddly enough this has a personal bearing. For the past five years I was working on fixed term contracts in one employment. However, due to a useful aspect of the legislation (from, as recently as 2003) relating to fixed-term contracts because I had worked over four years they were forced to put me on a contract of indefinite duration.

The relevant legislation and link to PDF document on these matters is below.

10. Can an Employer Employ an Employee on a Series of Fixed-Term Contracts Indefinitely?
No.
Employees on fixed-term contracts which commenced prior to the passing of the Act( 14 July 2003)
Once such an employee completes or has completed 3 years continuous employment with his or her employer or associated employer (any or all of the 3 years service may have occurred prior to the passing of the Act) the employer may renew the contract for a fixed term on one occasion only and that renewal may be for a period of no longer than 1 year.
Employees on a fixed-term employment contract which commences after the passing of the Act:
Where such an employee is employed by his or her employer or associated employer on two or more continuous fixed-term contracts, the aggregate duration of those contracts may not exceed 4 years.
Where a term of an employment contract purports to limit the term of the employment contract of either category of employee mentioned above, in contravention of the above rules, that term shall be void and of no effect and the contract concerned shall be deemed to be one of indefinite duration п a permanent contract.
However, the above-mentioned rules do not apply where there are objective grounds justifying the renewal of a contract of employment for a fixed term only.
The First Schedule to the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Act, 1973 relating to continuous employment determines whether employment on fixed-term contracts is continuous or not.

Now as it happens the contract is only for five or six hours a week, but even still. The psychological relief of knowing that the work is there next year is enormous. And that was in the context of a reasonably open and transparent work environment. By contrast the sort of environment that many agency workers have to work in is often much less transparent and their facility to access clear information on rights is more limited. And yet at least SF/Labour (hey, now there’s a new piece of Irish political shorthand) are pushing towards a recognition that stability and longevity are crucial to both the sense and reality of security in employment. Which is where the following is important.

It says such legislation should specify a maximum period beyond which the worker must become a direct employee.

Mr Morgan said the issue of agency workers was very important at this time as it would be a very significant feature in the new national pay talks which are to get under way in the weeks ahead.

These aren’t cosmetic issues. Improvements in labour law are central to a left progressive agenda both in terms of ameliorating the distress and – often fear – of people in employment and also demonstrating the efficacy of our philosophies to actually improve the lives of those who often feel divorced from what we’re trying to achieve.

But there is, of course, a political aspect to this issue. To see Labour and Sinn Féin cooperating in this way is important. It is small stuff on one level, but it does point to a continuation of the developments last Summer which ensured the election of the first Sinn Féin Senator and the election of another Labour Senator. These aren’t minor achievements. The Left is in such a parlous state in the polity that any progress forward – on agreed and transparent terms – is a good thing in itself. That both parties continue to, and will continue for the foreseeable future, have profound differences of approach, philosophy and so forth is far from surprising (Cian on Irish Election makes some similar points as well). At least here, in this small portion of the battlefield, they have combined forces to prompt change. And that is as much a function of opposition as the more high profile work. Note too that the Government is also moving forward – perhaps goaded by this sort of activity into some action.

The Irish Times understands that legislation to be published by the Government this month will stipulate that workers recruited through agencies cannot have inferior terms and conditions to those set out in registered employment agreements where they apply. Such agreements are registered with the Labour Court.

Incidentally, perhaps someone closer to the action than I might be in a position to say whether it is an SF/Labour or Labour/SF motion. Terminological exactitude is all in these matters.

The next UK election and David Cameron February 25, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics.
6 comments

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Watching BBC4 tonight there was a repeat of Michael Cockerell’s Dave Cameron’s Incredible Journey.

It was actually pretty interesting, and I hadn’t caught it the first time around. With a near instinctive aversion to the Conservative Party but a long term interest in party politics the actual process by which Cameron came to power and his near fanatical desire to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors made for some intriguing television.

I can’t tell whether his rise is a case of style over substance. I’m still not as impressed by his near unscripted speech to last years party Conference as I’m apparently meant to be. I’ve said this before that it’s hardly unheard of for public speakers to manage that particular trick. And it’s a bit like a magician. To know the trick is to have it spoiled. Moreover on the policy front I genuinely can’t see what the fuss is about. He appears a trifle more emollient in his use of language, which I suppose is some sort of an improvement. But, he remains, for all the spinning, a fairly typical Conservative. As the BBC piece above notes:

To attract mainstream voters, he deliberately stopped talking about traditional Tory issues – like immigration, Europe and cutting taxes – and he started talking about education and health and especially the environment.

Hilton came up with a classic political rebranding slogan: ‘Vote blue, go green’.

The Tory leader and his spinmeister used the most graphic images to get their message across: hence hug-a-huskie and hug-a-hoodie.

Perhaps it is churlish, or simply stupid, to expect better, but it really does seem to be the definition of manipulative. And it’s most curious considering we’ve just seen off ten years or so of precisely that sort of stuff, to see potentially another ten years of it, and as Cockerell notes: David Cameron is a child of the media. He spent much of his early career as a PR man for a TV company and advising top Tories on presentation. Still, one thing that really fascinated me was the roundup at the end when various figures who had been interviewed throughout were asked whether he would be Prime Minister. It really seemed to divide 50:50 with clear antagonists such as Kelvin MacKenzie and Simon Heffer absolutely convinced he wouldn’t be while Michael Portillo seemed to think it might take another election or so before he would make it.

I find this interesting, if only because I had thought, considering the series of recent polls, that the Conservatives were doing rather well. This pessimism – which may indeed be well founded – was something of a surprise. What do others think?

For your reading pleasure… the Irish Left Review February 25, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

Launched this very day, here is the Irish Left Review. Some of us around here contribute to it as well but don’t let that put you off… The intention is… well, I’ll let you read the aims and objectives…

The Left Archive: “Militant” Special Irish Edition from January 1972 February 25, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Left Online Document Archive, Militant.
79 comments

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militant-1972-jan.pdf

An interesting addition to the Archive today. Here we have Militant’s Special Irish Edition, from 1972.

It has to be said, this is a fairly crisp and clean production. Note the almost tabloidesque presentation and the stark photography.

But it is, naturally, the content which is most important. I won’t say too much because it’s a fairly short and easy read. But to whet your appetites, here we have a cri de couer from Militant to the Official IRA and a critique of the Provisional IRA. Needless to say neither body matches up to the exacting standards of Militant. Nor is it entirely clear from the text how some circles are to be squared. For example we are told ‘the organisations in Ireland today can be judged by their attitueds towards the Protestant workers and towards the British Labour movement. The living standards of the Northern Ireland workers are being attacked by the Tory governments at Westminster and Stormont in the interests of British capital. In this sense the plight of Catholics today in Ulster will tomorrow be the plight of workers in Glasgow, Cardiff and Liverpool’, which might seem to tip to an east/west political focus. Not at all, for we are later told that “In Ireland, the national question can only be resolved on the basis of a United Socialist Republic. The demand for socialism must be raised…”. Hard to see a clear way forward in that context. And the final paragraph doesn’t really clarify things one way or another…

“When the mass of the Protestant working class of Ulster begins to break the stranglehold of Tory Unionism, when those sections of the small farmers and workers of the 26 counties who support Fianna Fail begin to move, under the pressure of the capitalist crisis, in the direction of working-class unity; when capitalism as now, cannot satisfy even the most basic human needs of jobs, houses and comprehensive social welfare policies, then the development of a mass all-Ireland party of Labour will make the achievement of a United Socialist Republic of Ireland seem possible.”

Indeed. No problem there then.

So the answer, predictably, is workers unity, as the headline on the last page indicates. There is a laudable emphasis on the more progressive manifestations of class struggle across the 20th century and the instances – few, very few – where some nascent unity manifested itself are detailed (a line that OSF and after would also focus in on).

For those of us familiar with such things it’s interesting to see the familiar names on show here. For here is Peter Taafe (and there is Peter Hadden) writing about Two Nations…Bankruptcy of theories of O’Brien and the “Marxist” sects, that latter would be BICO to you and me.

In a way the future evolution of their approach to the North is laid out here – I’m thinking in particular of the policies of the Socialist Party.

It’s all fascinating, and if there is one problem it is that everything is shaped to a Militant agenda, rather, perhaps than dealing with the facts on the ground as it were. But, at heart it’s more right than wrong, and one cannot fault it for attempting an analysis.

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