Modest Proposals

New site launched for Alan Ross Photography

I’ve just launched a new site for Santa Fe-based landscape photographer, master printer and teacher Alan Ross.

Alan was looking for a site to showcase his great work, his workshops and his tech-related blog. He explains, ” I had very little ability to make updates and changes to my old site, and besides needing a new look, I desperately needed a site that I could manage almost entirely by myself, with no working knowledge of code and HTML, and no special, expensive software.”

Enter WordPress and Photoshelter. We chose the Crisp Photoshelter theme as the basis for the design, but tweaked a number of elements to create the templates that would work across both the text (WordPress-driven) and image-heavy (Photoshelter-driven) parts of the site.

First up was adjusting the navigation to include all the sections that Alan wanted — Workshops, Shop and Blog, as well as the usual About and Contact info.Then we darkened the overall background (which meant changing the shadow around the main content area), added a grey background to the thumbnails and single image display, and created a dark border to set off the gorgeous black and white images. Subtle tweaks, but ones I think work well.

Alan’s Portfolio is set up as one Collection, so he can continue to add as many galleries to it as he needs to. The searchable Archive is another Collection.

The Blog is set up as a WordPress blog, with the other sections of the site created as WordPress pages. So Alan can easily update both the text and images, while the whole site looks like one clean, consistent whole.

And he’s happy with the result: “David Moore listened to and heard my website needs, was responsive to my questions, and was all-around a complete pleasure to work with.”

Alan’s site:

Articles Ireland Modest Proposals Technology

Business as usual – the rise and fall of Nua

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Name the year: in January, a huge earthquake hit Kobe in Japan, in April 169 people were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, and there was an ebola outbreak in Zaire in May. In October, O. J. Simpson was acquitted of double murder.

In the entertainment world, Sony released the first PlayStation, ‘Forrest Gump’ won the Best Film Oscar, and the album releases included Leftfield’s ‘Leftism’ and ‘The Bends’ from Radiohead.

Economically, things were looking up in Ireland. Encouraged by tax breaks and a skilled young workforce, 30% of all US high-tech investment in Europe was coming to the country, led by companies such as Microsoft and Gateway. Overseas investment in Ireland created 6,500 new jobs in the year. Irish-owned companies were also enjoying success – in April CBT Systems became the first Irish firm to be quoted on the tech-heavy NASDAQ.

Still not sure when all this happened? It was 1995, the year that also saw the foundation of a company that was to become the high-profile poster-boy of Irish internet start-ups.

December 1995 – 16 million people online worldwide

Nua was the brainchild of Gery McGovern, a jobbing journalist originally from Longford, and Niall O’Sullivan, who ran a design shop, O’Sullivan Associates (OSA), producing architectural models, product design prototypes and computer graphics. McGovern was writing for Hot Press at the time, but in the early 90s he’d been on the other side of the microphone, performing as a rap artist at The Underground on Dame Street. The Underground went on to become the lap-dancing club Lapello; McGovern went on to become CEO of companies with a combined valuation of around �100 million.

O’Sullivan was working on early designs of a new type of football boot with the former Liverpool footballer Craig Johnston (the boot would evolve into the Adidas Predator), and he called in McGovern to help with the marketing documents for the job.

McGovern had written a report for the government development agency Forbairt called ‘Ireland: the digital age, the internet’, and he persuaded O’Sullivan that this area was something they should explore as a business. “I’d always thought wouldn’t it be great to be around at the beginning of something?” recalls McGovern. “And I felt from the first time I saw the internet that it would create a revolution of some sort.”

They looked for someone with an understanding of the underlying technology, and found Antoin O’Lachtnain, who was then a psychology and philosophy student at Trinity. A quietly spoken, slightly stooped young man who never seemed completely comfortable in his own skin, he had been helping out at the fledgling ISP Internet Eireann when he ran into McGovern.

Up to this point the internet had been the preserve of an intense, idealistic and technically literate community. However, the birth of the browser that had prompted Netscape’s stellar debut on the NASDAQ was also making the internet much more accessible to a wider audience.

In October 1995 Wired magazine voted ‘Quantifying the Net’ top of its hype list, declaring, “As businesses move onto the Net, their first instinct is to map it. Hence the hype surrounding demographic everything from web-user tracking to demographic studies to smart indexes.” They came to a baleful conclusion, “The Net is going to start looking very different – and a lot more prosaic.”

Things might have seemed prosaic to the dudes at Wired (in the same issue they judged it ‘tired’ to have an email address on your business card, preferring a new-fangled URL), but they seemed pretty exciting for the Nua founders. The new company moved into OSA’s studio off Westland Row, and borrowed some of its staff early on.

Work was difficult to come by, but the relaxed atmosphere in the studio was appealing. “One day I was making a TV, one day I was working on graphics for a site, and one day I was painting the stairs,” says Fergal Lawler, who became the lead designer at Nua. “The main attraction was the people there – it felt like a social club.”

December 1996 – 36 million people online worldwide

The early arrivers came from a range of backgrounds (including industrial design and post-doctoral mathematics) but shared a certain maverick nature. All were curious about the new medium and keen to learn, and although they lacked business experience, they were willing to take a chance on something that had hardly registered with the wider public in Ireland at that stage.

“We called every medium and large-sized company in the country, and nobody wanted a website,” says McGovern. In the end their first client site was for a small American company, Viewprint. But McGovern continued to raise the profile of the company with two weekly email newsletters.

New Thinking outlined McGovern’s vision for the new digital age in suitably breathless prose. In a July 1996 edition he described the workers of the new economy: “They will dig in the fertile soil of The Land Of Imaginations, where the Medium is the Communication. The future is not about opening mines. The future is about opening minds.” This last refrain was recorded for use as an audio clip on Nua’s grey Celtic-tinged website, but when spoken it sounded a lot like: “The future is not about opening mines. The future is about opening mines”, which made even less sense.

The second newsletter, Nua Internet Surveys, synopsised the press releases of reports on internet demographics and presented them in an accessible form. With the number of websites doubling every 50 days, there was a great demand for information, but the full reports from bodies such as Jupiter Communications and IDC ran to hundreds of pages and cost hundreds of dollars. By serving up summaries, Nua offered businesses and academics what they wanted, while associating themselves with a depth of research and analysis that they couldn’t afford to have.

McGovern says that he came up with the idea for Internet Surveys from listening to rap music, with the sampling on the tracks suggesting to him the synopsising of survey data. Whatever its origins, it was an inexpensive marketing coup, and a European award towards the end of 1996 showed that the company was on the right lines with its own site, even if clients were hard to find.

The first big break came when Nua was hired to build a large site for Telecom Eireann (now Eircom) as it moved into the service provider market. More staff were needed, and here I have to come clean – I was one of the new recruits, hired to write and edit reviews of websites for the Doras directory of Irish and international sites.  My head was full of stories of San Francisco start-ups with funky working practices and skateboarding CEOs. Nua’s open plan, wooden-floored studio in a converted industrial building was about as close as I was going to get in Dublin.

My interview for the job had been bizarre. Having found the door to the office down a dark and dodgy backstreet almost under Pearse Station, I was shown into the meeting room below the studio. McGovern entered, wearing a yellow casual shirt and a knitted waistcoat. He folded his tall angular body into a chair and began talking in a quiet but intense voice, describing his plans for Nua’s sister company, Local Ireland. Nua’s website design and consultancy would pay the bills, but it was clear Local Ireland was McGovern’s real love. It was an infrastructure to collect and catalogue everything you would ever need to know about Ireland, and from this digital soil, I was told, endless opportunities would grow. He hardly asked me anything about myself or my experience, but it sounded interesting if a little off the wall, so I joined the company and started digging.

We were all making it up as we went along – the management included. “In reality, there was no plan,” says McGovern. “We created plans as we went along, but not from the beginning.”

McGovern had never even worked in an office before, O’Lachtnain had left college without finishing his degree, and O’Sullivan was running two companies at once. But between the banter across the studio and the long evening sessions in The Gingerman pub round the corner, we were a clever if wayward bunch that knew a little bit more about the internet than our clients, which was all we needed.

Work started to arrive, and it seemed as if normal rules didn’t apply. We were called into established companies like insurers ArkLife and lawyers McCann Fitzgerald and we dictated our terms. Seeing McGovern in action in these meetings was startling – the quiet awkward figure who never stayed long in the pub was replaced with an earnestly confident speaker who dominated proceedings.

We wouldn’t just produce shovelware, putting clients’ brochures online – they would have to involve all the departments in the organisation in the discussion about the site, and they would have to change the way they worked. Then we’d build them a website. None of us had any background in business consulting, but that didn’t matter, because we offered ‘new thinking for the digital age’. It said so on our business cards.

These real companies seemed to like our unconventional approach. During meetings at the Nua office, one of the partners would lead clients up the stairs into the studio to survey the dressed-down staff, the creative chaos of our desks and our obligatory basketball hoop. LTJ Bukem or Future Sound of London would be blasting from the hi-fi, and the suits would be led back downstairs again before someone put on The Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’.

December 1997 – 101 million people online worldwide

The sites we were building had a consistency of approach that was based on McGovern’s thinking about the Web, which hasn’t changed much in the intervening years: it’s not about the most bleeding edge technology, or about flashy attention-grabbing visuals. “The internet is on the surface a very boring library, and the excitement is in finding the book, not in browsing the shelves,” he says. It’s no surprise that the sites built to this philosophy are not the most spectacular. Trawling back through old Nua jobs using the invaluable Wayback Machine (www., you see the same framework very clearly: main navigation across the top, secondary navigation down the side, and standard links like What’s New and Contact.

As a designer, Fergal Lawler found this constricting. “There was no experimentation,” he says. “We joked about building a website-o-matic you could use to enter in the content and it would spit out the site following one of the Nua templates.”

But focus on the content side of website design was at the expense of the technical and practical elements of the actual construction. “The project manager label was given to anyone who wasn’t a techie or a designer, whether or not they knew what project management was,” says Tony Byrne, who set up Nua’s first network, and was involved in much of the early programming work.

In the quiet times in the studio, staff worked on the Nua company folklore. A comedy epic was circulated involving Guru Gerry and his digital waistcoat, and Lawler created a set of spoof film posters – including the Nua managers in ‘The Usual Suspects’ lineup, and an ‘X-Files’ take on the long-promised share options that included the tagline, ‘I want to believe’.

Everyone wanted to believe. McGovern’s newsletters reached the in-boxes of decision-makers in prominent companies, and a blindly enthusiastic Irish press were delighted to have their own dotcom success story to write about.

“In the mid 1990s only one Irish newspaper had a computing page, and only a

handful of Irish journalists had email,” says Mick Cunningham, who was co-founder of the late lamented Computimes page in the Irish Times, and later went to work for Nua.

“Sure, the Irish Times had a website, but most of its own journalists had never seen the Web, and wouldn’t know one end of a mouse from another,” he continues. “The net still meant spotty game-players and geeks and hackers, mysterious alien stuff rather than day-to-day business. So the more articulate pioneers like Gerry could push their line with very little mediation.”

The gap between the image of the company and the experience of working there was striking. Everyone knew who we were, but nobody knew we weren’t allowed desklamps because the company couldn’t afford them.

It was a major coup when Nua won a $250,000 contract with US firm Thomas Publishing.  I briefly ended up as project manager on the job, despite being a words person. One day, after a protracted conference call to the clients, O Lachtnain emailed me to suggest I draw up a Gant chart, a standard project management tool with a timeline showing roles and responsibilities for the work. I had no idea what a Gant chart was, but I knew a typo when I saw one, so I emailed him back wondering if he had in fact meant ‘a giant chart’.

The larger the sites became the more they resembled software development projects rather than publishing work, requiring careful planning and solid procedures, but Tony Byrne was still getting specifications for the Thomas Publishing job written on Post-it Notes. “It was like working by Chinese whispers,” he recalls.

I left before the project was completed, when someone offered me a job in the town of Manhattan, Kansas. The wide-open prairies seemed a useful antidote to working with clients who didn’t know what they wanted, and managers too busy and inexperienced to keep them to the agreed deliverables.

As 1998 began, the company had an office in New York, a staff of 34 and a high profile at home and abroad. All seemed well on the surface, but there was frantic paddling going on underneath. The primary concern was to secure funding:
“In the whole six years, I’d say there were only six months when there wasn’t pressure,” says McGovern. This respite came in the form of a major investment from Telecom Eireann, which in June 1998 invested IRP5 million – IRP1.3 million for a 20% stake in Nua, and IRP4 million for 90% of Nua’s sister company Local Ireland.

Appropriately enough, the deal was signed in the bar of the Alexander Hotel round the corner from the office. The leps, as the staff called themselves, had decamped from The Gingerman after it had become too popular following a renovation. The Western-themed bar upstairs was particularly upsetting for a group who saw themselves as cowboys on a very different sort of new frontier.

September 1998 – 147 million people online worldwide

Nua was no longer a plucky startup, and if the Telecom investment heralded the next stage in their development, it was the move from Westland Row to larger offices on the Merrion Road at Booterstown that underlined their growth. For many of the old stagers this proved to be a DART too far. The funky atmosphere in the bright studio was replaced with a more corporate feel in dark cubicles, where playing music was forbidden. McGovern is philosophical about the changing culture, “Companies become very different animals with different levels of employment,” he says. “For a while it was like this hippy period of business – we can all be profitable and play music and come in late. But it’s about making your 20%.”

But a throwback to this hippy period came in the publication of McGovern’s book, ‘The Caring Economy’. Drawing on his New Thinking articles, the book argued that new technology allowed individuals, groups and companies to meet each other’s needs much more personally and precisely – in short, better communication allowed us all to care more:

“Today, as we move from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age . . . it is vital that we are able to look at the world with fresh eyes and are willing to learn new things, new business practices. It is vital that we take nothing for granted. That we assume nothing. That we question everything. That we particularly question the things that we believe to be absolutely true. We should examine the philosophical foundations of our lives and not be afraid to find that they are crumbling. We should be ready to build new ones. Because we can. Because we must. Because there is no other choice.”

But despite this idealistic rhetoric, the internet was becoming increasingly mainstream, and Nua had to adapt. Within a few months of the move, six of the longest-serving staff had left, and the big consulting companies such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers and KPMG had woken up to the opportunities online, and began to challenge Nua for the larger jobs. At the same time, with almost no barriers to entry, many smaller web firms were arriving on the scene.

September 1999 – 201 million people online worldwide

Nua could see themselves being squeezed: “The people running the company didn’t have the background to run a first-rate international consulting firm,” says O Lachtnain bluntly. So the decision was made to productise the content management and publishing software that had been developed for Local Ireland and larger client projects. Nua began to pitch for fewer jobs, and the consultancy tried to turn itself into a software company. Lawler’s ‘website-o-matic’ had become a reality.

Another driver was Nua’s search for another round of funding. Investment bankers tended to give a higher valuation to software developers than to consultants. “You’d make more money, basically,” says McGovern.

“The message was to expand,” he continues. “We didn’t have to if we didn’t want to, but we listened. I got carried away, as did lots of people. It just seemed in the middle of ‘99 that there were endless possibilities. Towards the end of ‘99 valuations were going crazy, and everything started to go insane. At that stage, we probably believed the hype too much.”

They weren’t the only ones. The best performing company on the NASDAQ in 1999 was wireless firm Qualcomm, which had seen its share price increase by 2,600% during the year, from $6 to $176 (it’s now at $27); Broadvision had gone from $10 to $170 over the same period (they’re now around $1.25).

Despite having very little software development experience, Nua focused its efforts on their product NuaPublish at the same time as growing rapidly – at their height, Nua and Local Ireland employed over 100 people. Tony Byrne was closely involved in the product’s development, and he tells a torturous tale. “We had no idea how to make this shift from consultancy to product development happen,” he says, and McGovern agrees that, “we certainly had a lot to learn.”

Consultants from Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) were called in to help with the development, but as Byrne recalls, “The Andersen consultants seemed to take a long time to get up to speed, and there was some friction with some of the Nua people, who didn’t know who they were supposed to be reporting to.”

Another employee caught in the middle of this was hired to manage content for client websites, but became a project manager working with the Andersen consultants when the company changed focus between her interview and her start date. “I really felt very quickly that the Nua management were crazy to be paying out top dollar to these people,” she says.

With slow progress being made, the consultants were eventually told their services were no longer required.

June 2000 – 337 million people online worldwide

The product they were working on was taking much longer than expected to reach the market, but the company was still scrambling to expand.

At the same time, McGovern was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable with his own role. “It was never my long-term ambition to be running a 100 or 200 person company,” he says. “There are different skillsets for different environments, and one isn’t necessarily appropriate for another. There’s a very solid managerial style when a company reaches maturity, and then there’s an entrepreneurial try-anything style.”

McGovern clearly saw himself more in the latter camp, and to help manage the growing company he hired prominent US executive Ray Koch as COO on a IRP200,000+ package. The plan was that Koch should quickly move to take over McGovern’s role as CEO.

With no more consultancy revenue, and very few sales of the delayed product, Nua had almost no income in 2000, aside from a loan from Eircom.

“Profitability wasn’t an issue,” explains McGovern. “It was how many people do you have, what volume of turnover can you get, how quickly can you expand.” JP Morgan were taken on to oversee the next funding round.  However, the company had missed its window – confidence in the new economy was waning fast , and Nua got hit from both sides. Not only were investors now more wary, but companies that should have been buying NuaPublish were scaling back their expenditure.

Nua had raised no more money, and the expected sales of NuaPublish had not materialised. Now survival not growth became the priority, and there were no longer places for Koch and Rob Norton, another big-ticket executive hired from the US.

“The company was designed as a racehorse that would run fast in an expanding market, but the market collapsed and you really needed a cart horse,” says McGovern.

Ironically, at this point work was finally nearing completion on the full-featured version of NuaPublish. “For me, that was the sad part,” says Byrne. “The thing was working well at last.”

In January 2001, 22 staff were laid off as McGovern and the other principals tried to secure funding for the company. The Irish/British consortium Garnham were interested, and McGovern maintains that they were very close to signing an agreement. “We were as certain as certain could be that a deal was there,” he says. Two days before they were due to sign in March, the NASDAQ suffered its highest ever percentage one-day fall and Garnham pulled out.

March 2001 – 458 million people online worldwide

Eircom’s attitude to its internet investments had changed, and there was to be no repeat of their loan from the previous year – Nua had run out of options. At the end of March the remaining staff were laid off without receiving their last month’s salary, and David Hughes from Ernst and Young was appointed as receiver.

Meanwhile, Local Ireland was similarly hitting the buffers. Depsite the Eircom investment, the site and its underlying infrastructure had never delivered on its promise. O Lachtnain provides an overview of the Local Ireland mistakes: “We tried to do too many things at once, we tried to go it alone too much, we didn’t make enough money soon enough.”

McGovern acknowledges that his big idea was a little too big: “Really, Local Ireland should have been a government initiative.”

October 2002 – 580 million people online worldwide

Last year McGovern addressed a seminar organised by the technology company Web Intellect, outlining some of the reasons for Nua’s collapse. The title of his speech, ‘Always Make Mistakes’ is instructive enough, but what’s really interesting are some of the alternatives he offered: ‘Get Big Fast, Go Bust Quick’, ‘From Rags to Riches to Receivership’, ‘The Internet – I Never Really Believed in It Anyway’ and ‘I Still Know Him when he doesn’t have an Arse in his Trousers’.

Behind the black humour of these suggestions is a sense that there’s a uniform shape to the recent run of dot-bomb stories – that the companies were all following a predefined path that can be captured succinctly: people with limited experience but limitless chutzpah make a big noise, attract investment from people who should know better, and temporarily woo the market before it all collapses as reality begins to bite.

In the book ‘Microserfs’, published in the year Nua was founded, Douglas Coupland writes, ‘The industry is made up of either gifted techies or smart generalists – the people who were bored with high-school’. For a brief while, these generalists, who disliked the soulless conservatism of the business world, thought they could make money while doing things differently. Nua’s tagline of ‘making free information pay’ showed their confidence in the reversal of the old rules. Now the new generalists have been replaced by the old specialists – people who know how to run companies. Wired got it right in 1995 – as businesses moved onto the net, it did get more prosaic.

It’s clear that McGovern thinks that the changing business climate in 2000 played a large part in the destruction of the company, and it’s true that the company had to do a lot of things right to get into the position to blow it. But Nua was always a product of its time – its initial success was based on being one of the first full-service web design companies in the country. They did well when the sun shone, but lacked the practical and managerial experience to survive when the storms came and they had been encouraged to over-reach.

McGovern is still involved in the internet (writing books and leading seminars on content management issues), but has no plans to get involved in another start-up. O Lachtnain, meanwhile, is currently working as an IT consultant.

The third original partner, Niall O’Sullivan, seemed to believe the hype a little less and has perhaps done best out of Nua’s collapse. His new company Arconics bought the NuaPublish assets in the receivership fire sale, and has found the paying clients that Nua never could.

The technology media company Computerscope bought Nua Internet Surveys, and is continuing to update the material. Local Ireland is currently in internet limbo – the site is still up, but Eircom say they no longer have anything to do with it (despite their logo on every page), and calls to the phone number on the site go unanswered.

In a January 1997 New Thinking article McGovern wrote, “The Industrial Age bred a thing called Imperialism. A rough beast with fine clothes that was too greedy to live in its own space. Had to conquer other people’s homes. Had to teach them ‘civilization’, so that it could milk them of their worldly goods. But out here, on this expanding horizon, there is enough room for any eye to feed on. We don’t need to colonize the Internet. If we need an acre we can make an acre. Money will always be scarce and there is no doubt that money buys space and all that goes with it. But here, right now, for perhaps a brief few years, imagination is also the acre-maker. Imagination and the determination to make that imagination work can help us create the space we need to live and flourish in.”

Those “brief few years” have passed, and there’s a battered ruefulness about McGovern now, after the collapse of Nua. His missionary zeal has given way to a hard-won lesson: “Business is business,” he says, “Internet business is no different from any other business – the same basic rules apply.”

(commissioned by The Dubliner in 2003, but never previously published)

Articles Life Modest Proposals Technology

Accidental Autobiography

Monday, February 19, 2001

Should you keep five year-old email messages? I’m currently tidying up the contents of various hard drives and floppy disks (remember them?) to prepare for the arrival of a new machine. But how much to throw out is proving a difficult question.

You keep photographs to remind of the things you’ve done, and the people you were with. To remind you never to grow your hair like that again, or for many other reasons. And it feels right to keep them. 

Maybe emails are in the same category, and by this I don’t mean every purely administrative work-related mail, or the newsletters you subscribed to, but the notes to your friends, the jokes, the abuse. 

Photographs and emails are part of your personal history. Every day you’re making memories, and this stuff marks the paths you’ve been down. Maybe burning old mail onto a CD is the equivalent of sticking stuff up in the attic. You don’t need it around every day, but you’re not going to throw it out either. 

And it’s the ephemeral nature of emails that makes them such good markers. It’s a truism in historical study that you get much better information when your primary source isn’t trying to tell you what happened than if you’re reading a considered history from the period. Documents that were written not with a view to posterity ironically live a longer life. 

So the stuff you dashed off to your mate when you were bored in the office one day catches you like a candid photograph. You might acknowledge at the time that this mail could be preserved, but you don’t write it like that. And unlike real letters, you get to keep the mail you send too. It’s an unmediated account of your preoccupations, your worries, your day to day life. An accidental autobiography. 

Some people might argue that you shouldn’t keep carrying this baggage around with you, that you are yourself only in the present, and all that stuff happened to someone else.  It’s certainly true that you can dwell too much on your former self. But if you maintain the right attitude to this personal detritus – a good-natured distance seems about right – then having it around is surely a good idea. 

But why, exactly? You keep all your photos, but you don’t look at them very often. And even when you do, it’s hard to explain what’s going on. 

Wordsworth argued that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. Scrolling through ASCII email archives is also recalling your old emotions and feelings at one remove. We can’t say why poetry matters but we do it anyway, and maybe the same is true of keeping and looking through our personal archives. 

So I won’t worry about all this crap I’m pouring on to CD, because in some way it’s poetry. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, February 2001)

Articles Modest Proposals Television

Postcards from home – watching familiar TV abroad

Tuesday, July 18, 2000

It’s 7:30pm on a Wednesday, and on television the theme from the English soap Eastenders starts up.  Then Ballykissangel comes on, with its gentle humour and relaxed Wicklow pace. Nothing strange there, then. 

Except that I’m watching these familiar programmes in my apuartment on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, and I’m not sure it’s a very good idea.

It’s not really the characters and plots that threaten to rupture the divide between my life here and my former life in England and Ireland – although the storylines are a bit less clumsily uplifting and the actors a little less perfect-looking than their American counterparts. 

What really matters are the incidental details – the idioms, the streetscapes and even the products on display.  When Niamh goes to the (suitably small) fridge and comes back with some Avonmore milk my heart was tugged very firmly.Who knew I was so attached to dairy products? 

The narrow streets, the dirty cars, the flat grey light (even though they shoot BallyK in the summer), the way everyone looks a little ill . . . these are things I have no protection against. 

Especially when they creep up on me in the completely different surroundings I thought I was comfortable in. That’s partly physical environment – the ridiculously beautiful fog-bound San Francisco mornings, or the high blue sky and gentle 70-degree breezes of an afternoon on the Peninsula. 

But it’s also the televisual surroundings. I can now find my way around the 60 or so channels that muscle their way into my living room. On the at the same time as Eastenders was ‘How to Get What You Really Really Really Want’ – a self-actualization, self-help, self-development special on PBS (shame on them); next as I zap through is the news in Mandarin, next the US version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, then a buxom Spanish language drama and elsewhere 3 baseball games (go Giants), 2 shopping channels, the Sci-Fi Channel, Animal Planet, the Weather Channel and all the rest. 

Most of the time I pick my way between these in the same way I do my food choices here – choosing each one on its merits, and embracing the local options. I don’t pine for Marmite, Barry’s Green Label or batch loaves over here (nor will you often find me in Irish bars in the city) – I’m too busy eating veggie burritos, sushi and knocking back double lattes and Anchor Steam. 

I’ve gone native – the only way to go. Similarly, most often my tv diet is made up of local good stuff too – Will and Grace, the late lamented Sports Night, baseball, the guilty pleasure of Survivor, good documentaries (although I did get a shock the other day when my lake monster-hunting housemate from Dublin was beamed into my living room in a Discovery Channel show). 

So when I stumble across shows that so abruptly drag me back into my older life, I feel at once happy and regretful. They remind me that however comfortable I am here, there’s a home that has a claim on me I can’t shake. 

It’s much easier to live a new life here without being nudged into thinking about what you’ve left behind, especially when you least expect it. A little like coming across photographs of old girlfriends – you get some pleasure from recalling a your past, but when you return to the present you’re not quite as confident of your place in it any more. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, July 2000)

Articles Life Modest Proposals USA

Under Construction – raising a tipi

Sunday, March 19, 2000

Last weekend I helped raise a tipi with some friends near Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

On a flat step above a bend in a river we camped out the previous night, sitting round the campfire making s’mores and drinking wine from mugs.  The stars were out above us, and as the moon set behind the hill opposite we picked our way down the steep path to the river.

Lying on our backs on the flat-topped boulder on the bank, a shooting star traced a stitch of light above, and we heard the freezing water slide by beside us. If you really listened, you could almost catch a tiny whisper of the world’s quiet roar. A place for everything, and everything in its place. 

The next day, with snow nestling amongst the cacti on the north-facing slope across the river, we set to work on the tipi. None of us quite knew what we were doing, but with instructions printed from a Welsh tipi website, we lashed the first three poles together, and raised the tripod against the azure sky. 

I sat whittling sticks for the pegs (which don’t work well in sandy soil, it turned out – metal pegs are a much better if less romantic choice), and as my friends placed the other poles in place it seemed as if the frame had somehow always been there, on that step above the river. 

There were certain customs to be observed in the building. The opening faced eastwards – away from the prevailing winds, and towards the morning sun – and when all the poles were in place, they were secured with rope that was walked clockwise four times around the frame – one revolution for each of the seasons. 

We threaded the lifting pole into the canvas cover on the ground, and then lifted it into place at the back of the tipi and unfolded the cloth, wrapping it round the poles like putting a coat on an impatient five year-old. 

OK, so the cover didn’t quite match up at the front at first – there’s lots of room for misadjustment in an 18’ tipi – but after moving some poles forward and some back, we were done. 

The smoke flaps, the oval opening, the tops of the poles criss-crossing, the soft light inside as we all stepped in and stood there, splintered, scratched and happy – marvelling at what we’d made. 

Made? Or revealed? It was as if the tipi knew how and where it should be built, and we’d simply helped it along. More like archaeology than construction. From a pile of sun-bleached wood and a mildewed bundle of cloth we’d uncovered something noble and determinedly right. A place for everything, and everything in its place. 

And my modest point? My extrapolation from the specific to the general?  My thought to leave you with? None, really. I just wanted to tell you. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, March 2000)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLifeUSA

Articles Life Modest Proposals USA

Cabin Fever

Saturday, June 19, 1999

In the last 15 months I’ve been on over 70 aeroplanes. Since this January, from my base in Kansas, the list of cities I’ve been in seems ridiculous – Atlanta, DC, Chicago, Dallas, Tucson, San Francisco (twice), Dublin (twice), Galway, Cincinnati, Denver, Santa Fe (three times). 

You can spin this unlikely itinerary in a number of ways. Either it’s a fact of modern day business life, and something that an increasing number of people do all the time.

The dystopian version of this points to the grind of long distances, the soullessness of airport hotels, the grim-faced grey acceptance of the folks at the gates in business attire carrying bulging laptop bags. 

Or it’s a glamorous jet-set lifestyle of expense account living, a new shiny city every week and a year-round tan. 

My truth lies somewhere in the middle. I have little enough luxury on the business trips – I fly coach and eat as many Burger Kings as lobster bisques on the road – but I get treated pretty well (big hand for the deeply stylish W Hotel in San Francisco) and I appreciate the opportunities it gives me to see all kinds of stuff I wouldn’t otherwise know about. 

Reading the local papers and watching the local news wherever I am is crucial – to read the unctious USA Today (the calling card of the travelling salesperson) placed outside your hotel room door is to participate in the pretence that where you are is exactly the same as where you’ve been. 

This is so bad because the one thing that can never be forgotten is how completely unnatural this all is. No matter how many times you get in a metal tube in one city and get out of it 400 miles away, or ring your kids on your calling card from an airport telephone, you should never once think that this is what you’re meant to be doing. 

Your body knows how weird it is. You can rationally understand jumping continents at your employer’s bidding, can justify your astronomical travel expenditure with a convincing business argument and can even develop tips and techniques to make it all seem a bit more normal, but all the stress of this time travel is building up in you somewhere or other. 

People aren’t designed to do such bizarre things as fly across the Atlantic, go to work the day they arrive, go out drinking that night, put in another couple of days’ work, then fly back home like it was an hour’s drive up the motorway. 

Human’s flexibility is at once our great strength and our fatal weakness. We can adapt to all kinds of things we didn’t ought to get used to, and can overcome by force of will the nagging reminders that we’re not designed to do this. 

This is not to say that I’m not enjoying myself – I’ve been able to do some amazing things through all this travel, and have learned a great deal along the way. But I can only see myself doing this for a limited time – it’s an adventure, not a way of life. It doesn’t take too long doing this before the losses more than outweigh the gains. 

This is last time I’ll write from Manhattan, Kansas, which between my travels has been my home for the last 15 months. I’m going to rest up back in Ireland and England for a couple of months, before moving to San Francisco. A pause before the adventure begins again. 

But the brightest moments of the last few months have all involved doing very grounded things – riding horses on the prairies, or mountain bikes in the Rockies, walking the hills of San Francisco or the beaches of County Clare, going for brunch in Santa Fe or pints in Dublin. And of course, in all of these activities, it’s been the friends and family that I’ve been with that have made the most sense in this unlikely life. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, June 1999)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsUSALife

Articles Modest Proposals Television USA

Going deep – why Sports Night is so good

Tuesday, May 18, 1999

How much do you really know about Joey from Friends? Over countless episodes, all that’s been revealed is that he’s not very bright, he’s a short-term hit with women, and he’s not a very good actor. 

In all the years we’ve spent with him, we’ve rarely glimpsed a deeper side. Likeable but stupid. The same superficiality is true of the other characters – Monica (fat in high-school, control freak), Phoebe (ditsy but caring), Ross (something with dinosaurs – yeah, right), Rachel (um . . .).

Chandler has a bit more going on, but in a curious way the lack of any real depth to the characters doesn’t matter at all. If we knew more about them, it might just get in the way of the jokes. We’re given enough information to set up the gags and make them consistent, but no more. 

However likeable these and other sit-com characters are, I can never imagine them walking down the street in my town (although quite often I can’t imagine myself walking down the street in my town).

You might think this reliance on sketchy characters is limited to half-hour comedies, but consider Ally McBeal. The first season was great – fast moving and quirky with a lightness of touch that sterner dramas lack.

But currently the fantasy moments grate, and the parallels between the cases they try and the private lives of the lawyers is becoming a little too cute. At the heart of this is that beyond their catchphrases and signature weirdnesses, the characters are pretty thin. Anyway, bygones.

Compared to the shallowness of these characters, and the increasingly overblown earnestness of ER (who knew I’d miss George Clooney so much?), one show really stands out – Sports Night, a half-hour comedy that’s just finished its first season on ABC.

Prospects of it making it across the Atlantic might not be good, since it’s set in the studio of a US sports TV show (ESPN in all but name), but the show is funny, clever and rewarding.

It accurately describes the appeal and wonder of sport (we have to see why all these clever people are devoting their lives to it), but it’s not really about sport.

In the same way as Seinfeld, it’s not really about anything at all – but whereas Seinfeld worked with ridiculous plot twists, astute observations and a healthy streak of cruelty (’no hugging, no learning’), Sports Night is more understated and has a lot more heart.

It’s so subtle that the laugh track the network apparently insisted on including sounds out of place, as the show’s drama meets Ally McBeal as that so-called drama heads the other way into farce.

Sports Night works because of the clever, witty, slightly spiky characters brought to life by great ensemble playing. Anchors Casey and Dan are not just likeable, they’re believable, as are Dana, Jeremy and the others.

The setting calls for competitiveness and long hours, and so we see characters that are very good at what they do, but are concomitantly missing parts of themselves.

Dana can produce a bang-up show every night under ridiculous amounts of pressure, but she can’t see her boyfriend’s a jerk, while Casey is smart and charming, he’s also hugely stupid pretty often.

We laugh at the characters’ weaknesses while still respecting them, because we see that at heart they’re good people trying to do the best they can. Dan’s handling of his relationship with a woman who decided to go back to her husband was exemplary, but we got to see how hard it was for him to do the right thing.

So as well as the sharp dialogue and perfect pacing, we watch because of the warmth we feel for the characters. Not since Northern Exposure have we seen such a rewarding and smart show masquerading as a light comedy.

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, May 1999)

Articles Life Modest Proposals

Natural Technology

Friday, March 19, 1999

Over the weekend, while snow fell outside, I made a unilatleral decision that it was spring, and went shopping online for outdoors stuff. 

The technology was a great help. I trawled through reviews from people who already had the gear I was looking at, and discussion board questions from people going through the same process as me (incidentally, if anyone here has anything good or bad to say about the Specialized Stumpjumper or the Gary Fisher Ziggurat, drop me a line).

In retrospect, using the Internet to research this stuff says a good deal about our attitude to what used to be termed Nature. At least from the Romantic period (although Irish language scholars would point to much earlier nature poetry in medieval manuscripts), the great outdoors was seen as a place of simple beauty, away from the strictures and straight lines of cities and industry. 

Time spent among the woods and mountains allowed us to feel part of Creation again, soothing our furrowed brows after our toil in the dark satannic mills. 

If forced to explain what they get out of a weekend in the sticks, most people would probably end up with some version of that argument today. 

Which is fine, but let’s look at what they do when they get to lands of natural wonder. The idea used to be to live simply, in harmony with nature, to strip away the artifice and excess of urban living; now people drive to the Grand Canyon in their RVs, shut the door and watch Melrose Place on the TV. 

Younger people might scoff at this approach, before communing with nature in their 3-layer Gore-Tex jackets, or zooming down mountain singletracks on their $1500 bikes that look like pieces of alien technology. 

Instead of sitting under a tree and watching the daffodils, we use nature as a testing ground (and excuse) for all our cool gear. Forget William Wordsworth – this is more like James Bond: ‘Ah, Q, I see you’ve improved the metal matrix composite aluminium oxide ceramic particulate in my bike frame so it now weighs only 3 pounds’. 

We still dream of a remote log cabin beside a lake, but an increasing number of us would picture it complete with leased line Internet access so we could mail our friends the pictures from the day’s excitement, and keep up with the NASDAQ. 

In some ways this is very positive. If people are getting out there and enjoying what nature has to offer, then maybe they’ll be more environmentally aware when they’re back at home. But as I order another piece of hi-tech kit, I do wonder sometimes if we’re missing the point. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, March 1999)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLife

Articles Life Modest Proposals Technology

Essential Ephemera – should you keep old emails?

Sunday, November 08, 1998

As I write, John Glenn and his fellow astronauts are getting used to gravity again with the completion of their Shuttle mission. 

Amidst the discussion of Glenn’s return to space – take your pick:  heroic adventure, science experiment or publicity stunt – a small detail caught my eye.

It seems that Glenn was keeping in touch with his wife by email. On the one hand this shows how pervasive a form of communication email has become (forget ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ now it’s ‘Fwd: Top Ten things we want Samuel Jackson to say as a Jedi Knight’).

But it also raises a question about the lifespan of an email message.  What’s Mrs Glenn going to do with her extraterrestrial missives? They’ll likely sit in her inbox for ages, and then she’ll either delete them with a whole pile of junk when her mail program slows to a crawl, or she’ll put them in their own special folder, and lose them when she gets a new machine. 

We use email to keep in touch with old and distant friends, to flirt with people we hardly know, to send notes to our beloved to brighten their day at work . . .  to carry on any number of relationships that make us who we are. 

But when it comes to keeping the messages, we’re in a bind. Physical letters somehow demand preservation, and even if we don’t read them for years, we’re glad we’ve still got them. 

The same should be the case with emails. When I left my previous job, and again when I gave an old computer to my sister, I was faced with the task of removing any signs of my existence from the machines. The work-related stuff was easily deleted (who keeps memos from a former boss?), but the hundreds of useless jokes, website references and bits of trivia I’d collected seemed at once hugely useless and very important. 

These messages were snapshots of my life at various times (both the mails I’d received and the ones I’d sent), and I couldn’t throw them away. I toyed with the idea of printing them all out and storing them that way – somehow they seemed more permanent when given physical form even on fragile paper. 

But in the end I saved them onto a Zip disk, and have them still. Except I don’t feel sure that they’re really there. Not because I fear the data will be corrupted (although that’s a possibility), or that the format in which they’re saved will be unreadable to later programs (just as likely), but because it’s hard to feel nostalgic about the contents of Zip disk, however valuable its content. 

A friend of mine recently left his job, and another friend designed a spoof movie poster for his departure. The electronic version of this poster was soon bouncing round the planet as it was forwarded to people, and put up on the Web. But it was a framed printout of the file that somehow turned all the work into a real gift. 

It’s a similar problen with other images. I bought a digital camera on my arrival in America, thinking it would be a very practical way of showing people what I was up to. And so it’s proved, with rough and ready Web pages allowing me to share my experiences with my friends and family back home. But I still find it easier to think in terms of a shoebox stuffed full of photographic memories than a portion of my current hard disk (or a bit of space on a server somewhere). 

Maybe it’s just a question of adaptation, and we’ll soon come to treasure hi-tech storage media in the way we do family photo albums and collections of old letters tied with ribbons. But I’m certainly not there yet, and I doubt Mrs Glenn is either. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, November 8th, 1998)

Articles Books Life Modest Proposals

To David, with fear and loathing

Thursday, May 28, 1998

Not so long ago, I went to a public reading given by Hunter Thompson and Johnny Depp, promoting the new film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 

The whole thing was a surreal experience – a hero of the counter-culture appearing at a media event in the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, New York – but one of the strangest parts about it was the realisation that the audience weren’t really there to see either Hunter or Johnny. They were there to get their books signed.

They were only politely interested during the readings, but as soon as someone mentioned forming a queue for the signing session, everyone was suddenly awake and rushing to take their places. 

Of course, the process of having your book signed gets you close to your hero, and allows you engange in some personal communication (always assuming you can think of something more original to say than, ‘Could you make it out to Biff, please?’). 

But I’m not sure that was what got people excited. As far as I could tell, their main concern was just getting that name in the book. (Or, in this case, those names, since Johnny Depp signed them as well, which struck me as a bit of a cheek.)

What makes us want to own signed copies of books? If we’re personally known to the author, and the book is a gift from them, there’s an obvious and special attraction – a friend of mine recently did the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney some small service, and received a couple of signed hardcover first editions, inscribed with thanks.  Brilliant. But if you’ve merely waited in line after a reading, then what real value has been added? 

In the same was as records, books are measures of your life, your changing situations and your developing interests. There’s a great moment in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, where the narrator arranges his record collection in chronological order of purchase. It’s a chart of his own history, and only he can tell you how he went from Deep Purple to Sam Cooke (or some such) in seven records. 

So in the same way, inscriptions in books help to fix a moment in time, and it’s certainly worth remembering that you met the author, however briefly. 

But what to do if the author is nowhere to be found, or the book’s not a gift inscribed by a friend? I’d argue for putting your own name and a date at the front. And add the place too; even if it’s not special to you now, you future self might be very grateful of the reminder that you spent some time in Shrewsbury. 

While writing this, I pulled out my copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (purchased primarily to gain admittance to the reading), and scribbled my own inscription on the first page. Would I have been better to wait in line for Hunter Thompson? I don’t think so – I’m still making memories without his John Hancock. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, May 28th, 1998)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLifeBooks