Charity Extraction

This article appeared in the Tuesday 28th September 2010 edition of MIT’s “The Tech” Newspaper available at the following address:

Half an hour waiting in a long snaking queue, or a “line,” according to the jargon over here. There’s room inside and no hold up for checking identification. It’s close to eleven at night and not cold outside, so we’re not complaining, but we’re thinking we should already be on the dance-floor. “What’s the hold up?” I ask a doorman walking outside along the queue, thanking us for our patience. “They’re collecting donations from people as they go in, individually. I’m not so sure… They want privacy for donations, so you don’t feel like you’ve to match the person before you… something like that.” It wasn’t so clear in the door-man’s mind, or in my own either. Only a few more steps to the door.

By now, we’d seen the long line, decided to try our luck at another pub, then, having had no such luck, returned and queued our way through the line again. “One by one, please,” a guy in front and his girlfriend were told. He took his turn in walking over towards a trio of doormen, then she her turn, before it came to me. I got a handshake. “So, the last few donations were ten dollars, how much would you like to donate?” “I wouldn’t like to donate anything. I find it ridiculous to have a half an hour of a queue outside.” “Well, the minimum donation is $5 dollars to get in.” I fumbled in my pockets and pulled out four dollars and a ten dollar note. “D’you have change for a tenner? I don’t feel like I should have to pay anything.” The argument didn’t go on much longer. “We’re at MIT”, I said, “there are loads of ways to make this work more efficiently.” I’d made my point; I wasn’t going to give out further to three lads who were giving up their free time to collect money for a charity. Being told in the line that “We appreciate your patience” when there were three at a desk to take donations off students on a one by one basis — that is irony. More donation desks, a standard cover charge; just two ways to avoid a visibly frustrated queue. You might think that individual donation negotiation would yield a better return, and it might, but you have to trade that off against the sour taste in student mouths. Well, maybe that’s just me.

So there’s the story; a short story with many layers to it, not at all on a personal level but more on a general, social and organizational level. Why should I resent giving in my $5 to a charitable cause, when the charity is blameless when it comes to event management? First, charity for me is less about extracting money and more about generating interest in a cause — campaigns such as those at the graduate volunteer day from a few weeks ago. “Aggressive” is too strong a word, but my style wouldn’t be so “forthcoming” when it comes to lining students up individually to maximize donations. I like to make my donations with a sense of awareness and based on careful consideration of claimed benefits, not when I’m in an unexpected and pressurized situation. Second, and on a minor note, it was the profit from this MIT-BU event that was to go to the charity in question, not the entire donation from a student, or a defined percentage or amount. Personally, I would prefer to pay for a good student event and then make a contribution to a charity who can account for 100 percent of my donation. I never favor the approach of giving what’s left over to charity, although I recognize its advantages from an event management point of view. This was a BU-MIT event designed to serve the needs of such students. In my opinion, graduate students attended the event primarily for the night out rather than for the charity aspect. Having to stand in an unnecessarily slow line and go through donation negotiation when my own college was running the event is not what I expected.

I’ve been in the States now for just over five weeks and little has surprised me. Little, because over here, there is a lot in common with back home — home for me being that little island off the east coast of Boston, Ireland. I’ve done the Graduate Student Council (GSC) orientation events, from the campus walking tours, the residence BBQs, the reception under the dome and the presidential address, to the harbour cruise, the orientation Olympics and an excellent hiking trip. Had such events been organized by a university administrative body, I would have deemed orientation to have been a great success. But for such a plan of action to have been put in place by a mass of voluntary students and dedicated student leaders! I have no words other than “Fair Play!” In the grand scale of things, my ranting about “Charity Extraction” is of small significance. As an opinion writer, with the rightful lack of authority I should have, I salute the success of the GSC orientation. I’m naive, with lots to learn, but lots to change and also to have changed in me.

Things to Learn from Cow-on Gate

One week ago now, the Taoiseach was ’round the bar, then on the radio, then sitting on the fence, a sitting duck, deciding what way to play his cards after TD Coveney’s tweets. Now, he’s got his back to the wall. You can throw in a plethora of farmyard puns, but the fact remains that Brian Cowen was loved and is now goaded for the type of “popularity” of which we’ve been long aware.

I can still remember the whole Willie O Dea saga, although his situation was a horse/hoarse of quite a different colour (to throw in another farmyard pun). For all that happened, all the newspaper photos and the opinion articles that were published, it’s a line from a comedic skit that sticks in my mind: “You can say what you like about Willie O Dea, but Willie O Dea gets things done.” And this, this, is the truth. Willie O Dea (with 38.6% of the vote in the five seat Limerick east constituency) is the kind of man who does, or at least did, give Enda Kenny (20.6% in 5 seat Mayo) and Brian Cowen (26.7% in 5 seat Laois-Offaly) a run for their money when it came to racking up heaps and heaps of first preference votes. The reason that Brian Cowen has those two “TD” letters attached to the end of his name, and probably the title of Taoiseach before, comes down to a certain fusion of cockiness and humility (and smartness) that in Ireland translates to popularity. I remember when Irish citizens were aboard the flotilla in the waters near Palestine and Israel. I remember the words he spoke in the Dáil chamber: “If anything should happen to any of our citizens, there will be consequences”. You could feel the TDs quiver as an identical question momentarily moved to the back of their minds: “What consequences?”.

We’ve known what our Taoiseach Brian Cowen has been like for decades. There probably hasn’t yet been an election victory where a chorus of “The Offaly Rover” hasn’t been heard, and there’s quite a quality version on YouTube . Now, if you’ve seen the video, it follows that after having sung a good few verses of the Rover, intermittently with a number of beers and an outrageous amount of chatting and handshakes (not that the handshakes would affect his voice), that upon getting up a few hours later, his voice just wouldn’t be in its prime for Morning Ireland. Look, if you want a Taoiseach who throws out a few verses of the Rover, then you’re not going to get a clean Monday morning interview. Obviously, as Taoiseach, the priority should be interviews. Why An Taoiseach chose to do both however, is beyond me?

I yearn for a new government, but I’m afraid that a changeover may only complicate things. The pressure is on Fianna Fáil and less decisions are going unnoticed than before. Maybe in twelve months it will be time for a change. Fine Gael and Labour say that they’re ready. Let’s hope they’re really ready in twelve to eighteen months.

Look, it’s a week gone and I can’t remember what questions Brian Cowen was even asked on the morning Ireland interview. I’m not sure that many people do. Only the hoarseness and the accusations will remain in my mind. I do, however, believe that there is a lot to be learned from such situations. I’d guess that An Taoiseach is still pondering his decisions in his own mind. If I were him, I’d be wondering why I gave the interview in the first place. There are many other ways other than late nights to get a hoarse voice, and when you do, you have to realise that you shouldn’t do an interview. Nobody wants to hear a hoarse voice on radio, whatever the reason. I would imagine that many people expect that An Taoiseach would organise himself in such a way as not to hinder himself in his duties. In this case, the sing-song-morning-interview was terrible terrible planning, whatever way you look at it.

Whether this mistake brings the government beyond the point of no return remains to be seen. I think the camel’s back still has a little more room for straw. From his initial position on the fence, Brian Cowen I believe, is rapidly coming to understand his mistake. He’ll realise, if he hasn’t already, that showing how he’s learning from this mistake is the key to spinning the debacle in his favour. Experience isn’t infallibility but rather learning.


Link to an article I read prior to writing this blog: “A Very Irish Hangover” by Kathy Sheridan, Irish Times,

Night Faces

A building sky, far out ahead,

As clouds lie flat, upon their heads,
Facial features, silhouettes
On yellow, orange, then dark red,
Square chins and noses
off to bed.

Some Things in the US are just HUGE!

We Europeans all hear that everything in the US is ginormous. As testified by the first photo here, it’s pretty clear that in the states, the question isn’t, “Small, medium or large?”, but rather, “What kind of large do you take?”. When it comes to portions though, I suppose I’ll let them away with it, only, and only just because they have doggy bags.

It’s five past eleven at night here at Boston and I’m just back from a hike, so I thought, on a totally unrelated note, that I’d give ye a flavour of my favourite US “larges”.

Large Uimhir a hAon (Number One): Shopping receipts.

For anyone in Ireland coming to Ireland, the first thing to note is that shopping in Boston is anti-cheap. More specifically, shopping for one person only is extremely anti-cheap. As it stands, groceries aren’t cheap, but when you are forced into a “Buy one get one free” cucumber or a two litre carton of juice transaction, you’re left after a week with empty pockets, a mouldy cucumber salad and twenty times the recommended allowance of vitamin C. Ok, so, to get to my point; Shopping receipts in the states are MASSIVE (and in fact should be called “Shopping Schnakes”). To the left, have a look at my 34 inch hurley. Beside that, have a look at my shopping receipt for, yes, a total of 20 items. They could just have done out a receipt with 20 lines of writing, maybe with a extra few here or there for totals and the date etc. But no, they have to tell you all the obvious about how much it would cost you to buy petrol if you bought $20, $30, £40, $50 or $60 worth of petrol! I’m surprised they also didn’t write down the life story of Pablo, who grew the six bananas I bought.

Large Uimhir a Dó (Number Two): Elephant Garlic

Ok, so I know what you’re thinking; elephant, right, I can’t complain. Sure if you got elephant garlic in Ireland it would probably be that big. Fair enough, point taken, you probably could get elephant garlic somewhere like Brian Lenihan’s house*. In any case, I really thought that when a clove, and let me repeat that, a clove, not a head of garlic, is half the size of an average spud, questions should be asked. Normally I might throw a clove or two of garlic in the curry, but with even half of an elephant clove… I tell ya, that’d be curry to chase vampires from the states like St. Patrick drove snakes from Ireland.

Finally, on a recessionary note, with the upcoming pun intended, I reckon we should bring in Euro notes to Ireland, just like the USers have their dollar notes. In fact, we should bring in 1 cent notes. Strolling into Arnott’s* with your wallet packed full of notes for the first time since 2005, t’would be the job… t’would be the job…

*Irish political references which would make no sense whatsoever to those of you causing non-Irish flags to appear at the bottom of this blog.

Commonalities You’d Like to Tape

I was just heading down the stairs when I saw on my right hand side those eating-standing-up tables and a girl giving out something. “Must be the wine and cheese-party”, I said to myself. The one where they try to get you (well actually it’s extremely voluntary) to buy an MIT ring, known as the Grad Rat. Retailing at prices between $150 and $1150, depending whether you want it in gold, silver or iron and depending on the size of the ring. ( It’d be pretty funny to propose to someone with it, but if it’s only for that reason, it’s not worth me buying it. I’m not a fan of rings anyway, I can hardly keep a watch on me. By the way, there’s no rat on it. There’s a pretty deep-meaning drawing including a beaver as the main design and then they also engrave your name on the inside along with your graduation year. Free updates of your personal details are included in the price.

In any case, that girl I thought was giving out wine or cheese was actually giving out black stress balls. So I took one and went over to where the cheese was. There wasn’t much of the cheese left. Lots of wine, but I wasn’t in the mood for wine, namely, there wasn’t a full dinner to eat with the wine and if I took the wine it’d be harder to eat the cheese. Right, to cut a long story short; Food was eaten.

I was just heading off from this Grad Rat reception when I got chatting to a lad I know and a girl who I didn’t know. She said thanks for coming and asked me if I had gotten a stress ball. I said that I had. “Well take as many as you like.” she said. “What about if I take a load and resell them to the juggling club?” “That’s ok, we don’t mind.” So on leaving I put three in my bag. Three, because I can juggle three and with the one in my pocket I could now practice with four.

I’m heading up Massachusetts Avenue behind a tall tanned guy with two squash racquets in his bag, bouncing my black stress ball. I’m just about to overtake him when he turns around, as though he’s heard a shot gun and has reflexes quick enough to duck the bullet(s).

What kind of a ball is that you’re bouncin’?
R: Huh? A stress ball, stress ball, I’m just destressin’ a bit.
Where you from?
R: Ireland
No, where in Ireland?
R: Oh, the county just south of Dublin.
Dublin, my favourite band’s from there!
R: It’s not, eh, the Dubliners? Or U2?
Yeah, U2, they’re incredible. You know Larry Mullin, that guy’s amazing. I mean those kids are incredible.
R: Ah yeah, good band alright.
Yeah, Larry Mullin, just sittin’ a’ home playin’ moo-sic. His father tell’s him to get out and stop playin’ that trash and then they form U2!
R: Ah yeah, sure you kn…
And that guy P. Guinness, he’s the guy who got the….. he knew what to do.
R: Yeah Paul McGuinness, good manager alright.
He took a rock and turned it into a diamond.
R: He did yeah. Actually, there this year there was a concert in Ireland in Croke Park, capacity of 86,000. Everyone was saying before the concert that there were too many people for it to be good and then when it happened everyone said it was epic.
Yeah, U2 are great in the studio, and they’re better live. In the studio they’ve got restrictions but live they’ve no restrictions, they’re great… So the economy in Ireland is bad at the moment?!?
R: Yeah, ‘t isn’t the greatest.
D’you ring home much?
R: Ah yeah, I’d ring home at least once a week. Usually more than that though, my Ma likes when I ring home. I’m the oldest in the family so I try to ring home.
What you doin’ here?
R: Eventually I’ll be doing a PhD.
And what you doin’?
R: Ah, mechanical engineerin’
So who’s your favourite band?
R: My favourite band…? Jaynee, I never thought of it like that before, sounds kind of restrictive just having a favourite band. I like a lot of music, but there’s this guy, well, he’s not a band, but he plays with another guy. Christy Moore he’s called. He plays kind of traditional folk kind of stuff. Christy Moore, yeah, you should look him up on YouTube.
Is that where you get all of your music from?
R: From YouTube? No, but it’s a good place to look if you want a bit of Christy Moore.
Where d’you get your music from so?
R: Well to be honest I don’t spend enough time listening to music. If I can, I try to get CDs off friends or that kind of thing. I wouldn’t tend to download stuff.

 At this point we get to Sidney Street, where I have to turn left.

Nice to meet you, what’s your name? – shakes hands with me
R: I’m Ronan
I’m Nicholas, I’m Greek.
R: G’man Nicholas, take it easy.

And he turns around and goes back in the direction we came from.