Monday, November 30, 2009

Review of Walking the Perfect Square by Reed Farrel Coleman (Busted Flush Press, 2001)

After a number of years as a cop in the New York Police Department, in 1978 Moe Prager is invalided out after busting his knee slipping on a piece of carbon paper. His brother Aaron wants Moe to join him in opening a wine store, but they’re short of the money required. Then opportunity comes knocking in the form of Rico Tripoli, his former partner. The son of one of Rico’s in-laws, the politically connected Francis Maloney, has gone missing. Finding Patrick Maloney will not only provide some cash and an easy route to a liquor license, but the chance to once again play being a cop. The only trouble is, Patrick Maloney seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. Trying to uncover his life before he disappeared is equally vexing, Patrick being somewhat of an enigma. To add to Moe’s woes, the case has two other thorny issues – first, it’s clear that he’s caught up in some other game and, second, he’s falling in love with Patrick’s sister. What he needs is a way to extradite himself whilst keeping everyone still sweet.

Walking the Perfect Square shuttles back and forth between 1978 and 1998, with Moe reflecting back on the case as he waits to meet a dying man who holds the promise of adding the final piece to a puzzle that has shaped the course of his life over the previous twenty years. It’s a plot device that works well; indeed, the plot unfolds and twists cleverly, hooking the reader in early and never letting go. Whilst the writing is quite functional (rather than the poetic prose I was expecting given other reviews), the narrative is nonetheless multi-textured, with excellent characterisation, sparkling dialogue, and a philosophical undertow that pervades the text without explicitly dominating it. In Prager, Coleman has created a character with rare emotional depth; someone whose life seems worth exploring further. Some books are all surface, telling an entertaining story but little more, others demand you reflect on the moral complexities of life. The first kind fizzle for a moment, the second hangs round to haunt you. Walking the Perfect Square is the second kind.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service

After two days of catching up with family, this post comes to you from a coffee shop in Birmingham airport whilst I wait for a flight home. After a late night I'm somewhat worse for wear, so this really will be a lazy Sunday service. The party was a great success - it's a funny experience being at an event where you're related to pretty much everybody in the room. At one point the folk on the dance floor ranged in age from 96 to 6! Other than writing my posts here this week, I've written some for a new collective blog - Ireland After NAMA. If you're interested in how the global recession has been playing out in Ireland, then this blog should hopefully provide an informative read.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Platinum day

I'm travelling today to attend a 70th wedding anniversary celebration this evening. I'll be happy if I make 70 years, let alone being married for that long. You can tell this kind of anniversary is pretty rare as the naming at the top end of the scale starts to get a bit ropey - 60th and 65th is a diamond anniversary, 70th is platinum, and 75th is back to diamond. 80th is oak apparently. I can't imagine there are many oaks around (and even with life expectency going up, so are separations so I doubt they'll be much of a growth in numbers in the next few years). I'm looking forward to catching up with folk and also the journey as I'm planning on getting tucked into some fiction - which has lost out to academic stuff recently. I'm hooked into Reed Farrel Coleman's 'Walking the Perfect Square' at the minute.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Gatekeeping duties

I've spent most of the week reading a manuscript for an academic publisher who wants to know whether to go ahead and put a book into production. For obvious reasons, I can't share the review here. I usually perform this role two or three times a year. To tell the truth it's an awkward task. It's one thing to review a book proposal or a sample chapter when the book has not yet been written. It's another to have to make a decision on a 3-400 page manuscript that has probably taken someone the best part of two years to write. The author has vested a lot time, energy and emotional toil into a work that seemed like a relatively sure bet of publication (they will have received a conditional contract on the basis of a proposal) and yet the book can fall at the last hurdle. Thankfully the manuscript I was reading, whilst it had its faults, was an interesting read and I expect the publisher to nod it through to production on the basis of a few revisions. I'll get back to open reviewing next week.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

You too can be an academic ...

How to write like a professor. Yes, really, academic writing on tap. Four clicks and a PhD seems tantalizingly in reach courtesy of the Virtual Academic at the University of Chicago. Thank god for the internet. My three creations:

"The eroticization of post-capitalist hegemony asks to be read as the politics of the specular economy."

"The epistemology of civil society opens a space for the historicization of the nation-state."

"The illusion of normative value(s) invests itself in the authentication of exchange value."

And yes, after year's of editing an academic journal I can attest that such sentences appear all the time - in fact I'm so attuned to them that these seem entirely plausible to me! (they probably are)

Thanks to The Bunburyist for the initial link.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A parcel from Oz

My guest from Australia arrives next week, but an advance parcel turned up today with the five imports recommended to me here. I'm looking forward to reading these as a quick scan of the first few pages of each suggests that they all hold a lot of promise. Their arrival creates two questions though: (1) where to slot them into a TBR pile that's getting out of hand and (2) which one to read first!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ireland after NAMA

I spent most of yesterday at the ‘Geography after NAMA’ workshop that bought together some of the leading geographers in Ireland to consider the NAMA legislation and its implications for Irish communities. The title refers to both the geography of Ireland after NAMA and what the discipline of Geography might add to the debate and our understanding of the situation.

For those not familiar with how the financial crisis has played out in Ireland, NAMA is the new National Assets Management Agency. It is, in effect, a toxic bank that buys the property loan books of five Irish banks for any transaction worth more than five million euro. That covers circa 21,500 assets held by around 2,000 companies and individuals which were collectively valued at €88 billion at the time of the loan (for which €68b was borrowed and €9b is presently owed in interest payments). (The building right is what was to be Anglo Irish Bank's new HQs, now on hold and almost certainly in the NAMA portfolio - €28b of Anglo's loans will be transferred to NAMA, more than any other bank).

Ireland has particularly suffered following the global economic crisis because its property market was so overheated, inflated and poorly regulated. Average land prices at the peak of the market were twice that of any other European country, with the banks borrowing heavily on the international money markets to lend onto individual buyers and developers. This left the banks massively overexposed with assets that were rapidly losing value as well as plummeting share price, resulting in the banks becoming vulnerable to failure as liquidity dried up. Unwilling to let any of the banks fail or to recapitalise or nationalise them, the Irish government initially tried to force some mergers and to recapitalise the banks through private equity investment. Ultimately it has had to nationalise Anglo-Irish Bank and partly recapitalise the others, taking the role of a preferred shareholder, and also create NAMA – the world’s largest, state-owned, property portfolio - to take the bad debts off the banks' books. Ironically, because the state has effectly bailed the banks out it has had to make NAMA a Special Purpose Vehicle, with 51% of the projected €100m running costs provided by private investors in order to keep the debt off the state accounts!

Geographically, NAMA's assets roughly breakdown as: 66% in Ireland, 6% Northern Ireland, 21% Great Britain, 4% Europe, 3% USA, though we do not know how these are geographically configured at the sub-national scale. And although we don’t have a full breakdown of the kinds of assets in the portfolio, Ronan Lyons estimates them as Irish commercial (€11.8bn), Irish residential (€12.4bn), Irish land (€31bn), all foreign (€31.6bn). In fact, we have no real idea as to the true worth of the assets in the portfolio, despite the fact that the government have agreed to pay €54b for what they acknowledge are assets estimated to be worth at best €47b. It seems likely to many analysts that the real value might be somewhat less than this given the amount of development land in the portfolio, much of which will not even be zoned for planning, and even if it was it’ll not be needed for some time given the surplus of vacant and half-finished commercial and residential properties around the country (the so-called ghost estates).

The purpose of the day was to try and work out a research agenda that seeks to take space and scale seriously and acknowledges how NAMA will play out is spatially uneven and unequal, affecting parts of the country in different ways, and its grounding in particular communities is the result of processes operating at different scales from the local through to the global. Too often the analysis of the crisis in Ireland takes a journalist form that focuses on the role of elite actors at the expense of an analysis that examines the neoliberalisation of the Irish state and economy, or works from a macro-economic perspective that treats the country as a universalised, flat plane wherein all places have equal opportunities and risk. The reality is that how the crisis is playing out in rural Tipperary is quite different to Dublin 4, which is quite different to the commuting belts and the border counties for a variety of reasons. What we’ve agreed to do is to collectively try and get a relatively quick handle on what is happening in four different spatial arenas – cities and their commuting zones; the border counties; rural areas; and specific sites of Irish capital investment abroad such as Liverpool – to provide some case study material. This material will form the basis for interpreting what is happening and to set that in an international context. Should be an interesting exercise. We aim to communicate our analysis through a new blog - Ireland After NAMA - which should hopefully start to take shape soon.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Review of Dirty Sweet by John McFetridge (Harcourt, 2006)

Roxanne Keyes is a real estate agent who’s in a bind, her credit over-extended and afraid of losing her unaffordable life-style. Then one morning she witnesses a murder – a man shot dead in traffic in broad daylight – and an opportunity presents itself to work herself free; an opportunity that has high risks given that the driver of the getaway car is a Russian gangster, Boris Suliemanov, who runs an upscale strip club and smuggles women, high-end cars and drugs to and from Eastern Europe. All she needs to do is lie to the police and find a safe way to blackmail the Russian. Then Vince Fournier, who rents out space in one of Roxanne’s buildings where he runs an online porn business, not only provides a safe route to the Russian, but also a means to make all three of them a lot of money. The only problem is that the police don’t believe Roxanne’s initial witness statement and a rival gang have their eye on Boris' business.

There’s a lot to like about Dirty Sweet. The characters and plot were entirely plausible. The dialogue was mostly excellent, although I did lose the thread in a couple of places. The moral ambiguity of all the characters, including the police, was realistic. McFetridge's knowledge of Toronto shines through and the story comes with its own soundtrack. And yet, what had the potential to be a five star review fell a little short for me. I think there are two main reasons. First, because the three main characters were morally dubious, self-centred and shallow, and there was nothing much appealing about the police officers, there was no-one to root for or will on. Second, the pace and tension remained relatively sedate, instead of being gradually ratcheted up. Whilst this was probably true to the story it meant the book never quite became the page-turner, edge of the seat read that it could have been. That said, McFetridge writes well and hooks you in early, and he does a good job of exposing the moral ambiguities we all face – how people get themselves into trouble, in spite of their best intentions, and then slide into another life on the promise of a quick solution; how greed, ambition and the frisson of risk provide fresh temptations from which it’s difficult to backtrack. A lot of promise here and the short, teaser excerpt of Everybody Knows this is Nowhere at the end of my copy does its job - I'll be keeping an eye out for it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service: Fearing water

I had a reminder as to why I'm cautious about buying an e-reader yesterday evening when my niece spilt an entire cup of tea over my copy of Dirty Sweet by John McFetridge, which I've nearly finished reading. A bit of a shakedown and mopping up and its still okay, albeit with half-brown, wavy pages. A kindle, I suspect, would be completely kaput, I'd have lost a lot of books, and it would cost a small fortune to replace everything.

This unfortunately has happened to a lot of people round Ireland in the past couple of days after levels of rainfall that the meterologists have said occurs every 1 in 800 years. Indeed, some weather stations are reporting their highest ever recorded levels of rainfall for a November, eight days before the month is over. The result has been much of the south and west of the country lying under several feet of water, including the whole of Cork city centre, which has just about run out of clean drinking water after a treatment plant was flooded. Several other towns including Galway, Clonmel, Carrick on Shannon, Ballinasloe, Fermoy, and Ennis are also under water, as well as many villages and individual houses, and many roads and rail routes are closed.

The rule of thumb seems to be that for every inch of water rising up a wall a month of drying is required; every foot of dirty, stinking water flowing through a house requires a year before redecorating can start. If things weren't bad enough with the recession, businesses have lost millions of euro of stock, and many homeowners will spending christmas in temporary accommodation. And to make things worse, it's still raining. I suspect 2009 will be an annus mirabilis for many Irish people. The way the economy and weather seems to be going, 2010 is unlikely to be any better.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Saturday Snippet: The White Gallows

This is a snippet that is unlikey to see the light of day beyond this post. It was the opening of The White Gallows, the next book in the series after The Rule Book, but I've decided to drop it. It took a little bit of persuasion, but on reflection I think the person who made the case is right. It feels kind of funny to edit out because it was written as flash fiction and then the rest of the novel was imagined and built from it. Dropping it somehow feels like erasing the key, initial cornerstone from the foundation of the story, although the book seems to work better without it - it provides some kind of haunting absence, I think. The cover, right, was the best I could mock up in five minutes and I'm lacking a bit of inspiration on that front. Ideas gratefully received. Anyway, here it is:

It was the same recurring nightmare, though nightmare was probably the wrong word. It wasn’t some fantastical labyrinth of cryptic signs and symbols, of ghosts and monsters. It was the Truth – of skeletal people he’d tortured, beaten and shot; of people so dehumanized they were merely automations; fragile beasts in a vast machine that ensnared them, extracted value, and disposed of their broken bodies. They were mules - animals of labour to be worked to death; stupid creatures that needed cajoling, disciplining and punishment to make them comply. They didn’t merit compassion or pity or aid when they broke; they were to be shot as lame mules were shot.

He was shouting at an emaciated figure - his head shorn of hair, face gaunt and drawn - only he couldn’t hear his own words, just the deafening noise of the factory. The man stared back blankly - no sign of comprehension or fear or defiance or hate; just emptiness. He could feel the gun in his hand, his arm lifting, coming into vision. He shouted again, waited for a reaction, then pulled the trigger.

A hole appeared in the man’s forehead just above his left eyebrow. He stayed on his feet a couple of moments, then dropped to his knees, his dark brown eyes still staring back, but now, ironically, somehow alive, his lips pulled in a slight smile. The corpse toppled forward its face smashing into cold concrete.

He moved the gun across the scared and hate-filled faces of witnesses, challenging them to defy his authority. A fellow, older mule hesitantly moved forward, his arms raised, hands open, and crouched down in the blood next to the body offering comfort and grief. His hollow, tear-stained face glanced up as the well polished boot arrived, his head jerking violently, his body toppling backwards, arms flailing. His skull cracked off the edge of a workbench and he slumped unconscious to the floor.

Koch woke with a start, his breathing laboured, heart pounding. His chest felt constricted as if tightly corseted. His striped cotton pyjamas were damp with cold sweat, the bed clothes kicked to the floor. He pushed himself up against the headboard, trying to slow his rapid breaths, and reached for a glass of water from the bedside locker. The room was near dark, dimly lit by a pale orange nightlight.

The nightmare had ended early - the shooting was always near the beginning. It was followed by a sequence of other atrocities he’d performed or witnessed – beatings, torture, rapes, punishments, humiliations, executions - all without mercy; none merited.

He took a sip of cool water and shivered. For over sixty years he’d been plagued by the memories. He could push them away during the day, but they haunted him each night, eating away at his soul, denying him peace. He knew they would never stop; that he could never be forgiven.

He deserved as much, he knew that. He’d killed people in cold blood and watched thousands more die; he’d been a willing participant. He’d thought of them as no more than animals; sub-humans that were devious, conniving enemies of the state. They deserved to pay the ultimate price for the crimes of their race and religion.

It was over thirty years later before he started to change his mind; before he admitted to himself that his victims were as human as he was – were more human than he was. He’d never told anybody else and he had no intention of ever doing so.

There was a sound downstairs, something being knocked over, thudding to the floor. He sat perfectly still and listened. The house was silent, then a creak. The floorboards were as old as the house and they sang with age. He’d once read that Japanese palaces were built with nightingale floors – boards that creaked however lightly and skilfully they were trodden on. That’s what the old farmhouse had become - a Japanese palace. A floorboard sang out again.

He picked up his cheap digital watch and brought it close to his face. Roza, his housekeeper, had long left the farmhouse. She lived in a barn conversion across the yard, although he knew it was unlikely she was there; she’d be spending the night with her boyfriend in Athboy.

It was probably a burglar. If they were going to come for him, they would have done so by now. And they would have come straight to his bedroom and searched the house later. If he could survive the Russians as they swept through Eastern Europe and the aftermath of the war, he could handle a burglar. He placed the watch back on the locker and eased his thin, frail legs out of the bed, sliding his bare feet into cheap slippers.

Koch crept across the room to an old wardrobe, the floorboards beneath a thick white rug revealing his slow progress. His fingers were shaking slightly with age, as they had periodically for the past two years, and he struggled to open the secret panel at the back of the unit. After a few moments it popped open and he pulled free a small handgun. It felt heavy in his hand despite its size, the grip comfortable in his palm.

He moved to the door, eased it open, and stood still listening for movement. The house was quiet; then the creaking of a misplaced step. Stealthily, he headed for the top of the stairs, the gun held in front of him, steadied by both hands, the training from sixty years ago still remembered. He eased himself forward, the gun pointing down into the darkness below.

The house had once again become silent. Gingerly he descended the stairs, the pale light of the night sky eating into the shadows through the semi-circular window above the Georgian door, the dull thump of his heart filling his ears. As he neared the ground floor he flicked on the light switch, swinging the gun round the empty hallway. He nudged open the door to his left, reached in, switched on the lights and slipped into the room. From behind the door somebody yanked the gun from his hand and something heavy landed on the crown of his head.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A slow, wet week ...

I was hoping to head off this weekend, but it seems that just about every road in Ireland is under water and it's forecast to lash rain again tomorrow and Sunday. Thank god I don't live on a floodplain! It should give me time to catch up a few on things. It's been a couple of slow weeks on the reviews front. It's not that I've not been reading, it's that I've been reading research papers and student essays. And I'm reading two books at the same time, which slows the cycle. As you can guess what that means is that this post is a filler. And not a very interesting one at that. For anyone remotely interested, here is a link to the three promo videos for the encyclopedia, which I was going to write a separate post about, but I fear would have been equally uninspiring.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Plugging away

Two titles in a book series I edit - Key Concepts in Human Geography - have been recently published so I thought I'd give them a plug.

Key Concepts in Political Geography by Carolyn Gallaher, Carl Dahlman, Mary Gilmartin, Alison Mountz with Peter Shirlow. Here for more details.

Key Concepts in Urban Geography by Alan Latham, Derek McCormack, Kim McNamara and Donald McNeil. Here for more details.

Both books provide a great introduction to the most important conceptual ideas currently used to think through and explain geopolitics and cities.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The audit society ...

It's the midway point in the external review of the institute. Whilst a group of institute staff are being interviewed I've been working on another external review document for a different agency. In fact, because we are entirely self-funded the institute is constantly under review. Our applications for funding are assessed and scored. Once we have the funding we are monitored with respect to spend and outputs. For our largest current grant we presently have to fill in daily timesheets, have a three-monthly financial audit, and a six-monthly output report. Half my life is filling out monitoring reports of one kind of another. We're the embodiment of the so-called audit society where everything is monitored to ensure that it meets pre-set criteria that are supposed to measure quality and productivity. All I know is that my productivity has shrunk in direct proportion to added layers of bureaucracy and the quality is the same as it ever was, but I can now ‘prove’ it through a whole series of KPIs – key performance indicators. We could prove it regardless, of course - we’re an institute that uses social statistics! ‘The audit society’ … it should be called ‘the needlessly bureaucratic and creative accountancy society’. And people want to know why public sector bodies are full of middle management pushing bits of paper and not enough front line workers …

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review of The Builders by Frank McDonald and Kathy Sheridan (2008, Penguin)

Written by well-respected Irish Times journalists Frank McDonald and Kathy Sheridan The Builders charts the rise of the property boom in Ireland during the late 1990s and into the 2000s, a period in which hundreds of thousands of new housing units were built, and office blocks and shopping malls popped up all round the country, transforming the landscape. Principally it traces the stories of some of Ireland’s best known developers, most of who came from unassuming, rural backgrounds to build multi-billion euro property empires, much of which is beyond Ireland’s shores. As such, while there is some analysis of the regulatory, legal and financial conditions that fuelled the construction bonanza and spiralling land and unit costs, the principle focus is on the main movers and shakers, and how they built up their businesses.

What the book reveals is that, not unsurprisingly, that the most successful Irish developers are workaholics and ruthless business operators willing to grease palms, exploit loopholes, drive up productivity and reduce costs, and to fight tooth and nail over contracts, using the courts when necessary. While personality and drive is undoubtedly important, the book also exposes how developers benefited from: 1) very close relationships with TDs and councillors, especially those representing Fianna Fail, who fixed the planning process, 2) a relatively weak planning system that struggled under sustained pressures of demand, lobbying and corruption, 3) a deregulation of personal and corporate financing that flooded the market with credit, 4) tax incentive schemes, including the significant reduction of capital gains tax, that enabled them to avoid taxation and to plough their profits back into new investments, 5) the hoarding of zoned land to restrict supply and push up demand and price, 6) the creation of a relatively large investment class that were amassing small portfolios of properties for rent or were ‘flipping’ new properties for tidy profits, 7) unregulated price phasing of developments.

While a fascinating read, the book does have some shortcomings. The principle one is that by focusing on the personalities the book really fails to systematically examine how political, regulatory and financial structures were configured in such a way as to make the property boom almost inevitable, regardless of who the developers were per se. In particular, there is very little attempt to draw on academic explanations with regards to urban development, even that by Irish academics who have been researching the property boom for a number of years such as Andrew MacLaren. As a result, what McDonald and Sheridan provide is effectively a regime analysis (where in development is driven by a small, tightly networked group of political and business elites), rather than, say, employing regulation theory which would provide a neo-Marxist explanation of what was occurring. The result, I feel, is that analysis is quite descriptive but really lacks explanation – and to that extent its mostly surface with little depth. In addition, although published in October 2008, The Builders feels oddly out of date. I suspect most of the book was written in 2007 at the point where a slow down was occurring, but the crash was still a little way off and commentators and developers were hoping for a soft landing. Since publication some of the developers discussed have gone bust, others have lost fortunes, and almost certainly all have been NAMAered (their portfolios drawn into a toxic asset management unit owned by the Irish State). A year can be a long time in an economic crash.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Falling over the finish line ...

After much delay I finally sent the final draft of Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life to MIT Press this afternoon. It should hopefully be published sometime next year, assuming the publisher is happy with the script. We're still thinking about cover ideas, so if you have any I'll be grateful to hear them (right is our working version).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service

A very lazy Sunday service this week since I haven't been reading very much of anything, let alone other blogs. I bought four books with me to Armenia. I'm not really sure why as that assumed that I would manage to find time to read one a day! I also lugged here two papers and a report to read. It's like I need to carry excess paper as a comfort blanket. I've managed to make it through half of one of them. And this week will be a slow reading week as well as the institute I run has a full external review on Tuesday and Wednesday and we're hosting a one day conference on Thursday. The presentation yesterday went well, I think. Not only were half the Armenian cabinet there, but also 8 TV cameramen and other members of the press. The talk was followed by two hours of questions and discussion and it was fascinating to see how the issue was debated by a set of political and diaspora elites all with their own views and/or pet projects. The plan now is to try and write up all the information we collected into a case study. An interesting place to visit and hopefully I'll get a chance to return at some point.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Saturday Snippet: If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr (2009)

In the following passage Bernie Gunther ruminates on the meaning and life and death in his characteristically philosophical way, which is usually tempered by hefty dose of humourous cynicism, but not in this case. My review is here

Later on, I went out to my car and in the shifting dark I thought I saw the figure of the dead gardener, standing beside the well where he’d drowned. Maybe the house was haunted, after all. And if the house wasn’t haunted, I know I was, and probably always would be. Some us die in a day. For some, like me, it takes much longer than that. Years, perhaps. We all die, like Adam, it’s true, only it’s not every man that’s made alive again, like Ernest Hemingway. If the dead rise not then what happens to a man’s spirit? And if they do, with what body shall we live again? I didn’t have the answers. Nobody did. Perhaps, if the dead could rise and be incorruptible and I could be changed for ever in the blinking of an eye, then dying might be worth the trouble of getting killed, or killing myself.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Anonymous lobby slumming

I could be anywhere in the world since I've not left the lobby of the Marriott all day. It's a classic non-place. I could be in any Marriott anywhere on the planet given its generic nature. So far I've seen next to nothing of Yerevan (I've not been more than 400 metres from the hotel). Writing this between meetings, which have gone on all day again. Tomorrow, I'm making a presentation to the Armenian Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister for Diaspora, Minister of Economy, Minister for Finance, the Chief Economic Advisor to the President, and the Chairperson of the Armenian Central Bank. So no pressure there then! Blumming heck. I don't remember that being in the job description. All it asked for was a presentation to the board of the National Competitiveness Foundation. My hope is to try and keep my feet out of my mouth, try and say something sensible and useful, and not crumble under cross-questioning. I suspect I'll be wandering back out shell-shocked with my shoe laces dangling down my chin.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My head is overflowing ...

A very intense day today. The first meeting was at 10am and then proceeded until 9.30pm with no break. The meetings included USAID, a foundation, the Minister of Diaspora, and a former minister who is now a successful businessman. I can't remember a day in which I've learnt so much about history, cultural affairs, policy and different programmes and initiatives, and met people who are so highly motivated to make something succeed. Or had such a grilling as to our knowledge of what other countries do and our ideas about the merits of different schemes and proposals. My head is now overflowing with information about Armenia and its diaspora, which is no bad thing. We've more meetings lined up for tomorrow which will no doubt be equally fascinating. We've only seen a tiny amount of Yerevan, but it's an interesting city and I'll try and upload some pictures tomorrow (right is our hotel).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Early starts

Today started at 3.30am, with a taxi collecting me at 4am to get me to Dublin Airport for a 6.20 flight to Paris. All being well this post is scheduled to be uploaded not long after I take off from Charles de Gaulle for Yerevan (to the right), the capital of Armenia. I was hoping to catch up on some work-related reading on the two flights but I suspect it’ll be an uphill battle. I’m definitely not a morning person and I can’t sleep on planes so I’ll probably be just vegetating between bouts of trying to concentrate. I’m really looking forward to taking a brief look at Armenia. I just hope I manage to get through immigration. It’s a long way to travel to get denied a visa at passport control (which is where you apply for one). For those wondering where it is, it’s a landlocked country surrounded by Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan – see Wikipedia

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review of Death of a Red Heroine by Qui Xiaolong (Sceptre, 2000)

1990 and Shanghai is in a process of rapid change as China starts to embrace a new economic future whilst trying to maintain its Communist political system. A young woman’s body is found by two fishermen in a remote canal and Chief Inspector Chen of the special cases unit is assigned to investigate the murder. A successful poet and translator, with influential supporters, Chen’s career is on an upward curve. It soon becomes though apparent that the victim was no ordinary system and the case soon takes on a political dimension and when the evidence starts to point to towards the involvement of high ranking political figures Chen finds himself under threat, relying on his contacts to maintain his position. For an official on the rise the sensible route is to protect the party and pass the case over to internal security, but Chen and his assistant Detective Yu wish to see justice done even if it means endangering themselves and their families.

I finished Death of a Red Heroine a couple of days ago and its being playing on my mind a bit. It was a book I nearly stopped reading twice (once about a fifth of the way in, the other about halfway), but in the end I decided to soldier on to its conclusion. In many ways the book was interesting, detailing the political and societal changes taking place in China in the early 1990s and the nature of Chinese social and familial relations, and some of the poetry was appealing. The story itself though was fairly long winded and could have done with a bit of an edit. My real difficulties though were two-fold. First, was Chief Inspector Chen. Most of his colleagues wonder how he’d been promoted to chief inspector so quickly, especially given his relative lack of experience, and I have to say I did as well. As a detective he was fairly hopeless, missing clues that stuck out a mile and not following up on the most obvious of leads. This wouldn’t have been too bad if he’d been written as a bumbling cop in the Clouseau mode, but he’s meant to be a bit of an intellectual. Second, Chen is meant to be a busy cop investigating several cases and overseeing a specialist unit, yet he hardly seems to break sweat and has time to take things at a very leisurely pace. Overall, I just wasn’t convinced as to the main character or the investigation, which was a shame as there were many aspects of the book to like, especially the description of the history and politics of the new China.

Monday, November 9, 2009

From boom to bust

Just three years ago Ireland was the place that every developing country wanted to emulate. It had transformed itself from a poor, peripheral country on the edge of Europe (in 1987 its GDP was 67% of the EU average) to one of the richest nations on the planet (with a GDP 139% of the EU average in 2004). For over a decade GDP growth per year was over double that of nearly every other European country. Employment rose from 1.16m people in 1991 to 1.99m people in 2005, and unemployment dropped from 15% in 1993 to run at about 4% between 2000-2005. Standands of living and quality of life rose rapidly, as did propert prices, and the population grew by 17% between 1996 and 2006 (from 3.62m to 4.23m). In turn there was a cultural transformation away from social conversativism to liberalism and consumerism. Ireland seemed to be a conundrum with low personal and corporate taxes, high indirect taxes, yet with a public health system and free education at all levels - to use Mary Harney's phrase it resided 'somewhere between Boston and Berlin', blending European social welfarism with American neoliberalism. And then the global financial crisis occured and Ireland's boom rapidly heads for bust with plummeting house prices, rapidly rising unemployment, personal tax hikes, and salary cuts across the private and public sector.

In 2006 I co-edited 'Understanding Contemporary Ireland' with Brendan Bartley. The book consisted of 22 chapters examining all aspects of society and economy, written by a collection of leading social scientists, all of whom challenged the myth that the Celtic Tiger had done nothing but good and were sceptical as to government policy and the sustainability of the economy. I don't think any of those writing anticipated the wheels coming off Ireland Inc. quite so spectacularly though. We were probably all hoping for a soft landing even if we feared the worst. What we're experiencing is anything but soft, although it's still a long way from Iceland's demise (and certainly the joke that Ireland was Iceland but for one letter and six months has not come to pass). I thought it was about time I got beyond the newspaper reports and started to read some of the analysis that seeks to explain what went wrong. To that end I went and bought a number of books over the weekend (from The Reading Room) which I'll be reviewing over the coming weeks as I get myself back up to speed with the state of contemporary Ireland.

I'm also co-organising a one day workshop on Nov 23rd entitled 'Geography after NAMA' (the government's plan to buy the bad property debts off the banks) and it'll be interesting to see what other social scientists make of what is occuring.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service

Posts I enjoyed this week
Good writing, redux: Hooray for Hollywood - Crime Always Pays
So you want to be a crime writer - Crime Watch
It's all material - Do Some Damage
Researching place - Do You Write Under Your Own Name
Forgotten Book: Murder at the Villa Rose - In Reference to Murder
The Plundering PO8 - The Rap Sheet
The state of the crime novel - Huffington Post
Archetypes: Unvailing the mentor - Adventures in Writing
What I read in October - Big Beat from Badsville

My posts this week

Review of If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr
October reviews
Necessary Evil?
Review of Rubble by Jeff Byles
What is family?
Saturday Snippet: The Rabbit Factory by Marshall Karp

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Saturday Snippet: The Rabbit Factory by Marshall Karp (2006, Allison and Busby)

LAPD detectives Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs are investigating the death of a lowlife paedophile who was getting his kicks fondling young children whilst working as Rambunctious Rabbit, the signature mascot of the global entertainment conglomerate Lamarr Enterprises. Whilst a relatively straightforward police procedural, Karp tries to spice things up with a little humour, particularly through the laddish banter between cops. For example, Lomax and Biggs’ boss can’t help employing rectal references whenever he’s moaning about something.

He threw a computer printout on Kilcullen’s desk.
“We ran his prints. He’s been a busy little pervert.”

Kilcullen stood up. “Jesus, Lord, how in Christ’s name does a fucking pedophile get a job hugging and fondling kids all day?”

“He must’ve interviewed really, really good,” Terry said. Kilcullen, the father of six, ignored the crack. “What do you got so far?”
“We got dick,” I said. “Murder weapon and a sicko calling card. Terry was thinking that it could be a serial killer stepping up to the plate.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, that is exactly what they’re shitting bricks about. They’re afraid some bozo is going to start picking off their cartoon characters one at a time.
Biggs, I was just telling your partner, this one is on you boys. In fact, if you have anything else to do, like eat, sleep, or wipe your ass, cancel it.”
Brick shitting and ass wiping. Kilcullen was usually good for at least three scatological references.

“Yes, Sir,” Biggs said, answering for both of us.
“Good, because I’ve got the Governor of Cali-fucking-fornia crawling up my butt,” he said, completing the trinity of rectal references.

And a couple of hundred pages later.

“No problem,” Kilcullen said. “Fuck the asshole D.A.’s Office and their stupid fucking rules. Ike Rose can pay my goddam proctology bill if it will help solve these murders and get the Governor out of my rectum.”
Three anal references in five seconds. The man was in rare form. “Anything else?” he said.

My review can be found here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

What is family?

Our critical thinking reading course has spent the last three weeks engaging with a handful of articles that examine a key sociological concept - the family. As with most key concepts there seems to be much contention as to what the term refers to, let alone what theoretical lens to examine it through (e.g., feminism, Marxism, postmodernism, poststructuralism). As a result, it seems as if much of the disagreement between social scientists studying family and its importance in social relations is definitional, with the effect that researchers are studying highly related but subtly different relations. To add my two pence in, it seems to me based on the articles and our discussion, that sociologists think of family in at least 15 ways:

1) Genealogically - who one is related to
2) Biologically - as a foundational unit of parents plus children
3) Legally - defined by legal contracts (e.g., marriage, custodianship)
4) Economically - as a mode of production for making capital
5) Institutionally - defined by the institutions that regulate social relations
6) Organisationally - as a set of organisational rules
7) Culturally - based on established, historical norms
8) Functionally - what purpose the family serves
9) Household - who lives within the same premises
10) A set of practices - family is what family does
11) Ideologically - family is a set of interlocking ideas
12) Morally - as a moral set of familial relations, natural law
13) Normatively - what should a family consist of
14) Lifestyle choice - a desirable set of relations that we pick and consume
15) Affectively - as a set of emotional relationships

And they're just the ones I came up with from a few minutes reflection. Of course, how you conceive and study families is dependent on which one (or set) of these definitions you subscribe to. Add into the mix theoretical lens and its no wonder that those working in the field seem to clash or talk past each other!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review of Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition by Jeff Byles (Three River Press, 2005)

Rubble is a popular history of sorts of the industry of demolition. In many ways it’s a curious book, blending high brow magazine writing with quasi-academic verse, thus mixing newspaper-style reporting, and its emphasis on facts, figures and spectacle, with the high philosophy of Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard, and others. The style of writing kind of works, but it does drift into pretentiousness in more than a few places. Some of the case material is fascinating, for example in relation to the Haussmann clearances of Paris, the razing of Pruitt-Igoe ghetto in St Louis, and urban clearances of Detroit where 161,000 buildings were demolished between 1970 and 2000. However, the book suffers from a number of problems that made it quite difficult to persevere with (though I did make it to the end). First, the structure is quite chaotic, jumping backwards and forward in history within and between chapters. In fact, I could see no logic to the ordering of the material. Second, the book is almost exclusively focused on the U.S. with the occasional foray into demolition elsewhere, notably Paris and Britain. The kinds of ‘urbicide’ discussed have been widespread across the Western world and elsewhere such as in Eastern Europe, particularly in the period of Soviet control. Third, the book concentrates on demolition in the twentieth century. This is perhaps unsurprising given it was in this time period that it grew to become a well organised, multi-billion dollar industry. That said, people have been building and then knocking things down and clearing the debris away for as long as they’ve been urban dwellers and it would have been useful to delve much more into demolition in the period prior to the twentieth century (which admittedly would require widening the geographical remit significantly beyond the US).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Necessary evil?

"We should look at ourselves in the mirror every morning and recite: 'I know I'm an evil, but am I a necessary evil?'"

This was quoted - originally said by Sir Edward Boyle in 1976 - in last week's Time Higher Education Supplement* in relation to university managers. As someone who runs a research institute I'm left wondering whether I am a necessary evil or just plain evil? I have a horrible feeling it is probably a mix of both and it would difficult to say the above to my reflection with convinction most mornings. Perhaps I'll aspire to becoming a necessary evil. That should raise some eyebrows when I put that down on my next staff appraisal form.

* Allen, D. (2009) Collegiate spirit drives us to help advance the academic enterprise. Times Higher Education Oct 22-28, pages 24-25.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

October reviews

Another good month's reading, but the highlight was Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone.

The Lime Pit by Jonathan Valin ****
Satan's Lambs by Lynn Hightower ***
The Killing of Strangers by Jerry Holt **
Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett ****
The Irish Sports Pages by Les Roberts ***
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell *****
The Devil Met a Lady by Stuart Kaminsky ****
The Rabbit Factory by Marshall Karp ****
Mrs D'Silva Detective Instincts and the Shaitan of Calcutta by Glen Peters ***
The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin ****