On Technology Nostalgia

I watched Midnight in Paris over the weekend.  It was quite a good Woody Allen movie, but not a good as Matchpoint and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the other stops on his recent grand tour around Western Europe.    Anyway, the central character Gil played by Owen Wilson, is a hack screen writer on holidays in Paris who longs to be a literary novelist.   A dreamer who longs to live not just in Paris, but Paris of the 1920s, when it was a city so many great literary and musical emigrants called home – Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and company.  He dreams of hanging in clubs with this sort of crew crew, while Josephine Baker dances in the background and Cole Porter plays the piano.  The best character in the piece is Paul, a obnoxious know-it-all intellectual friend of his fiancee who shoots down Gil’s nostalgia for a particular epoque:

“Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – its a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present”

Which I found a powerful statement.  I don’t really suffer nostalgia, in the sense of dreaming of living in the 1960s like Don Draper or something.  But I suffer a terrible nostalgia for old technology.  A perfect example is books.   I love books, looking at the covers, reading the notes and revision details, the smell of fresh paper when it arrives in an amazon box or in the shop.  Collecting them and putting them in a bookcase.  The latter probably really so all can admire at how well read I must think I am.

Amazon Kindle - War on paper

And then we have the Kindle and iPad.  Within a generation, I expect reading paper books to be something only old people do, along with pining for the day of vinyl. But why do some of us long for a crackling analog vinyl record, or a paper book that can only ever show you one novel and will yellow and decay as it sits on the shelf.   The replacements are superior in every functional metric – cost, longevity, choice, quality – but still my dream persists on having endless bookshelves of vinyl and books.  Giving up atoms for bits is a fundamental shift, not easy for a generation that has grown up hoarding atoms.  Even our initial steps into digital music involved hoarding endless gigabytes into a music collection onto a physical disk , when the obvious solution is a streaming on-demand music service, where the collection lives in the ether of the cloud in a physical form the user cannot see.

Technology nostalgia can be fatal for technology companies that fail to move with the disruption.  The big example recently was Kodak, declaring bankruptcy finally after failing to embrace the digital revolution in the photography market that  left their unwanted film undeveloped on the floor.  Another pending example is RIM, who is struggling to leave behind their signature QWERTY keyboard in favour of the touch interface so prevalent on smartphones today.  For people, technology nostalgia is no so fatal, but they might be left behind as outsiders, not exposed to the information wave that is engulfing most of society today.  Although is that a bad thing?

I spent yesterday in an airport book shop frustrated at not being able to find the book I was wanted, yet for $100, I could buy a kindle that could solve this problem forever.  One fear I have is because there would be access to any book at my fingertips, books would be started but never finished.  Likewise with music, when I bought albums on tapes and CDs back in the day and brought then home, I would spend hours playing them through, reading the cryptic liner notes and imagining what led the artist to write the songs.  With access to a streaming service,  the album concept breaks down, and  access to endless information on each song erodes some of the musicians mystique.

Now I better go read the book that I wasn’t really looking for but bought because the shop did not have the one I wanted because there is a limit to how much paper can be stored in an airport bookshop.  It’s the Outsider by Albert Camus, chosen because I recalled  Eamon Dunphy mentioning it was his favourite book in an interview,  I know nothing else abut it.  I don’t think it about an outsider who sherked the technology of his era, but soon the lovely crisp pages will reveal it’s plot without distraction.




On why I stopped eating meat

Over Christmas I went spent a week back up in Dublin.  Aside from growing a beard in my sojourn out west, the other big surprise for friends was that I no longer ate meat.  A man not eating meat? A man without dreads or a particularly hippie lifestyle choosing to forgo sausages and veal, being satisfied instead by the like of hummus and tofu.  I was described as being weird by more than one.  After the incredulity, I would then be asked why? Why, Why, Why?  Now, rather than explain my almost year long path to enlightenment which climaxed in an epiphany while staring out a train window somewhere outside Portlaoise, I needed something to come up with something snappier for responding when cornered over some festive scoops down the local.  So my response got shortened to because it is “immoral and disgusting”.  Naturally that causes serious offence to the questioner.  Telling someone that their lifestyle is immoral and disgusting is definitely offensive.  But I have found their is no other way if you are a regular enough 30-something man who suddenly stops eating meat.  There is no moving off topic.  People won’t let it slide.  And cornered, you come-out with a reason like because it is immoral and disgusting.

Naturally, the meat-eaters response is defensive.  But I have to continue that I am not proselytizing, just answering the question that won’t go away.  But that is never enough.  The defense begins.  The first argument that normally rears its head is the “Argument from Caveman” as I like to call it.   Now while fond of using this weapon on occasion myself when deconstructing the wholly unnatural and uncaveman-like normalities of 21st century living such as sitting all day, it is a blunt tool, as blunt as the club the caveman used the knock women over before raping them.  And the latter act is universally abhorred in 2010.  But I just leave it at immoral and disgusting.  The whole thing is akin to actually discussing religion.  Believer and non-believer can can very offended very quickly, particularly the one side who genuinely it interested in the topic, which could be either.    Discussing the ethics of meat-eating does not polite conversation make.  And whats worse it normally gets raised right before dinner is served, after I order the risotto, but before the questioners get their medium rare T-bones.

So I will explain why and how it happened my meat-eating stopped and leave it at that.  The how is more interesting and leads to the why.  My trip last year from Romania to India largely by train got me thinking about meat consumption. In Romania, Ukraine and Russia, greasy cuts could not be avoided and I thought more than once about meat quality, but it was Mongolia that got me really thinking.  We never saw even a head of lettuce growing in the country.  The majority of the population eat meat and dairy products exclusively.  And they even manage a higher life expectancy than Russia while they are at it.  Who would of thought spending the winter eating dried yak and fermented mares milk could be a healthy lifestyle.

And then on we went to China.  Good lord,  if it called a duck but it doesn’t look or quack like a duck, it’s probably not a duck.  And I’m not even talking about the Peking duck we apparently got one night, a meal so bad we had to go the McDonalds after to cleanse the system.  But while meat-eating came across as highly natural for humans in Mongolia, it was in Nepal and India where I first saw that vegetarianism is actually viable and natural.  Mis-education on the subject leads most people to believe that adequate nutrition is not possible without meat.  Lots of tut-tutting about lack of iron and protein.  However, we trekked through the Himalayas with guides and porter who ate nothing but lentil daal, vegetable curry and rice twice a day.  As these guys go all the way to the top of everest.  In India, we stayed in a friends house where we were served a feast of six or seven dishes every night, all vegetarian, and all tastier than any meat dish back home.  So by the end of the trip, I had learned two new pieces of information.  Not eating meat was both viable and tasty.  However, while we ate more non-meat meals when we got back, this new found wisdom was more the carrot than the whip on my journey.  After my wife became pregnant, we stopped eating red meat because it became a random pregnancy anti-craving .  So by the middle of this year, we were down to eating meat maybe three times a week.

And then I took a train trip back to Dublin one friday evening from Ennis.  It was probably 9 at night, darkness begining to move in on a July summers night.  The train cut through the midlands, through fields speckled with small herds of cows.  Clouds were looming and there was a slight drizzle.  In one particular field the cows retreated to a sheltered corner and looked out fearfully at the approaching storm and down at their young.   Something dark lurked in the night for them and they seemed afraid.  They knew not what it was but they looked scared.  They had no idea they would be chopped up and eaten in just a few short months but they new nothing of that, they just looked out fearfully at the clouds in the distance.  And it was at that moment I decided I could never eat meat again.  Not because of some dubious chicken I ate in china, or to save the planet, or to loose weight, or to keep fat levels down, or because animals are purely treated in the meat industry.  But because I looked into the eyes of those fearful cows on that field somewhere in Carlow, and I saw fear, the fear any sentient creature, be they man or beast experience when their life  and that of their young is threatened.  And just how pathetic they seemed standing out in the drizzle, worrying about the weather when they had no idea their brothers, sisters, sons and daughters would soon be chopped up in an abbatoir up the road along side themselves.

Now I can torment myself about when to draw the line on what a sentient creature is.  Some draw is under homo sapiens.  Some between the cow and the chicken (pollotarian),  some between chicken and fish (pescetarian).  I am drawing it under all those.  I still feel guilt, not so much a bout organic eggs but about drinking milk.  Not because I think milking cows is cruel.  One way of looking at it is the cows need to earn their living like we do.  But all the males dairy offspring that are put down or turned into veal.  I would like to be a vegan but it is next to impossible.  Another  hundred years maybe it might be possible without being obnoxious with more advanced synthetic production.

However, I genuinely believe if we move forward a couple of hundred years, man we have outlawed meat-eating for ethical reasons, and he will looks back in horror at our generation thinking we should have known better, just like we do at cannibals in papa new guinea or the rapist caveman clubbing women.

On Rain

I love the rain.  The fresh smell of damp soil particles, loosened out of the ground by aerial bombardment, pervading my nostrils with their earthy aroma as I walk through the park in my rain jacket.  The pitter-patter on the roof and windows as I sit inside, sipping a cup of tea, watching the drops slide slowly down the pane.  That feeling when running for cover in a downpour, hair and clothes not just wet, but so saturated it feels strangely refreshing.

“But what about all the grief it causes.  Being stuck indoors because you can’t go out.  Never being sure if you can organise a BBQ or an outdoor wedding.  Having to dry wet-hair and saturated clothes” you say.     Yes, it makes things challenging, but rain doesn’t cancel your plans, your lack of convictions do.  He is the guy who says “I bet you can’t”.  And you need someone challenging your ideas, weeding out the good from the bad.  Just how badly do you want to go to that music festival?  Think you are good a football? Well can you pass it when the ball is wet?  If your new hairdo doesn’t snap back into shape after the rain dries out of it, how would you know if it the hair dresser did a good job?

He cleans the windows you can’t reach, rinses down the old banger that doesn’t warrant a trip to the car-wash.  Yes, sometimes we go to war with him.  Sometimes he goes for the slow kill, those sneaky light drizzles he uses to coax us out of shelter, only to find after twenty minutes the damp patches have growth like fungus and now covered our entire jeans, soaking them through.  Other times, he waits like a sniper until we are out in the dry open, and then fires a few heavy rounds, leaving us sodden and stranded.  But you need an adversary.  We wouldn’t have flown to the moon without the Russians threatening.  Likewise, just think of the ingenuity rain has soaked out of our heads – Gor-tex, windscreen wipers, umbrellas and drain-pipes.

Ask an Irishman what he hates most about the weather on this little island, and he will eventually say the rain.  Not having to scrape a layer of ice, gloveless, off the car windshield in February with a credit card, or never seeing daylight outside of work in the dark days of December, or having to watching the anaemic sun struggle to push up the thermometer at the height of August. No, he will put up with all that, but looking out the window on a Friday afternoon responding to a discussion about weekend plans, he will say “Not bleedin’ much, it’s supposed to lash all weekend!”

Rain is painted an unpredictable, unstable bully here.  We are never sure when he will strike, but he is always lurking, waiting until we organise the hike in the mountains, an outdoor wedding, or a football game.  Then he opens up a volley of carefully orchestrated showers.  He goes ahead and ruins the outdoor photography session, keeps the kids indoors to drive their parents demented, give drainpipe jeans a new meaning, and destroys mobile phones.  And if anyone is bold enough to go out and reason with him, they catch a cold or get pneumonia from him.

But this personification is not prevalent elsewhere.  In Africa, rain is strictly a positive thing, and its arrival can bring more joy than Christmas.  It’s a symbol of rejuvenation and growth.  Having lived in Southern California for several years in the arid flat cityscape of south central Los Angeles, I experienced the joy of the rains coming.  About February they would turn up.  And they wouldn’t roll into town as a stuttering set of random showers.  It was more like a juggernaut that would pour down for 24 hours straight and then promptly leave, not to be seen again for eleven arid months.  But that day of downpour was glorious.  I would watch it from inside, mesmerised at the intensity, the street drains overflowing and the hardened patches of earth and scraps of brown grass getting drunk on water.   But that sort of rain always seemed more to me like a one-night-stand than a long term affair.  It was great but you always somehow longed for something more meaningful.    And yes, those 11 arid months in between were deliciously warm and sunny.  But watching 7 cartoon suns line up of the local TV weather report as the weatherman sweeps his had through the week proclaiming perfectly uniformity takes away the suspense.  It’s like the weatherman has already told you who did it before you read the first page of the detective novel.

Maybe it is this unpredictability that gets to Irish people and wears them down.  A month full of monsoon downpour would be fine, but the sort of Chinese water torture type rain unique to Ireland is what wears people out.  But not knowing things is what makes life interesting.  Is we knew for sure there was or wasn’t a God or why exactly we were here, life would be incredibly dull.  It’s the unknown world in between that has driven art, philosophy and science in man for decades.   On an admittedly letter scale, that wonder of the unknown applies to Irish showers.  Their uncertainty fills pauses in struggling conversations with predictions of precipitation for next Tuesday.  They are the constantly changing chaotic background wallpaper we try to make sense of – the clear sky, the drizzle, the downpour, the clearing and then the drizzle again.

The weatherman will also sweep his hand across a row of 7 cartoon suns on RTE, although now most are obscured by clouds of varying shades of grey.  We never give the picture much attention though, because we don’t believe it and neither does he.  Instead we go on talking about it for hours, when it’s coming, when it will be over, whether it will be heavy or light.  Will it be fierce rain, only a shower, buckets, lashing, or cats and dogs?  Will I bring the clothes in from the line?

So, do you know if it’s going to rain tomorrow?

On how I learned to stop worrying and love Ryanair

After staying in for a nuclear winter hibernation after it’s final failed attempt to takeover Aer Lingus, the recession bruised Blue and Yellow beast has woken and kickstarted it’ 2009 PR offensive with triad of publicity grabbing happenings.  Now let’s go through the Ryanair publicity rulebook and see how they performed this week:

  • Michael O’Leary dresses up in camp costume to launch new product – Tick
  • Spokesperson comes out ridiculing critics in the name of driving down lower fares – Tick
  • Public outrage at latest Ryanair tactic of charging for something that used to be free – Tick

Dr Strange Outfit. Does he make the costumes himself?

First up we had their new mobile phone offering.   There will now be a small window, when twenty minutes after takeoff and twenty minutes before landing where you can use your mobile for the princely some of 2 to 3 euros a minute.  While the technology is quite nifty, I can just picture the scene on a 50 minutes flight to London, where for the middle ten minutes when the plane is level, as trolleys whiz up and down the aisle, the whole plane erupts into conversation on their mobiles.  The critics expressed their concerns to O’Leary as he stood holding court wearing a mobile phone costume.  So he thought deeply for a split-second, and then just proclaimed “Nobody is flying on Ryanair because it is a bastion of solitude where you can contemplate life.”  Never truer words spoken.

Next up was the case of an Internet blogger and web developer who found a glitch on the Ryanair web page that removed some of the fees listed on the purchase page, even though his transaction would not complete.  His posting quickly caught the attention of the Ryanair nerve-center, and some pretty vicious comments were volleyed out onto his web page from the web developers.  The blogger listed his cell phone number on his web page, which led to a member of Ryanair staff posting the following comment: “what self respecting developer puts they’re mobile ph number online, i suppose even a prank call is better than nothing on a lonely sat evening” .  Ouch, that’s quite rough.  This tirade of personal attacks brought the media to the rescue of the beleaguered blogger with stories along the lines of “Ryanair disrespects customer”.  Real shocker lads, I’m sure there is a Pulitzer there somewhere for you.  And meanwhile, Ryanair got acres of publicity.   Naturally, the official, smirking, spokesman, in classic Ryanair style, did not admit the comments might have been too personal or a bad idea.  Instead, his main concern was that staff were wasting their time communicating with a “lunatic blogger” when they could have been “driving down the cost of fares even further”.

And the round out the weeks barrage of coverage in the media, bold Michael hinted on Friday that they might install a coin slot on the toilet doors and start charging a pound for a visit.  Sometimes it is hard to know whether the guy is serious or whether he is just playing the troll, but I have a strong feeling this one will come true.  And too be honest, it wouldn’t bother me either way.  I don’t think I can ever remember actually using a toilet on a Ryanair flight.  I’m sure I would remember if I did, because it is probably a squatter with yellow tiles.

Because of all this Ryanair news, I did have to talk to a few Ryanair whingers over the past week.  The people who constantly moan how awful Ryanair is, giving out about every new trick up O’Leary’s sleeve and constantly retell the  sheer misery of their last flight.  And yet despite their whinging, they keep going back and using them.  And not because Ryanair has a monopoly, but because, in general, they still are the cheapest.  While I would gladly take a competitor whose price is a few shekels above Ryanair’s, I decided a while back not to moan about Ryanair.  The very reason I can get the slightly better quieter service with free toilet at a relatively cheap price is because Ryanair is probably down the bottom right now installing slot machines inside the toilets.

You see, Ryanair are exactly like nuclear weapons.  Both are the best things ever invented in their own spheres, provided you never actually have to  use them.  And that is why I have stopped worrying and learnt to love them.  Well that and all the endless humour Michael O’Leary and his gang of pit bull spokesmen provide.

On the Black and Silver Dance of Consumer Electronics


A 1976 JVC VCR, metallic silver with a fading touch of wood.

In the beginning, they were covered in wood. It was so obvious really.  The furniture was made of wood, and they sort of were like furniture after all, these new fangled devices.  So their ugly innards were covered in wood panneling so they could blend in with the neighbours.  The 1920s phonograph, the 1930s radio, and through to the bulging 1960s colour television.  Cloth grills were added if ventilation was needed.  Even the first Apple computer in the 1970s was bundled into a wooden box.  It lasted for their first fifty years, but at some stage in the 1970s, someone somewhere, probably in the bowels of a Japanese electronics manufacturer, decided that consumer electronics would shed their wooden coats.  And they would not be red or blue or yellow or green.  No, to be taken seriously, consumer electronic could not be wooden or colourful.   They would oscillate between black and silver, metal or plastic. 


Mid-1980s Black Sony Walkman

First up was silver.  Aluminium, chrome or brushed steel ,it didn’t really matter, the bottom line was silver coloured metal was futuristic.  Early attempts had leftover wood panels, but by the end of the 1970s, all traces of wood were gone.  And sets in the panels were rows of solid shiny metal knobs for tone,volume and balance.   Some made nice clicks as they were turned, others just had smooth bearings.   With no flashing LEDs or displays yet on offer, everything was nice, solid, and shiny.  It all looked professional, like real industrial products, not cheap consumers versions. 

But maybe that was just from looking through the eyes of  my 1980s childhood.   Because the electronics of my younger years were very different.  Sure, other people parents might have had an old silver JVC Hi-Fi in their houses, but by the mid-80s, everything had turned black.  It was a matt , sometimes grey black, and mainly plastic.  Our Sony Trinition came a flimsy grey-black plastic case, with a single big red LED lighting up when the remote was used.  The Walkmans, CD players and the VHS players, they all were blackish grey or grayish black plastics, with hints of colour painted on to explain what the buttons did.  Now and again, an manufacturer would launch a yellow “sport” walkman or a red TV aimed at teenagers, but nobody took them seriously, colours just looked childish and amateur.

It fended off the skirmishes with colour, but after a long reign, sometime in the mid-90s, black began to fade and silver started coming back.  I think I first noticed it when wide-screen TVs arrived.  But is soon spread to everything.   Black became passe and silver came back.  But this spell of silver was not a return to the 70s.  It was matte silver, with much less metal and many more acres of plastic.  And while the black plastic of the 80s had grown on me, this was a spell that never did. 


An ugly silver plastic late 90s Philips TV

Before Christmas, I went into town to buy a new flat screen television, and was greeted with an array of shiny black devices.  I had never noticed this last changeover happening.  Maybe it is because I have had a general apathy for keeping up with technology in recent years.  But the new black of the flatscreens was not the matt grayish black of a circa 1985 Sony Trinitron.  These were solid black with a shiny clear plastic coating.   

So we are into the fourth phase and the fourth decade of this dance between black and silver.   Clothes fashions are generally very hard to analyse, with no trends that are in any way analysable.  But the colouring of consumer electronic seems so rhythmical, moving between black and silver every ten years of so.   There are a few strange things about this.    Looking at the 40-odd flat-screen TVs in the shop, I noticed not a single one was silver.  Now, you would think maybe one manufacturer would try to stand out from the crowd, but none appear brave enough.  Perhaps it is fear.  While releasing a light coloured TV amidst a sea of black screens might convince consumers it is next generation, there might be a greater risk it appears older generation.  And why does it go from silver to black or gray, and then back again?  Why do music players or DVD player designers never make them red or blue?  It’s not like clothing vogues still to black and white.   Why does each rule for a decade before ceeding control to the other extreme?  Maybe it is a big conspiracy.  The companies plan the changes so that we have to upgrade all our electronics so that everything matches.  We could have a black hi-fi clashing with the Silver television, now could we? 


Back is black - A modern day Sony Bravia flatscreen

So I am going to make a bold prediction.  In about five years time, I have no idea whether I will be watching my TV in a new super ultra hi-definition format or as some kind of hologram projection, but I am quite sure if the device comes in a box, it will be a silver toned one.  And I am hoping it will be brushed steel, not plastic

On Visualising Time

I was discussing mathematics with some friends last weekend.  One complained they were useless doing numerical calculations in their head, but good at complicated algebraic maths written on paper.  Another was the opposite, finding algebra impossible, but able to do long division in their head without any brow scrunching .  Which lead me to think whether representing quantities with number or symbols is even close to optimal.  To some autistic savants, numbers take on very different qualities.  3 might be green, furry and oval shaped, while 42 is red and narrow.  But somehow, by combining green,  furry and oval-shaped to red and narrow, another coloured shape forms, maybe brown and smooth, which in turn maps to 45.  Somehow, they are able to map numbers into another domain where mathematical operations are incredibly straightforward, which leads to seemingly extraordinary computational abilities. 

Haha, these silly humans still use digits!

"Ha-ha-ha, these silly humans still use digits!"

 I get the impression to standard way non-autistic people represent numbers is probably highly sub-optimal for doing easy calculations, and one of these days some aliens are going to discover us and our crazy numerical notation system and have a good laugh, like the robots in the old smash advertisements laughing at how we make mash potatoes.  Numbers are quite abstract and something we have difficult visualizing in our mind’s eye, particularly when trying to see them long-multiplied in our heads.  All this lead me to think about another abstract quantity, Time.   I am fascinated about how we visual it in our heads.  We know it moves in one direction, and between the time-lines in history school-texts and talk of it as a the fourth dimension in modern physics, it is often portrayed as a very linear concept.  Yet quantities like days and years, based on the circular motions of the planet,  can also give it a circular feel.  So clocks representing the hour of the day have been represented by a circle, but for some reason annual calendars are not.  I have always found this strange, because in my own head, the year is a flat ring.  When planning the year’s holidays on airlines websites or discussing project time lines in work, I don’t find calendars with group of weeks clumped into months an easy way of understanding dates and planning different events.  Listed below are the different time quantities, along with how I visualise them in my head.

Seconds – No fixed image, but they are a linear concept.  I tend to just count them like I do numbers.

Minutes and Hours – A circular concept, the second and minute hands of the clock hanging on the wall in my parents kitchen.

Days-  Two loops of the hour hand of the same clock.

Weeks- A  linear image, it is a narrow band I stand on, where I can look in either direction at future or past weeks.  The weekdays are flat, but the weekends are elevated, sort of like mini mountain ranges.   There is also a slight curvature of the band, related to my year visualisation.

Months – Don’t really visualise these at all.

Years - The year is a flat ring, but horizontal, not vertical like the hanging clock.  My viewpoint is like I am standing on the present, and I can look forward or backwards around the disc into the future or previous months.  This image is very much at odds with how years are represented in calendars and planners.

Decades to Millennia - Back to linear again, I visualize this as a reel of tape.  Probably the best way to describe it is like a reel of old film negatives.  Because when I move through the decades, I fill the tape with images relevant to the time period.  The tape also has a peculiar shape.  The future is higher than the past, and for some reason it loops around itself between the 1970s and 1990s.  Elsewhere it is reasonably straight, although different decades have different slopes.  I have tried to do a rough sketch in the picture below.

Beyond Millenia – No fixed image. 

When planning time-related activities, using the visualizations above, I run into problems when I move from something visualised as circular to something more linear.  In planning an event over two days, like a weekend, I constantly switch from a linear view to a circular one and visa versa.  Neither is comfortable.  But once the event becomes longer than a few days, I resort completely to the linear view.  The same thing happens when planning events over a few years.  Each year is a circle, but my decades image is strictly linear.

This is soft of what the last fifty years looks like in my head (Click to enlarge)

This is an approximation of what the last fifty years looks like in my head (Click to enlarge)

 I would be intrigued to find out how other people visualize time.  Somewhere there must be a guy who gets around the phase transition from circular days and linear weeks by inventing a sort of spiral shape, like a spring.  While I have thought about using that image,  unfortunately the clay is already too well set in my now thirty-something brain. 

Another interesting aspect about my images of time is how three dimensional they all are.  While the basic lines and circles may be two dimensional, in my head, I am actually standing on the them, and their surfaces have curves and bumps.  The strangest curve is the loop in the decades just before the millennium.  While the decades can be stretchy, slowing meander upwards, this is the only time they ever loop.  This time period corresponds to my childhood and teenage years.  I would like to redraw the diagram in another thirty years if I am still around.  Perhaps there will be more loops in what now looks like a flat future, the time line getting tangled as I move through the years and fill it with everyday events.  I’m sure sure someone like Freud or Jung has already written a book on this sort of stuff.

  However we imagine the passage of time in ours heads, we are giving it a visual form that is doesn’t really have in the real world. But it greatly aids our understanding, enabling us to chop it into usable quantities, to map it to underlying time dependant processes like to rotation of the earth around the sun, and to easily understand where different events lie relative to each other.  With all my talk of time looping and stretching, it might sound like some sort of high end relativistic physics is going on in my head.   But alas those sorts of concepts are something I never really got my head about fully, giving up on about page 35 of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” many years ago.  But I often think there must be an easier way to visualize time that makes understanding that sort of physics easy.  Perhaps somewhere there is an autistic savant that has visualized a solution to the Einstein field equations. But his particular solution has no actual symbolic representation, it just resembles a yellow wedge of mouldy cheese.

On Dead Rental Money

It’s a subject I try to avoid. But, at least once a month I will be berated by family, friends or work-mates for apparently throwing money away on rent. Being married with no home was greeted with quiet horror, but after announcing we now have a baby on the way and have still no plans to buy, people are beginning to shake their heads. “Would you not like to have your own place?”, “There is real value in the market now”, or the classic “Sure rent is dead money, you’d be better off with a mortgage”. Our decision just doesn’t compute for most people I meet. It’s like I am telling them 2+2 is 5.

I always want to defend my position, but an adequate defense is tricky for two reasons. The first is the difficult task of trying to dislodge the very fixed ideas Irish people have about the economics of buying house in a short conversation. And the second is not wanting to offend people who are generally heavily invested in the home-owning game with my estimates of what their houses are, and will be, worth. Schadenfreude is not an attractive characteristic to give off even if I bear none. Indeed I take absolutely no glee in the financial hell many people will find themselves in over the coming years because they followed the path of home ownership at all costs.

The Bank of Ireland Elf pondering getting up to her ears in mortgage debt circa. 2007

The Bank of Ireland Elf pondering getting up to her ears in mortgage debt circa. 2007

I can very easily see if you never left the country during the boom years, you could have got sucked into the great property cult. It was heavily reinforced by the media, the banks, parents and friends who had made a killing. Luckily, I left at the turn of the millennium, and headed to Los Angeles for a few years. Upon my return in 2002, I immediately noticed something very strange. Apartments in Dublin which friends very buying were going for 50% more than the equivalent in a flash neighborhood like West Hollywood, despite higher wages and lower taxes in Los Angeles. I was continually pestered into buying a 1-bedroom apartment anywhere despite the fact I had just started work and needed a mortgage in my early twenties like a hole in the head.  After a year back in the country, I ended up jetting off again for another few years, far from the house buying mania.  Upon my return in early 2006, things had got even stranger. People were going into 40 year mortgages with friends, or worse still, with girlfriends they had only known a few months. The numbers most definitely didn’t stack up in 2006 right before the crash, and after two years of tumbling prices, they still don’t.

Without belaboring this piece with too much numbers, I will go through a simple example of what I mean. Currently I am renting a two-bedroom house in Blackrock, and the current market rate is about 1,300 euros per month, and the only capital I have tied up is 1,300 euros deposit. The current asking price of a similar house in the neighborhood is about 500K euros. A regular mortgage for such a house, assuming I have 50K euros deposit, would be approximately 2,000 euros per month. While I could deduct interest relief from this, with all the life assurance and other things required in holding a mortgage, I will leave it at 2,000. Repairs, plumbers, things like broken washing machines and rates will easily add 200 euros to the monthly bill, and then there is the income the 50,000 euros could be generating had I not bought. Even at today’s meager interest rates, that comes to about 100 euros a month. So the monthly outgoing is easily 2300 euros per month to own.

Now it is not fair to compare the 2300 euros directly with the 1300 euros, as the former includes a capital repayment component, which is the equivalent of saving over in the rental world. Capital repayments average out at about 550 euros over the first five years. This leaves a real differential each month of about 450 euros between renting and owning. So 550 chips away at the capital each month, but what about the rest of the mortgage payment? Surely those 1450 euros each month wasn’t a waste? This is the very tricky bit for most Irish people. You see, interest repayments also follow their deathly cousin, the monthly rent, into the undiscovered country from which no traveling cash returns. In other words, it is also “Dead Money”, to use the term I hate.

So over the first five years, I will have saved 27K euros by renting the same house. But what about the value of the house? I think in the current economic climate of deflation, rising taxes, and falling wages, house prices will be lucky to stay level over that period. Feeling very safe in my assumption house prices will not increase over the next five years, I will be at least 27K euros better off, but probably more. In fact much, I believe much more. Revaluing the house by crudely letting the cost of owning it move in line with the rental it commands, I estimate the house is actually worth between 250K and 300K. And this is assuming rents are not falling, which they are. So we have a long way to go yet in this house price crash. In fact, we are only half way there. I expect this house to drop a further 40 to 50%

And there are multiple other benefits to not owning a home besides not being exposed to the downside risk that seems apparent in the Irish market. Having liquid assets could prove useful in the uncertain economic climate, as will the ability to be mobile should the need arise to find work elsewhere.

So that is why I am over thirty, married, soon to be a parent, and horror-of-middle-class-ireland-horrors, still renting. But I can never explain that to people directly when asked, as I outlined above. One particular colleague continues to advise me to move back in with the parents despite having outlined my arguments to him multiple times. So I don’t even bother anymore, as I always just end up feeling like some sort of Armageddon mongering conspiracy theorist, who lives in a bizarro netherworld somewhere between living his parents and living his own home, whose main hobbies are throwing away vast amounts of money.

And even if I did get all the points across, and all the points were digested without further responses involving rental money and its lack of vitality, I would still be asked the reasonable question, “But wouldn’t you just like us to have your own place?”. The answer to that is yes, of course I would. But it will happen when it economically makes sense to us, not when other people tell us we should. A while I would not mind paying a reasonable premium for home ownership, I don’t think it should be 450 euros a month and a heavy dose of risk. So we may try to buy a house in five years, ten years, or even next month. But right now, I firmly believe it is still financial madness, married, single, with or without children

On Perseverance

There was an abundance of joggers pounding the frozen cements pavements tonight. While such activity on a Baltic night is a recipe for tearing cold muscles and breaking one’s neck, these people are not as mad as they appear. It is early January, and they are full swing into their new year’s resolutions of getting fit or losing weight. Inside in the warmth, I am starting this blog.

Basically, I would like an outlet to rant and rave about current affairs, review books I am reading, and highlight some of the many interesting facts and stories I obsessively research on a daily basis. After the cold streets clear out in February of miserable runners, will this blog still be in use?

Only time will tell………