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I had a very good night last night. Leslie Dowdall and Mike Hanrahan, two of Ireland’s best singer/songwriters and formerly of In Tua Nua and Stockton’s Wing, were playing a gig in McDaid’s Pub in Midleton. It was a great gig – a real feast of music! There were about 30 people present, so it was cosy, relaxed and intimate. Boy, does Leslie know how to sing! It was captivating stuff. I was not familiar with many of the songs, but “Wonderful Thing” and “Beautiful Affair” brought back good memories. They also played a few Annie Lennox and Nick Cave songs along with their own work such as the very touching “Garden of Roses”.

Nights like these, when you don’t really know what to expect, are often the best.

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I harbour a strong desire to spend a few weeks travelling around the US. I’ve been there many times, but normally just to the big cities on business. Many a time in the recent past, I have been sorely tempted to turn left on the I-90 heading south towards O’Hare.

Well, here’s someone who is doing just that, right now. Every day he writes up a blog entry (or three) eloquently describing his experiences as he tours the US in an RV with his wife. Superlatives fail me. I’m enthralled, amazed and astonished by the places he describes, the photographs he is taking and the experiences they have having as they visit lesser-spotted America.

Rock on, Fred. May the road rise to meet you.

Field Museum of Chicago

My friends and I went on a trip to the Field Museum in Chicago this weekend. It’s one of America’s greatest natural history and cultural museums, and like many similar places of learning around the world, you would need a week to see all the exhibits.

The museum bears a resemblance to the Natural History Museum in London. Instead of a diplodocus, “Sue” the Tyrannosaurus Rex is there to greet you, alongside two massive elephants under the watchful eye of a pair of great totem poles. We spent an hour with the birds and animals of the World, listening to the sounds made by these creatures – the song of the Loon was extraordinary: how ancient explorers to the continent must have been petrified when they heard this bird for the first time.

We then took a trip through the geological section. PC showed us a geode that her dad donated to the museum and we also saw a fine collection of meteorites. The museum has a very fine “history of life” exhibit where the public is invited to walk through a number of galleries ranging from Pre-Cambrian times right up to the post-Ice Age (Holocene) epoch, interrupted now and again by a Great Extinction. The Cambrian Period room is particularly good. They have a huge video display showing us what the animals of this time might have looked like and how they might have behaved, and in glass cases are the Burgess Shale fossils of bizarre creatures such as Wiwaxia, Hallucigenia and the Pikaia. I could have stayed hours in that room alone, but even greater delights were on display in other rooms – a full size Apatosaurus skeleton, the small “Tully Monster” fossil: an unknown creature from the Carboniferous Period, as well as impressive mammoth and megatherium skeletons. One of my favourites were the intact fossils from the Santana formation in Brazil – flash-fossilised fish that still show their scales and soft body parts. The last exhibit on the way out of this section is a display that tells you how many species have been made extinct since the museum opened that day.

On Sunday, I drove up to Milwaukee, and spent around an hour there, getting utterly lost mainly. It’s a pretty city – quite old in places with some fine lake-side views. There’s a lot of road construction taking place in the city so it took me a while to find my way out. I spent the next few hours in Gurnee Mills Mall, an enormous outlet store near the Wisconsin border, buying toys for a fraction of the price you would get them in Ireland.

In O’Hare, while waiting to check in for my return flight to Dublin, an old priest started to hand out lollipops to some kids in the queue behind me. I found this very unsettling, and I think their parents did too. A random act of kindness? Maybe. However given everything that has come to light in Ireland over the last 15 years, another inference could too easily be drawn. I don’t know. Maybe I’m getting cynical..

I got about two hours sleep in the plane – the usual – but I have a good book recommendation from a fellow passenger – The Kite Runner. He compares it to To Kill a Mockingbird, so I must read it as soon as I have finished “The Heart of Darkness” – another enthralling book.

The Wisdom of Crowds is an enlightening book, particularly at the beginning where he spells out his thesis: that, under certain defined conditions, the views of many can often trump the views of one single person, no matter how influential or how much of an expert that person may be.

The Wisdom of Crowds

The book justifies the opinion that forecasting and estimating are better performed by many people from different backgrounds instead of just a single elite. These types of problems, referred to as “cognition” problems, are commonplace – who is going to win the 3.40 at Newmarket, what will our sales be for the next quarter, when will the project be completed, etc.

He then tackles more complex problems, called “coordination” problems and “cooperation” problems, and arrives at a similar conclusion that, left unhindered, crowds of diverse people, acting independently, can arrive at an elegant solution to very complex problems.

In some ways, the book is nothing new. Adam Smith promoted the basic idea over 200 years ago when he talked about the “invisible hand” guiding the market and economists and politicians have been discussing this ever since. Surowiecki asserts that some of the rules of the free market have applications way beyond finance – the inner workings of the Google search engine and the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX) are examples that are mentioned.

But, you might be saying, what about stock-market bubbles, group-think, decision by committee, mass-hysteria, riots and all the things that one would attribute negatively to crowds? His view is that crowds work best when a highly diverse group of individuals are able to make independent choices with levels of influence minimised as much as possible. In this way the maximum amount of information can be gleaned from the environment and an aggregation process can then happen which may yield a good answer to the problem at hand. Influence and persuasion are seen as disrupting factors in this process.

If you are looking for a “how to” manual, then the book will be somewhat disappointing. For instance, many business managers face challenges in getting groups to come together to make good decisions. This book provides some tantalising evidence that group decision making is indeed superior, but the reader is left to figure out for themselves how to apply it to their own particular situation.

The book is very readible. It contains a large body of fascinating research material and conveys the conclusions elegantly.

When I went to the US three years ago, one thing that struck me when I went to book stores was the large number of conservative right-wing books on sale, decrying liberalism, promoting imperialism and calling for a return to old-fashioned Christian values.

I went into Barnes and Noble today for a wee stroll through the paperbacks and hardbacks and it suddenly hit me – where have they all gone? I counted about 20 books on sale, and about two were touting a conservative stance. The others were unflinchingly anti-Bush. I noticed two books apparently featuring Ann Coulter on the cover but on closer examination they were written by fierce opponents of her. Other books were taking aim at Bush, Cheney, the religious right, the Bush administration’s views on the religious right, Iraq, Katrina and US government policy. I even noticed a very critical book written by a Christian minister.

Man, the wave has truly crashed. With the congressional elections tomorrow it will be very interesting to see how it all turns out. I must profess to knowing very little about US politics, and my instinct tells me that the outcome might be somewhat more muted than might be expected, but if this was the UK or Ireland, the word “landslide” would be on everyone’s lips.

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