The Book of Kells

Ireland’s indisputable finest national treasure deceivingly looks like a small stack of tatty old hardbacks. But within those tomes is a vibrant and colorful monked-up retelling of the teachings of the Gospel. Written in the eight century, the four calligraphic volumes of the Book of Kells have survived the pillages of Vikings and the wanton destruction of all things considered Catholic by Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads.

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After twelve hundred years, the Kells continue to present their spiritual teachings within the scholarly confines of Dublin’s Trinity College library.

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Dublin’s nearby magnificent castle displays an impressive array of period architecture dating from the twelfth century.

 

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Many rivers including the Liffey and the Dodder greet the Irish Sea at Dublin Bay.

St Nicholas’ Museum of Torture

Small disparate groups of us filed in haphazardly towards stark rows of neatly arranged church pews. There was a slow-moving old man with tightly closed eyes shepherded caringly by a gaggle of family members, followed by an odd assortment of tired-looking middle-aged couples attired uniformly in anoraks and synthetic-soled footwear. With fifteen minutes remaining before curtain up, the short, hard, wooden benches were mostly occupied.   The backdrop to this illusory casting call for Walking Dead extras is the impressive St Nicholas baroque church in Prague’s old town square. Tonight we are most fortunate to receive a concert of Handel, Beethoven, Mozart and Corelli, performed on the 4,000-pipe organ that Amadeus himself played a quarter century ago.

Certainly this form of entertainment is highly popular in Prague, with anything remotely resembling a church offering classical recitals to the post iron curtain bustling hordes. Church concerts and specialized museums are cultural fare in the heart of central Europe. Visitors can treat themselves to Czech beer and pretzels then onto the Museum of Czech Beer, Museum of Sex Machines, and the Museum of Communism.

Wife finds something that'll work in her den project.

Wife finds something that’ll work in her den project.

At two minutes before showtime a dreary itinerant-looking man appears and clunks the big church doors closed. Subsequent echoing clonks and clicks signify the employment of large medieval-like door locking mechanisms. Then, with slightly more ceremony, the drab gray drifter pulls a large crimson velvet curtain across the church’s double doors and switches off the main lights. The lights don’t dim like they do in the theater; they just click off like they do in the bathroom. Instantly and collectively, as though we were all just buckled into a Universal Studio theme ride, we recognize that we had reached the point of no return. We have committed.

Waiting for some sign from above our motley congregation sits in fidgety silence, save for the rustling of anoraks, staring ahead at the ornate church pulpit and the beige and pink fresco-adorned walls of the 18th century parish. As a child, my parents compelled me to go to church but it was never this significant or historic, and I would not have been thinking about Mozart as I sat there endlessly counting light fixtures while the Minister rambled on about the prodigal son.

Small number of light fixtures from my view point.

Small number of light fixtures from my view point.

Eventually we hear the lustrous and metallic fade in of a violin’s lower range as we understand we are being treated to one of Handel’s lesser-known Sonatas for violin and organ. But where is it coming from? A collection of uncoordinated anoraks swivel around searchingly. Aaaah, up on the next floor directly behind us, next to Mozart’s pipes.   So this is the experience: you sit there in your windbreaker looking ahead at the wall while two unseen guys, probably wearing jeans, ramble through obscure masterworks behind you for what seems like an eternity. For what it’s worth, the acoustics were good, but would likely be similar in an empty warehouse.

The back of the church where the musicians hide.

The back of the church where the musicians hide.

After thinking initially that I wished I were elsewhere I then started to wonder how I could palm this off as a windswept and interesting world-class experience, doing unto others as had been done unto me. But after another mysterious sonata and a fugue I realized my arse was getting numb on the 18th century hardwood bench. There were not many positions one could adopt on that cold hard lumber and I started to alternate between classic praying and sleeping on the train. My watch told me I had at least three quarters of an hour remaining, but luckily I remembered I had just downloaded onto to my iPhone 6 plus, Frederick Taylor’s latest book on the allied carpet bombing of Dresden. So I figured I was set for the next hour or so as long as I could maintain reasonable blood circulation in my lower body. My wife leaned over and whispered solemnly, “I wish I’d gone to the Museum of Torture. That would’ve been more fun.”

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Bridling Brilliance: Triumph of the Red Shirts

Book Review: Alex Ferguson’s brilliant account of team management documents Manchester United’s journey to the top of their game, worldwide, while he managed scores, if not hundreds of players over a 26-year period. Although Ferguson’s My Autobiography does not directly lay out strategy or tactics per se—indeed he seems to focus much more on the individuals, their skills and behavior—there is no requirement to be a soccer “expert” in order to follow his book. Since Ferguson discusses many personalities, including key players, staff and competitors in varying levels of detail it is useful to have some a priori knowledge on most characters in order to fully enjoy his work.

As he is not, by vocation, a writer I assume Ferguson had a ghostwriter do some of the heavy lifting in the manuscript; however, it is hard to tell and his “meat-and-two-veg” esthetic seems entirely appropriate and is undoubtedly reflective of his no-nonsense management style. For example, had Stephen Fry assisted with the prose we might expect to find mythological descriptions of Ronaldo akin to the sensitive Apollo, the younger Rooney as violent Ares, all under the custodianship of Sir Alex Zeus Ferguson. But that is not the case and Ferguson’s chapters read easily, flow well and can be consumed in any order, which is useful if you have a particular interest in some players over others.

While I am an ardent fan of captivating competitive football, I make no claim to expertise in game strategy or tactics; however, I was struck by some relatable comparisons stemming from Ferguson’s work to the business world. In particular, I thought of Jim Collins, who spent over fifteen years conducting extensive research culminating in several books on corporate performance. His books include Built to Last (1994), Good to Great (2001), How the Mighty Fall (2009), and Great by Choice (2011). Each of these volumes can be considered incrementally in describing Collins’ general approach to 1) identify successful companies, 2) assess traits leading to their success, and then 3) ascertaining and categorizing leadership qualities exhibited within those companies.

Successful companies are relatively easy to pinpoint, as are successful football teams. Instead of winning most games and collecting silverware, businesses significantly outperform their competitors over a protracted period of time leading to over-performance in the stock market. One of the directly analogous traits is the team; as Collins’ puts it, get the right team on the bus and the wrong folks off the bus. Undeniably, great soccer is the result of great teamwork. The regular long-distance Fergie bus service offered only two planned stops—mid-journey for transfers and the terminus. However, there were some unplanned breaks along the way to drop off unruly passengers (e.g., Roy Keane). A connecting stop for transfers to another service is inevitable as no manager can prevent the truly gifted from leaving (e.g., Ronaldo and Beckham), while the most loyal remain seated all the way to the destination (e.g., Scholes and Giggs).

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Getting The Right Team on the Bus (photo courtesy of Rahul@forevrutd)

Which brings me to the subject and substance of loyalty. Ferguson wrote extensively about player talent, skills, experience and loyalty. While he did not prioritize, one was left feeling that he valued allegiance and faithfulness above all else and his shining examples were Giggs and Scholes. Those who left did so for the next personal challenge and presumably for financial recognition of their contributions to success, while those who stayed were loyal. In business, loyalty is an admirable yet elusive attribute. Skeptics will say that there is no such thing as loyalty, where in practice it does exist—though seldom. Employer loyalty programs for the most part simultaneously reward and penalize. By providing continuance incentives, employers tend to make it difficult and impractical for employees to quit at their convenience (e.g., end of year bonus, retirement benefit vesting and matching dates, and so on). This also applies to our partaking of ubiquitous travel rewards programs—continue with our spending allegiance and reap the benefits, or commit treason and lose them all. While Giggs’ and Scholes’ loyalty is warmly commendable, some of us are curious as to their potential ultimate achievements had they gotten off the bus earlier.

Like any autobiography this one starts in the early years of the subject’s life including where he grew up, and it goes on to say various nice things about his wife, but the hard-core football fan can skip all that fluff. Overall, a highly recommended book not just for Man U supporters but also for fans of top class soccer players and those seeking a privileged insight into the nitty-gritty wheelings and dealings of club transfers and acquisitions.

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Autobiographies Provide Little Latitude for Imagery

For those interested in further critical unbiased analysis of the English Premier League, you are advised to take a Hackney taxicab from London’s Liverpool St. Station. After, “so where you from, guvnor?” and “you ‘ere just for ‘oliday or bizniss guv?” tell the driver, in a heavy touristy accent, that you are in town for the Chelsea game. The ostensibly easy-going charioteer will then go on to provide a complete rundown on the main London clubs, both Manchester clubs, and quite possibly, Crystal Palace. You will then be systematically tested on your detailed football knowledge, faulted and mocked accordingly.

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Top Ten uses of “Top Ten”

Book Review: More than a couple of thousand years ago Rome organized its vast armies into manageable units of 100 highly trained soldiers. Officers leading each of these units into battle were known as centurions, based on the Latin, centuria, for one hundred. Fast forward to today and the book, The 100TM, is on the New York Times Bestseller List. But empire aficionados beware; this manuscript is not about the notorious legions of Rome such as Claudia or Macedonia. Nay, it is about food. Jorge Cruise has written another foodie guide and trademarked the name, The 100TM. There will not likely be any hallmark dispute since the Latin Empire ceased trading aeons ago, and even if Rome had unloaded that trademark along with other intellectual property assets to some suitor it would likely not apply today in the then-undiscovered territories of America. Incredulously, even if it were valid in the United States, Rome’s emblematic military motif would undoubtedly have no legitimate claim to the commerce of cuisine. Nonetheless I find it somewhat perplexing that a Latin number can be trademarked for commerce in 2014.

Rome notwithstanding, Jorge was clever to use a number in his book title, and I do understand how he can claim the Signum ab negotium. Numbers in titles sell. Captivating titles attract our finite attention and sell us. We buy stuff with catchy titles; we click links with catchy titles. Combine numbers with alliteration and you’ve got a sale. How many times have we all clicked links like Top Ten Babe Bikini Bods or Eight Enablers of Enormous Erections? That’s the power of numerals and alliteration for you.

The titular quantity in Cruise’s book defines the amount of calories from sugar he believes you shouldn’t exceed daily. He argues that conventional wisdom assigning an overall caloric intake, such as 2,000 or so daily calories is flawed, where:

Total Calories = (fat * 9) + (protein * 4) + (carbs * 4)

If you use the formula above with the grams of each element in your food you arrive at the total calories, the main metric, Cruise argues, used incorrectly for time in perpetuity by most other diet approaches. Cruise believes that our bodies accumulate weight principally because they react badly to ingesting too much sugar, in large part from over-peddled processed foods. Therefore he says, basically, ignore fat and protein and manage your carb intake, since carbs are, for the most part, sugar and should be treated as such. OK, so say we are in agreement with his thesis; here is the tough part—no more than 100 calories from carbs per day. That’s a pretty tight budget. A single piece of fruit will blow that one as will a juice, a soda, a slice of bread and so on. His foodie critics state that you will indeed lose weight with his draconian approach, but you might as well be a castaway as it is unsustainable for the average human body in continuing need of sustenance.

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Candidate for a Cruise Sanctioned Dinner; Produce on the Left, Protein on the Right, No Sugar in Sight.

Cruise is a faddist exploiting trends for the new nutritional vogue. His career is food fashion and his goal is recurring refreshment revenue. But I don’t really have a problem with faddism and I can’t blame Cruise. We demand fads daily; we establish what is whim worthy; and we create the trend. We constitute crowdmunching. We are that crowd. Extreme ideas create simple messages that communicate well. His ideas are extreme, although somewhat science-based, and he has gotten a book into the best selling list in New York by telling us not to eat American food. I commend him, but I take his precise guidance with a pinch of low sodium. Had he written a more moderate fiber embracing, fruit friendly, go-easy-on-the-flour volume no one would have bought it. He could have called it Jorge’s Balanced Diet for Good Overall Health and distributed it from the 90% off bin at Barnes and Noble. So I get the message; go easy on the carbs. The book is illuminating and worth a read if only for the initial chapters on the history of our diets and associated contemporary human ailments.

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Fry’s Bookish Delight

Book Review: An acclaimed Fellow of the Royal Institute of Intelligentsia and the mentor of many, Stephen Fry is nothing less than a writer’s writer. The man is a genuine genius; he rocks like Jan Hammer on the keyboard and his elegant, loquacious, vocabulous speeches are riveting, albeit way too long for the most part. Not that his speeches are boring; nay, they are fascinating. But they are long. Since Moses, mankind has adapted well to reading long manuscripts or texts and when information begins to overload the cerebrum we simply dog-ear the page, put the book down for a little bit, and make another pot of Earl Grey. But speeches for the most part require real-time comprehension and don’t take well to interruption. When they are excessively long it can be too much of a good thing, like, for example, a Neil Peart drum solo in the middle of your favorite Rush song making you forget what it was his uncle had on the farm.

As a teenager I remember listening to Margaret Thatcher’s speeches where the simple visual was a motionless hairstyle, an upscale mannequin’s jacket and some large white beads, and the aural comprised a waveform modulated moaningly in phase, frequency and amplitude. She arguably pioneered the concept of drone warfare as she dunked each sentence of never-ending dialogues in a syrupy cadence. Now Stephen Fry is not at all like that, but I am making the point that it can be easier to lose a listener than to relinquish a reader. Thatcher’s manifestos actually read quite well.

To conclude this theme and move on with our lives I invite you to listen to one of Fry’s highly entertaining talks. Please comment on this blog if you managed to pay attention all the way through.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8evnEqOVEns

The Fry Chronicles is one in an apparent series of fact-based books Fry has written about himself. Although it is a few hundred additional pages of details on his life, again, it is still a delightful read as his vocabularian wealth and humorously well-connected stories just draw you in. There must have been 20 engaging pages on British candies (sweets) in that book as I sat there studiously reading about long-forgotten Curly Wurlies and Walnut Whips. I am also a sucker for self-deprecation, which Fry delivers continuously. Most people will leave this earth with no autobiographical testament, whereas a few select folks merit the business case for a solitary volume. For example, Alex Ferguson’s superb autobiography taking Manchester United from nowhere to number one in the world probably doesn’t have a market for a sequel (Chapter 6. My Favorite Slippers). But Fry could write a series on Danish dental practices and I would probably read it.

Or poetry. Yes he wrote a book on poetry titled An Ode Less Travelled. And it is brilliant! Poetry you think. Why? I can’t remember his motivation for this book, other than he just likes to write, but again it was a great read. In fact, although Fry famously eschews popular music I could not but help think of parallels to songwriting as he described the meter of poetry; how the prose is punctiliously paced. This particular book has a glossary of terms to help as you progress through the complexities of fine rhythmic development, and not that you necessarily need to have a dictionary on hand, but I wouldn’t want to be in a scrabble contest with him and Boris Johnson.

Since I am almost as big a Fry fan as he is, I also tackled one of his novels, entitled The Hippopotamus. I am not really a fiction aficionado as previously noted as I find it hard to invest the time learning imaginary stuff and also I start to get guilt twinges knowing that I could be practicing Spanish verbs. Apparently the hippo book, although a novel, ghosts well-known real-life UK politicians and celebrities. But, alas I gave up on the book before I made any of these connections. His character portrayals were evocative though, such as the man who had the physique of a bin liner full of yoghurt. I still picture that.

Now Fry may have a way with words, but apparently not with numbers. According to The Economist, in one of his rambling speeches Fry said, “English certainly has the largest vocabulary … by a long, long, long long, way. Rather as China is to the rest of the world in population, English is in the population of its words.” The magazine acknowledged that, “English is a rich and beautiful language, not least because England has been conquered by Vikings, Normans and Andy Murray, and has happily been open to foreign influence through its history,” and then it went on to shoot Fry down unceremoniously for shorting the rest of the world’s tongues. I inserted Andy Murray into the quote to see if anyone was paying attention.

Finally, I bought a copy of Stephen Fry in America, which was also apparently a TV series that I did not see (probably for the UK market I suppose). However, once I realized it was one of those accounts of a British personality who makes a transatlantic road trip to dank, out of the way Louisiana crawfish bars in west New Orleans, I lost interest. I didn’t get much past the copyright and publisher’s address as too many Brits do these types of Brit-out-of-water only-in-America shows. I would like to see a show where Fry appears with his camera crew at some hole in the wall bar in Lubbock, Texas, and discovers both Michael Palin and Robbie Coltrane already doing travel programs in there with their crews. And then, the door opens again with Russell Brand and his crew joining in. In the parking lot there are the guys from Top Gear choosing from the patrons’ beat up pickup trucks and Gordon Ramsey setting up a barbeque grill…

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Frankie Goes to Amazon

Book Reviews: I’ve read a lot of books these past few months, mainly in airports, foot-massage joints, and on trains, airplanes as well as the dentist’s waiting room. With Christmas coming I thought that I would share some concise opinions and ideas on a selection of works on the off chance that someone may need to appease their stocking stuffer sentimentality. I was thinking that I had read a record number of texts this year, but that is not the case when compared to the multitude of volumes I ingested for my recent academic voyage. Perhaps it is the greatest number of writings I have read voluntarily, willingly and freely in a few months for no real purpose other than potential enjoyment.

Books I have appreciated include travelogues, language primers, and foodie manuals as well as more conventional factual and fictional pieces. This month I will focus on about a dozen of the more mainstream hardbacks and paperbacks, which are mainly and loosely fact-based. Not that I don’t like fiction, but I am reticent to invest the time learning the names and backgrounds of non-existent characters on a Game of Thrones scale only to move onto something else a week later.

Frankie Boyle purportedly wrote a handful of books, and he is what you might call an extreme comic, probably offending as many folks as he regales, relying for the most part on punchy delivery and precise timing for his humor. He most likely had a ghostwriter working with him, but the presentation of short, terse sentences delivered in machine gun bursts seems to fit with his on-stage style. His edgy material makes Billy Connolly’s stories sound as though they came from Jackanory (an old UK kid’s program). For myself I have formed an opinion that I don’t like Boyle’s personality but I can’t help but laugh at some of his material.

In his autobiography, My Shit Life So Far, Frankie stresses that he is not related to Susan Boyle (of Britain’s Got Talent fame). On Susan he says, “I suppose we do have things in common; I look ridiculous dressed as a woman too. Come on, Susan Boyle does look uncannily like Mrs. Doubtfire as played by Gordon Brown. Let’s be honest and say that God broke the mould, just before he made her. Susan claims she has never been kissed. On that evidence alone, Scotland’s alcohol problems are not nearly as bad as previously imagined. OK, so she hasn’t been kissed, but this is Scotland. I’ll bet she’s been fingered on a school trip to Largs.” Now I must admit I was rolling about laughing at that point until the flight attendant asked me to return to my seat.

I don’t know why I like autobiographies, and I do realize that the auto part is questionable. In particular, I don’t generally enjoy the post-fetal to pre pubescent phase of any autobiography. I’m not really interested in the teenage years part either until the individual starts to exhibit some contemporaneously recognizable character traits. Sure you might get an inkling that Richard Branson was an independently-minded guy when he was a kid but I don’t want to wade through twelve chapters for that gem. So I generally flick through those first few chapters to get to the main event, such as Frankie’s view of relationships. He says, “I’ve discovered one of the keys to a successful relationship is the ability to listen to what your other half did during the day and pretend you are not cripplingly bored. Nodding is good. As is the occasional ‘Really?’ If you hear a name you recognise take a stab at identifying them.” ‘Is that Maggie that works on reception?’

In his latest book, Scotland’s Jesus, he has a real go at the royal family, which in parts is quite funny, but I do think he overdoes that a bit. Not sure why I seem to be more of a royalist these days. However, for the most part the contemporary knock-the-establishment narrative seems like a continuation from his previous writings and he tries hard to put a raucous punch line in every paragraph. I’m guessing his previous books did OK.

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