Monday, November 24, 2008

Stop and think for a minute

It is with growing discomfort that I'm hearing Bank of Ireland and Irish Life and Permanent have been approached by private equity firms interested in paying €5bn.

I would urge the Irish Government not to allow this to happen.

It would be Eircom all over again.

Private investors will sweat the assets while the country gets a bum deal.

Irish businesses and citizens need the injection of funds for sure, but at what price?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Feelin' good

After my first wave of emotion on hearing of Barack Obama's victory, only the immortal Nina Simone's word's can sum it up:

Its a new dawn

Its a new day

Its a new life

And I'm feeling good

Now let's begin to make the world a better place.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Government of Ireland

I take pride in the fact that I’ve never had any political allegiances. It goes back to a time when I was probably six or seven and a General Election was underway. You had to be one of two things: pro-Fianna Fail or pro-Fine Gael. Anyone who knows anything about politics in this fair country knows that your political convictions are inherited rather than inspired and much of this goes back to the Civil War.

One of the neighbours’ kids was rabidly praising one of these parties and threatening to punch anyone who disagreed. It was the closest thing to realising what the Hitler Youth may have behaved like in the 1930s. I was disgusted.

I actually have no faith in Irish politicians, at least some of the ones I have seen in action. Half of them can barely speak coherently, need a good tailor and should steer clear of golf clubs and tents full of builders.

As I grew older I was proud to exercise my democratic right to vote and based by decisions on who I thought would be the right people to do the job, reasoning their policies rather than a bloodline of allegiance.

I think this week I was proven right. People should only vote on who they consider will be good at the job. The next time a General Election is called this method of reasoning and judgement will be applied and hopefully incompetent politicians will be replaced by people with insight, judgement and reason.

On its first perusal Budget 2009 seemed prudent and a ‘not so bad’ mood swept the office where I worked. The next morning though anger, outrage and disgust had filtered through. Some people gave out about things like a tax on parking spaces, but the real hurt – genuine hurt – was felt by fair-minded people over the betrayal inflicted on our country’s senior citizens by introducing means-testing for medical cards.

I can’t agree that wealthy people like retired judges or politicians should be entitled to an automatic medical card but having witnessed on many occasions the incompetence of our civil servants, schemes like means-testing confuse, exasperate and delay. No good will come of this.

Elderly people who have worked all their life, paid their taxes and find the medical dimension of their lives an ever increasing reality have enough to worry about. The incompetence of the HSE is well documented. The cost of visiting a doctor is already prohibitively expensive and I thank God for my good health that I don’t have to visit an Irish hospital any time soon.

In one fell-swoop the current Government of Ireland has abandoned its senior citizens.

Also, it has not only cut funding of computers in Irish schools but has increased pupil-to-teacher ratios. This latter move reinforces in my mind the fact that the Irish Government has never appreciated nor understood the gift of the ICT industry on their shores, a sector that will be watching this decision with interest. It employs 85,000 people and wants to do more. Pay attention teachers, parents and politicians, there are good well-paying jobs for people with talent. Hopefully, there always will be.

In today’s Irish Independent James Downey wrote with insight on Middle Ireland’s reaction to the Budget: “It expected hardship. It got it. What it did not get was coherence.”

I could qualify this: it expected hardship. It did not expect to be heart-broken.

The Government may or not do a U-turn on the medical card issue. But whatever it does do not forget what happened. The next time a General Election is called base your voting decisions on reasoning the right people for the job. Don’t be blinded by blood allegiances. Do not forget this fiasco.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008


All my life I'd been led to believe that banks and those that worked in them were better than the rest of us. They were always correct and an admonishment for being overdrawn or not paying your credit card bill on time was like a metal ruler across your knuckles or moral disproval from a priest or rabii.

The events of the last few days have no doubt focused my mind and the minds of others that banks are not infallible and that those who run them can mess up like anyone else. But when you read the business pages and hear of city boys and girls in London being paid bonuses of six-figure sums, or chief executives of Irish banks being also paid such sums, it reinforces the notion that these people must have been on speaking terms with God.

No doubt in recent days these useless bankers must have been wishing they had a cellestial telephone line directly to God.

I remember having the temerity to ask for a student loan when I was 19 only to have to listen to the bank manager tell me "no" in 15 different ways for half an hour. I felt he got some kind of pleasure out of the experience.

While I completely understand US citizens' anger at how these overpaid crettins with their golden handshakes and skyscraper bonuses do not deserve to be bailed out, this morning's move by the Irish Government - though not without potential pitfalls - to guarantee Irish-owned banks was the right decision.

Firstly, it instils confidence, the rest of Europe may follow.

Ireland isn't of the same scale as the US or UK to have such financial meltdowns, but our objective to remain an international trading centre should stay on track.

The recent days may actually put us back on the road we should have stayed on. Wages may become more real and continue to attract investment, our corporate tax rate is still an important selling point and if the Government actually does stick through to the National Development Plan's infrastructural investments we may ride this crisis out and be in a position of relative strenght.

We lost our heads during the Celtic Tiger years, we became fat and bumptious with our SUVs, golf clubs in the sun and having to have a house bigger than our neighbour's.

That isn't Irish, that isn't what makes us special. What makes us special is having a clear head in a crisis, working our asses off and being honourable and charitable to those in need.

I read somewhere that the Irish used to rush to the sound of gunfire like salmon to the stream. In some ways we are a fatalistic people, but ultimately an optimisic one. We'll not only need clarity, optimism and realism in equal measure in the months ahead, but wisdom and fortitude.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

JK on how to make an entrance

After being harangued by friends of mine who are throwing a party to reply with darn RSVP so whatever system they are using gives them accurate numbers I sighed wearily in the office that I never, really, RSVP anyone.

Never RSVP

So when you do show up you create a cloud of confusion/consternation/relief/delight/anger

Or you get shown the door for the scamp that you are

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The iPhone 3G: A thing of dazzling lights and shimmering beauty

At a party once I had a conversation with fellow technology journalist Karlin Lillington about the role of technology journalists, bloggers and the world at large. We both agreed that we have been privileged to witness first hand the greatest cultural revolution since the invention of the printing press. Perhaps Karlin more than I since she grew up in and around Silicon Valley.

But the last 15 years of my life have been spectacular and breath-taking. I’ve met fantastic and interesting people in the industry – including Craig Barrett and Vint Cerf – and attended at least three addresses by Microsoft’s Bill Gates and one by Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page. I’ve been to all ends of the world, from Singapore to Seattle, and even got mild frost bite on a mountain near Salt Lake City. Standing on the Grand Canal in Venice on a hot day sipping chilled white wine or boogying to James Brown in Dublin have more than compensated.

When I began in journalism it was very hard to get a start in any form of paid work in the craft. In 1994 after stints of court reporting for the Irish Independent, I eventually got my break – a chance to edit and develop an electronics magazine called Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMT) and a sister publication called Irish Chemical Journal before graduating to Irish Computer and then becoming tech editor for Business & Finance and witnessing – and partaking in – the excesses of the era. The onset of and chronicling the tech landscape for the general public through E-Thursday and Digital Ireland have only added to and steadied my perspective on the technology or, should I say, digital revolution.

In the early 1990s, because I had no academic background in technology I made it my mission to go and visit electronics plants the length and breadth of Ireland that were the pre-cursor to the Celtic Tiger boom, ranging from Nortel in Galway to Seagate in Clonmel, Motorola in Swords, ALPS in Cork and Apple Computer, which conducted a major amount of manufacturing in Cork city.

On that visit in 1995 I met current country sales manager Liam Donohoe and got to witness the relentless rhythm of chips being hammered and glued onto printed circuit boards in the manufacture of notebook computers destined for the four corners of Earth. I began to see every single one of these plants as integral to a vast supply chain in which Ireland was playing a small but worthy role. At the time, if I said “technology journalist” to anyone they would have looked at me as if I had two heads. The vast potential of technology in shaping the world and entertaining and informing our lives was beyond me at that point, as it was most people in a country where PC penetration was lacklustre.

The point I want to make in this post is I believe technology and its coverage has come full circle to a point where its overall potential is being only now being realised by devices like the Xbox 360 and yes, of course (I’m getting to it) the Apple 3G iPhone. The vast implications again are beyond us and we are on the brink once more of an exciting new time.

When I received my first text message on a rainy November evening in Dublin from veteran tech writer Ray Okonski, letting me know his copy for a magazine I edited called Communications Today was filed, it was an epiphany.

On a Sunday afternoon as the iPhone 3G buzzes in my hand to let me know a new email has arrived, interrupting my leisurely look at Top Ten alternative rock albums on iTunesColdplay’s Viva la Vida is number one – I realise once more the potent forces about to be unleashed.

The iPhone 3G is an elegant piece of technology that should send tremors of terror through established players like Motorola and Nokia, and that linear menus and half-way houses of touch screens and buttons are on the out. Nokia’s N95 is a brave and beautiful effort, while Samsung’s Tocco – what I consider a mini-iPhone including As Gaeilge – is the only thing that currently comes close.

The things that have amazed me the most about the iPhone 3G – an 8GB version – are the simple to use Safari web browser (turn it on its side and you get full screen internet), the iPod functionality and the wonderful picture album. To get a close up of the image on your screen you simple spread your fingers to expand and to contract just pinch your fingers.

Sifting through photographs is again, quick and easy. Just flick with a finger and a carousel of your favourite shots just flick by.

The mapping function is surprisingly quick, calculating the fastest route to get from A to B, and the writing function for texts, web addresses and notes is a massive step forward. I have to admit the 3G coverage – poor where I live – has underwhelmed me, but thanks to a Wi-Fi network in my house I can appreciate the device’s full potential.

But ultimately it’s the elegance of the operating system that wins it for me. Nothing the established mobile industry has put together thus far comes near in terms of simplicity and ease of use. You’d think they’d learn. Well, they will. Just like the Japanese at Pearl Harbour did for the Americans, Apple has awakened a sleeping giant … an alarmingly complacent mobile industry … from its slumber.

Apple deserves the success it will derive from the iPhone. It did its homework and painstakingly realised its vision. And of course thanks to Steve Jobs’ hype machine and savvy marketing organisation.

It also deserves the kudos for bringing the mobile revolution back from an unannounced four year holiday. Expect a new revolution in entertainment, business and our working lives to come our way as the technology industry is once again imbued with purpose.

It is just one element of a vast movement underway, such as two-way digital television that electronics giants such as Intel are working on, according to the company’s home entertainment VP Eric Kim, and that should debut at the next Consumer Electronics Show.

The world’s too vast for us now …. Seeya!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Will the last person to leave the country please turn out the lights

So it's official - we're in a recession.

I sat stony-faced in my car as the findings of the ESRI were read out on the radio. I partied hard with everybody else but never forgot the dismal 80s and 90s - when as a college student having to sign on the dole because there weren't even part-time summer jobs available.

This shocks me to my core but I have to admit along with everybody else that we had to have seen this coming. We had our economic boom, our Celtic Tiger. Why don't we just make the right decisions to ensure at least - good times or bad - our dear nation knows stability. Stability is a form of prosperity.

The rumour mills suggest that the government is planning to announce ubiquitious broadband as part of its National Broadband Strategy next week (3 July).

I couldn't urge this more. A person at home with a computer and a broadband connection is capable of setting up a business or an industry - as we have seen in recent years. It's a lot more than their counterpart at home in the 1990s had. Except for a one-way plane ticket to America.

This is not an epiphany, it's real. Enterprise and entrepreneurship are the antidote for unemployment and recession. Encourage people to use computers and broadband to beat the recession, they can work for anyone from anywhere. They can create businesses based on anything from selling stuff on eBay to using their intelligence to write, provide consultancy services or develop technology. This is the way out. Failure to provide them with the tools is economic sabotage. Let's hope intelligence prevails.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lack of political willpower is killing broadband in Ireland

  • Every morning I join a convoy of neighbours who depart from our tiny little village on the 45min-1hr drive to our capital city. I don't mind the drive, I listen to the radio and get up to speed. As an editor my job requires my presence at the office most of the time to attend meetings, make editorial/design decisions, guide my team of writers, etc. But the writing aspect I can do from pretty much anywhere - and I have! Park benches, phone boxes, airplanes, trains, buses, airports, etc.

    As a 21st century technology journalist I need a 24x7 awareness of what's happening in the digital world. Before I leave in the morning I ought to have scanned the web, checked email and if an urgent story needs writing - BANG - it's done. At the weekend if it moves, I’d shoot it. That was my routine when I lived in Dublin.

    But like many of my fellow journeymen I don't have that luxury. My village is not served with broadband. When I moved into my new home in January, Eircom were meant to have broadband-enabled the local exchange by April. I thought I could live with the pain for four months. I have to rely on my Blackberry until I get to my desk.

    Then it slipped to June, and now – apparently because the equipment in the exchange is ancient – this could slip into July. I’m literally going mad.

    While I would give my eye teeth just for a miniscule 1Mbps connection at home, the world has in fact moved on. 3Mbps is the average connection speed in Ireland whereas 16Mbps is the average speed across OECD countries.

    Fibre is the next hurdle and thanks to lack of vision in the Irish Government – consistent for the past 10 years and not helped by mentally constipated, overpaid civil servants and useless expert panels.

    Eircom chairman Pierre Danon’s announcement to leave to join a French broadband firm that already has fibre infrastructure should focus minds here, but it hasn’t. I don’t blame him. Fibre is the future, not DSL. In fact, we probably have the same total number of consumer fibre subscribers in this country as the number of Eircom chairmen over the last 10 years.

    A few things that are abundantly clear to me:

    The Government doesn’t seem to understand that if we don’t get the fibre issue right in the next year, it will take 15 years to resolve by which time Ireland could have lapsed back into the economic doldrums we survived through the 80s and 90s (anyone know where I can get a half decent plough or a Green Card)
    There appears to be minimal dialogue between the Government (aka Communications Minister Eamon Ryan TD) and Eircom over the fibre issue. In fact, I reckon the two entities have been doing their communicating via the press – – rather than straightforward talking.
    The National Broadband Strategy (the follow-up to the disastrous Group Broadband Scheme) was announced a year ago and we still have no winning consortium. It could take another year before broadband-deprived areas have the now ancient 1Mbps minimal connection
    As revealed this morning by Damien Mulley, minimal attention and resources have been given to the above scheme:
    The Next Generation Broadband Strategy document due to be presented by the Minister for Communications in March still hasn’t been unveiled (any day now I hope)
    Our education system is under-resourced in terms of ICT – Tesco is probably the biggest contributor of computers to Irish schools, followed by parents giving up their free time

    The bottom line is Ireland needs leaders, dynamic people of vision to propel the country forward for the next few decades and the truth is that we haven’t seen these kind of people since Sean Lemass and TK Whitaker. Stuttering, posturing politicians and bureaucrats don’t impress me, they never did.

    The Irish Government and its pampered civil servants need to wake up to the economic reality. Within three years 50Mbps connections will be standard across Europe with some economies enjoying 100Mbps like Korea and Japan already do. Ireland may not see any of this for 15 years unless the right decisions are made.

    Our pretence to the throne of “knowledge economy” is a pipe dream that fits nicely into prepared speeches. A nice idea, but it’s not reality. There’s an opportunity available for dynamic visionaries to make the right decisions here and now. Anyone want the job?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Are we dispassionate compared to our ancestors?

Have you ever had to fight for something you believe in? In fact, is there anything you do believe in that’s worth fighting for? We say we’re inflamed about the environment.
We say we’re angry about politicians who take hand-outs. We abhor injustice, we want to stamp out poverty, we want to rule out racial prejudice and are horrified at the rising levels of crime. But what do we do about it?
We create the means to communicate and write and create, yet we’re shocked when teens turn the World Wide Web into a living version of Golding’s The Lord of the Flies – to insult, offend, isolate and hurt.
Yet, we stand by and wag our fingers when protesters disable jets belonging to a regime that attacks a country just for oil under the pretence of defence.
I think we are becoming too comfortable with our standard of living and apparent luxuries. We frown at people who stand out, go against the realpolitik and make nuisances of themselves protesting, taking action.
The world today is incredibly complex and incredibly dangerous. But there are no sides to take. We slave to the wage and compartmentalise everything into that shining box of lights that adorns our living room. The horror may as well be something you’re absorbing from a DVD. We are becoming numb. But there are no sides to take, we just stand by and disapprove. If there are sides to take it’s too much effort to leave the comfort zone and we risk being marginalised.
The reason I’m thinking along these lines is because I’m reading an excellent book by Anthony Beevor called The Battle for Spain. It traces the origins of the Spanish Civil War back to Spain’s position as the granary of the Roman Empire and how the aristocracy reformed the agricultural landscape to focus on more cash-rich products, instantly creating a barren landscape full of peasantry. This bubbled away for years as the Church helped to maintain the status quo.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 communism became an international socialist agenda the situation in Spain became a class war pretty much between the dispossessed and uneducated workers and peasantry on one side and the more Fascist-leaning aristocracy and Church on the other.
The war became polarised between communism and fascism and in Europe in the 1930s it was a very real concern. Thousands of young idealists flocked to the banners of either side and the idealism and zealous ardour was captured perfectly not only by Beevor but also by director Ken Loach in his 1995 film Land and Freedom. You can check it out here:

I think its okay to have a cause. I think it’s good to have an interest in politics, whatever your viewpoint. But when I survey the tired, jaded scene of politics in the US and politics right home here in Ireland I feel anxious that really dynamic, interesting, idealistic people aren’t speaking out.
Where are they gone? Is everyone really happy with their lot and afraid to upset the bandwagon?
At the time of the Spanish Civil War, prominent journalists like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell either reported and took part in the fighting. When I think particularly of Orwell’s reportage and writings warning us of totalitarian regimes such as in the eponymous 1984 I can’t help but think of now and what he would have made of the world today.

Belarus 2008

I promised the world a write-up on what we got up to on the Chernobyl trip in Januarythis year and every time someone asked me a question about how it went, my very jaded mind raced and it was very hard to really say how profound the experience really was. Avoiding clichés like tired, emotional and moving was impossible. A humbling experience? Definitely. I have tons of photography and a diary of notes that were intended for a blog that has yet to emerge. Now, here it is:
Thank you to everyone who donated. I raised close to €16,000 from Whitespace Ltd, Whitespace staff and corporate sponsors and I can guarantee you every cent was well spent (as you’ll read below). Collectively the team raised €120,000 for this year’s trip. 13 of us went out and worked very hard; every day was an early start and late evening and involved first-rate logistics and planning. There was very little personal time and I can guarantee you everyone left their egos at home
It was an eclectic bunch who went. As well as journalists and PR people, the team included a civil servant, a banker, a businessman, a gardener, a BBC music copyright executive, an architect and an accountant. The craic was mighty!
The aforementioned BBC executive is just back from India after organising the distribution of books to 500 orphanages
Some of the kids weren’t likely to see Santa Claus this year and those that have received a visit from the Santa trip previously wait earnestly for it every year thereafter
The kids’ anticipation is magical but also reminds you that this feeling is universal; we’re all the same
Seeing the kids receive presents, their joy and gratitude but also the emotional joy on the faces of their carers is amazing to behold, impossible to forget … the greatest feeling. One little boy started to cry when he received his toy. We thought he didn’t like his present, but when we asked we found out he was overcome by the fact that he got a present in the first place
Most of the guys on the trip got to be Santa or Father Frost as it is known there – I can’t tell you the stage fright you can get – Conor’s inflatable Santa suit caused a storm and provoked a near stampede by a gang of five year-olds at an orphanage in Dyatlovo, near the Lithuanian border
Watching Tom and the team in action was dramatic and inspiring – everything from windows, baths, beds, pets, roofs, books, toys, clothes, school equipment, kitchen equipment, games etc. would be decided for an orphanage following an assessment, and an exercise in delegation to procure everything; no one was left without a range of daily tasks
Visiting orphanages that had previously received support from the International Orphanage Development Programme, it was remarkable the impact they had in terms of the well-being of the children. Everyday things that we all take for granted from warmth to hygiene mean a lot … orphanages that were found in a deplorable condition a decade ago were able to demonstrate clean, modern facilities
Our team of interpreters were first-rate, worked really hard and were great, great fun
My own observation on the orphanages we visited is that despite insufficient State support and infrastructure, they are staffed by dedicated individuals and you cannot but be moved by the love they have for their orphans and devotion to their welfare
There was a strident emphasis on education in each orphanage and I met many extremely bright kids with strong ambitions for the future, including 12 year-old Yuri who could speak perfect English and who when he grows up wants to become a computer programmer making special FX for Hollywood movies
Every moment there reminded me how precious life is and emphasised that the dignity of the child should be foremost

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Every beginning is a start

Obviously. So here I am. I've done it. I've set up a blog. For years I brushed aside the notion of writing one because simply writing every day on is just as time consuming, not to mention editing various newspaper sections and supplements. That's what I do. It's as much my vocation as my career. I wish to do nothing else, really.

My love is journalism and my experience and reward has been the gift of a front row seat to the biggest social revolution sweeping the world since the invention of the printing press.

Let's begin with a statement of intent - I refuse to class myself as a blogger until I've established a set tempo and publish something regularly. I don't want to be one of those people who start a blog and only update it once in a while. I'm very critical of that kind of thing. And I know I'm as fallible as the next person and will not rule out falling into that trap.

The reason I'm doing this is curiosity, an interesting experiment that may not go anywhere. And above all to say to people who ask me do I have a blog that YES finally I have one. I can't promise it will be good but it will be just what it is.

Since I don't have much time at my disposal and consider article writing the first and only art (since it pays the bills), I will publish whatever I damn well wish, whenever I wish. A sentence here, a chapter there, maybe an observation, a well meaning complement, a blistering rant, or just a photograph. If I'm feeling particularly digital I'll possibly even post a video or podcast. Anyone who knows me knows how hectic things can get around here so don't hold your breadth.

I will use the blog as a personal place to relate experiences, observations, etc. It will be separate from my work as a journalist. Beyond technology my points could be about history (which I'm passionate about), cooking (my skills are evolving), exercise and sports (don't expect much here), TV, films and music. Everything and anything.

As best I can I will refrain from writing after a night out on the town. Judging from previous drunken texts I've broadcast far and wide, this would be a prudent policy.

Journalists have rules, templates and traditions to follow. Bloggers don't. But they are creating their own legends, traditions and legacies as I type. I attended a conference a few weeks ago (the Irish Internet Association's Annual Congress) and Bruno Sarda of Dell made the observation that 175,000 new blogs are created daily with 1.6m new posts every day and 18 updates a second. The online population will double in the next 4-5 years, he said, to 2bn people.

I'm just adding to the general cacaphony. x