Plenty of silliness


Plenty of silliness and lots of really good songs, pretty sums up Shel Silverstein for me.  He is a giant of literature who ranks alongside those other geniuses like Roald Dahl, Spike Milligan and Edward Lear.

As you can see from the photo above he was truly a giant.  Must have been 10 feet tall.  It is his birthday today.


The Generals; by Shel Silverstein

Said General Clay to General Gore,
‘Oh must we fight this silly war?
To kill and die is such a bore.’
‘I quite agree,’ said General Gore.

Said General Gore to General Clay,
‘We could go to the beach today
and have some ice cream on the way.’
‘A grand idea,’ said General Clay.

Said General Gore to General Clay,
‘but what if the sea is closed today?
and what if the sand’s been blown away?’
‘A dreadful thought,’ said General Clay.

Said General Gore to General Clay,
‘I’ve always feared the ocean’s spray,
and we may drown!’ ‘It’s true, we may.
It chills my blood,’ said General Clay.

Said General Clay to General Gore,
‘My bathing suit is slightly tore.
We’d better go on with our war.’
‘I quite agree,’ said General Gore.

Then General Clay charged General Gore
As bullets flew and cannons roared.
And now, alas! there is no more
Of General Clay or General Gore.

Miura Anjin


A 16th Century Dutch Fluyt

Born on this day in 1564 William Adams was the first Englishman to reach Japan, and one of the few westerners to become a Samurai.   Immortalised by James Clavell in the novel (and TV series) Shogun.

When his father died he was aged only 12 and was apprenticed to a shipyard, where he learned the skills that later allowed him to build Western Style ships for the Shogun of Japan.

He served in the Royal Navy in the war against Spain, as Master of a supply ship during the fight against the Armada.  In 1598 he joined a flotilla of five Dutch merchant ships on a trading exploration voyage to Japan.  They predated the foundation of the Dutch East India Company.

Adams was hired as “Pilot Major” of the fleet, a navigator.

They were hunted and harried by both Spanish and Portuguese in their voyage, who wanted to protect their monopolies in Africa, South America and the Pacific Islands.

One ship of the five made it to Japan, carrying only 23 men who were sick or dying.  Of these only 9 recovered their health.

Portuguese Jesuits, already in Japan tried to have the Dutch and English Protestant sailors killed as pirates.  The Japanese had other plans for them.  They invited the Dutch to open a trading post at Nagasaki in competition with the Portuguese.

Adams built a fleet of Western Ships for the Shogun which allowed the Japanese to expand their trade in Asia.  While Adams was honoured with Samurai status and given a large farm complete with the retainers to maintain it, he was never permitted to return home.

He married a Japanese girl and had a second family, his original wife and children being in England.  As a Samurai he was “reborn” and given the name Miura Anjin.

Boss Birthday


Happy Birthday Bruce Springsteen.  Every year some idiot politician rolls out his best known song to giddy up the crowd, singing along to those uplifting words “Born in the USA”, and you know they never, ever listened to the words!

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “son, don’t you understand”

I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go

There and back again!


On this day in 1937 the Hobbit was published.  Without the Hobbit we would not have Lord of the Rings, and without LOTR what would the world be?  Would we have the Wheel of Time, the Song of Ice and Fire, Tigana, Shannara, The Chronicles of Thomas Convenant, Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemia?

How many worlds, how many lives, how many adventures were given permission because in 1937 a publisher took a flyer on a silly book about a very short chap with hairy feet?

Well done to George Allen and Unwin, publishers with imagination.


Bath-Song; by J.R.R. Tolkien

Sing hey! For the bath at close of day
that washes the weary mud away
A loon is he that will not sing
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!

O! Sweet is the sound of falling rain,
and the brook that leaps from hill to plain;
but better than rain or rippling streams
is Water Hot that smokes and steams.

O! Water cold we may pour at need
down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed
but better is beer if drink we lack,
and Water Hot poured down the back.

O! Water is fair that leaps on high
in a fountain white beneath the sky;
but never did fountain sound so sweet
as splashing Hot Water with my feet!

How to choose a college course.

College Choice

As one cohort of students begin their first year in college a whole new batch are embarking on their final school year.  Somewhere along the way this year they need to fill in a form to apply for college places.

In Ireland the university and college applications process is centralised by a government body called the Central Applications Office.  So you will hear Irish kids talk about their CAO form and their CAO choices.

For the vast majority of Irish kids the system is entirely meritocratic.   It is a points based scoring system.  If you get sufficient points in your exams you get the place in college.  There is no opportunity to sway the opinions of a “selection” committee with a jazzy video or a fat donation.  There are some sensible exceptions.  Places for art schools generally involve an additional points allocation based on your portfolio.  Music schools award separate points for musical ability, awards and prizes.  But for the most part the selection is based on the results of your secondary school leaving certificate exam.

So in Ireland, when the Leaving Certificate results come out you will hear conversations about the “points race” and the “CAO Points”.  For reasons of social etiquette it is gauche to ask what points someone (or their child) received.  It is OK to ask “did they get their first choice?”  A high performing kid might get 525 points and be disappointed because they needed 550 to get into Law.  Another kid might be over the moon because they got the 300 points they needed to secure their first choice course.

These days it is possible to recover from a terrible leaving certificate and negotiate alternate routes into third level education.  But the leaving certificate remains the simplest and fastest way to get from school through college and into the workplace.

Hence the Venn diagram at the top of the article.  Confucius is supposed to have said that if you do something you love you will never work a day in your life.  It’s a nice idea and it is certainly wonderful to have a job you love.  It makes your days fly by and every morning is an engaging challenge rather than a depressing trudge to a workplace that seems like a prison.  The modern equivalent of the “dark satanic mills”.

Putting an old head on 18 year old shoulders is a challenge.  When I see a college course in data science I see a future of possibility, interesting work and excellent pay.  My 18 year old sees a lot of boring stuff on the syllabus.

Which brings me to the TV jobs farce.  When you look at TV what are the exciting jobs?

Lots of TV shows glamorise a law career.  Those sharp clothes, beautiful people, shiny courtrooms, exciting cases, sexy colleagues.  It all seems such a rush.  For me “Better Call Saul” is probably a fairer view of a law career.  There is glamour and excitement, for the senior partners.  For the grunts there are long days of work that is often boring and tedious, with risk of severe criticism for any mistake.

Law is categorised (Freakonomics:  Dubner & Levitt) as a career that is structured as a tournament.  You have a very wide entry base and a very narrow apex of the pyramid.  Those at the top, the partners, reap huge rewards from the work of their teams.  It is a microcosm of the capitalist system.  You get rich by taking the value of the work of your low paid staff.  Careers structured as tournaments are great if you win.  Not so great if you lose.  Either you spend your life being paid less than you are worth, or you depart from the competition to accept a more stable position, having given your best years to a senior partner.

Big 4 accounting firms are similarly structured as tournaments.  Kids need to be aware that if they enter that race they need to be up for the long haul.  20 years of 50 to 60 hour weeks, breakfast and lunch at the computer, working weekends, cancelling holidays, having kids who think the mobile phone is called “daddy”.

TV is also pretty good at glamorising jobs that do not pay.  TV is filled with interior design shows.  It seems there must be a booming career for interior designers.  But riddle me this, the last time you did a home makeover, how much did you spend with your interior designer?  What?  You didn’t use one?  Why ever not?  Oh, they cost too much.

So you have a handful of well connected interior designers who work for millionaires, who are probably the sons or daughters of millionaires themselves.  You then have a handful of designers who are connected to the right industries, such as hotels or restaurants, but they seem to get ALL the work in those industries.  Each year hundreds of young hopefuls enter college to study interior design and end up working in the restaurant business serving food instead of designing rooms.

My advice to young people selecting a college place, for what it is worth, is this.

  1. Use the Venn diagram above.  Be honest with yourself.  If you get 50% in Maths and you really love maths, but you get 80% in Spanish, you are better at Spanish, even if you hate it.
  2. Add up your points from the last set of exams you sat.  That is your base working assumption.  Unless you plan to really, really work really really hard, you are looking at a good approximation of your final marks.  Look at the courses in that points range.
  3. Search job sites, and the kind of job you would eventually like to have.  Look at the qualifications they specify as mandatory requirements.
  4. If you are selecting a career speak to some people who actually work in that career.  Don’t fall for the corporate literature or what you see on TV.  For instance a recent survey found that most US college students in nuclear physics learned most of what they knew about the subject from watching the Simpsons.
  5. Keep your options as open as you can early in your college life.  What I mean here is select the general rather than the specific.  If you have a choice of “General Science” or “Food science” go with the General and you will find that there are options to specialise all along the way.  If you go too specific too early it can be hard to back out if you hate it.
  6. Finally, don’t stress about it.  Most people end up working in a career that has little or nothing to do with their undergraduate college course.  Life takes you in some strange directions.  Whatever you do choose, stick with it.  Complete the course and get the degree.  Employers are impressed by people who finish what they start, not by people who found themselves on a beach in Thailand instead of sitting their finals.



Work? You don’t know work.


I worked some pretty bad jobs in my time.  Weeks serving food on grotty ferries.  Long days stacking shop shelves and sweeping grubby floors.  Disgusting days lifting coughing patients in a chest ward, or turning geriatrics with turgid pee bags and soiled pads and all for pretty low wages, but I never complained at that.

I worked some pretty great jobs, running hard from morning to night, days gone in a blink, boxes ticked, tasks completed, a blur of achievement richly rewarded. I certainly never complained at that.

I worked a well paid job in a comfortable office with little or nothing to do.  I watched the hands of the clock march slowly around the dial praying for the end of the hour, the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month, the end of the year, the end of my life.  I literally wished my life away.  I complained about everything.  I longed for a geriatric to be turned, or a floor to be swept.

That’s not work.  That’s prison.

Fear and Fame; by Philip Levine

Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I’d stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,
my black street shoes and white cotton socks,
to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,
screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water
gargle away the bitterness as best I could.
For fifteen minutes or more I’d sit quietly
off to the side of the world as the women
polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity
hung like Christmas ornaments on the racks
pulled steadily toward the tanks I’d cooked.
Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,
as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,
a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese
on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,
and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.
Then to arise and dress again in the costume
of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.


Deliverance is a movie directed by John Boorman, based on the novel by James Dickey.  Dickey is also a poet and when you get to the end of this post I have included a poem from his pen.

Different people will have different immediate reactions to the film Deliverance.  Ask people who have seen it what is their enduring memory.


Some will immediately go to the duelling banjos scene.

Yesterday we heard Burt Reynolds passed away.  When the film was made in 1972 Reynolds was the epitome of American masculinity.  The role turned him from a TV star to a Movie star in an age when that was an enormous difference.  He famously went on to turn down roles as James Bond and Han Solo.  He starred in Smokey and the Bandit, and in Cannonball Run, specialising in roles that involved muscle cars and beautiful women,  He went on to become a director.  Later in his career he won an Oscar playing a porn movie director in Boogie Nights.

In 1972 male masculinity looked like this:

deliverance 2

A lot of guys who saw the movie identified with Jon Voight.  He wants to be confident, strong, macho and shallow like Reynolds character.  But he is afflicted with human emotions, conscience, doubt.  But in the end Voight summons up his reserves of masculinity and kills the guy he thinks is the bad guy.  And then has these doubts about if that was really the bad guy after all.

Deliverance 4

For me the real hero, the real man of the movie, was Ned Beatty.  Ned played the victim of the seminal male rape scene that made the movie a significant milestone in world cinema.  The movie opened the door to male vulnerability and allowed men to open discussions about abuse.  The movie shattered the Burt Reynolds image of what a man should be and gave us the Ned Beatty truth of what a man is.

Ned Beatty allowed himself to be stripped naked, slapped, abused, insulted and raped, all on celluloid for the consumption of a world audience.  That took guts.  That took bravery.  Bur Reynolds played the easy role, Beatty did the hard stuff.

Deliverance 3

So ask me what is my enduring memory of the film.  The characters kill the guy they think is the rapist.  They bury the body in a valley that is being flooded by the construction of a dam.  At the end of the film they realise they may have killed the wrong guy.  Voight dreams of that lake behind the dam, he dreams of the serene water at dusk, no breeze, not a ripple.  And then…………

Deliverance 1

Cherrylog Road; by James Dickey

Off Highway 106
at Cherrylog Road I entered
the ’34 Ford without wheels,
smothered in kudzu,
with a seat pulled out to run
corn whiskey down from the hills,

and then from the other side
crept into an Essex
with a rumble seat of red leather
and then out again, aboard
a blue Chevrolet, releasing
the rust from its other color,

reared up on three building blocks.
None had the same body heat;
I changed with them inward, toward
the weedy heart of the junkyard,
for I knew that Doris Holbrook
would escape from her father at noon

and would come from the farm
to seek parts owned by the sun
among the abandoned chassis,
sitting in each in turn
as I did, leaning forward
as in a wild stock-car race

in the parking lot of the dead.
Time after time, I climbed in
and out the other side, like
an envoy or movie star
met at the station by crickets.
A radiator cap raised its head,

become a real toad or a kingsnake
as I neared the hub of the yard,
passing through many states,
many lives, to reach
some grandmother’s long Pierce-Arrow
sending platters of blindness forth

from its nickel hubcaps
and spilling its tender upholstery
on sleepy roaches,
the glass panel in between
Lady and colored driver
not all the way broken out,

the back-seat phone
still on its hook.
I got in as though to exclaim,
“Let us go to the orphan asylum,
John; I have some old toys
for children who say their prayers.”

I popped with sweat as I thought
I heard Doris Holbrook scrape
like a mouse in the southern-state sun
that was eating the paint in blisters
from a hundred car tops and hoods.
She was tapping like code,

loosening the screws,
carrying off headlights,
sparkplugs, bumpers,
cracked mirrors and gear-knobs,
getting ready, already,
to go back with something to show

other than her lips’ new trembling
I would hold to me soon, soon,
where I sat in the ripped back seat
talking over the interphone,
praying for Doris Holbrook
to come from her father’s farm

and to get back there
with no trace of me on her face
to be seen by her red-haired father
who would change, in the squalling barn,
her back’s pale skin with a strop,
then lay for me

in a bootlegger’s roasting car
with a string-triggered 12-gauge shotgun
to blast the breath from the air.
Not cut by the jagged windshields,
through the acres of wrecks she came
with a wrench in her hand,

through dust where the blacksnake dies
of boredom, and the beetle knows
the compost has no more life.
Someone outside would have seen
the oldest car’s door inexplicably
close from within:

I held her and held her and held her,
convoyed at terrific speed
by the stalled, dreaming traffic around us,
so the blacksnake, stiff
with inaction, curved back
into life, and hunted the mouse

with deadly overexcitement,
the beetles reclaimed their field
as we clung, glued together,
with the hooks of the seat springs
working through to catch us red-handed
amidst the gray breathless batting

that burst from the seat at our backs.
We left by separate doors
into the changed, other bodies
of cars, she down Cherrylog Road
and I to my motorcycle
parked like the soul of the junkyard

restored, a bicycle fleshed
with power, and tore off
up Highway 106, continually
drunk on the wind in my mouth,
wringing the handlebar for speed,
wild to be wreckage forever.

Toy Story

Toy Story

Born this day in 1850 Eugene Field, if he lived today, could probably sue Pixar for stealing his idea in the poem “Little Boy Blue” and turning it into the Toy Story Movie Franchise.  Although Field’s poem has a darker side.  Instead of being about growing up it is about the death of a child.


Little boy blue; by Eugene Field

The little toy dog is covered with dust,
but sturdy and stanch he stands;
and the little toy soldier is red with rust,
and his musket molds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new
and the soldier was passing fair,
and that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
kissed them and put them there.

“Now, don’t you go till I come,” he said,
“and don’t you make any noise!”
So toddling off to his trundle-bed
he dreamed of the pretty toys.
And as he was dreaming, an angel song
awakened our Little Boy Blue,
oh, the years are many, the years are long,
but the little toy friends are true.

Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
each in the same old place,
awaiting the touch of a little hand,
the smile of a little face.
And they wonder, as waiting these long years through,
in the dust of that little chair,
what has become of our Little Boy Blue
since he kissed them and put them there.