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After a hectic week last week in Chicago, I flew up to Toronto for the weekend to see my sis and her hubby-to-be. The temperature on arrival was freezing – even by the standards of the previous week it was a bit of a shock to the system.

Dressed to killAfter a fairly quiet night and sluggish morning we headed out to the Glen Eden ski resort situated about 40 minutes from York Mills, where I was staying. The ski resort is relatively compact and popular given its proximity to Toronto. It was packed with people from the very young to the very old. The queue to get our gear was long, but eventually I made it to the front where I got fitted out for boots, skis and poles. I was ready to go.

We started out on some very small nursery slopes but I quickly got bored of it. Even though I collapsed spectacularly quite a few times, I wanted something a bit more challenging, so we crossed the road towards the “grown-up” slopes. Nursery shmursery.

A ski-lift brought us to the top of the slope. I soon found that I could only ski in two ways: a) bat-out-of-hell mode and b) crumpled-up-in-a-pile mode. Bat-out-of-hell mode was easy. I would just point my skis ahead of me and go for it, picking up speed all the time. I would keep going faster and faster down the hill until quite suddenly I would switch over into the much less satisfactory crumpled-up-in-a-pile mode. This usually involved a quite ungainly somersault involving the loss of skis, poles and hats followed by the nightmare task of attempting to get upright again. Most of my ski-attempts involved both techniques, and I got quite good at them by the end of the day.

Glen Eden Ski Resort

I would be an excellent skier if it were not for two small itsy-bitsy flaws. 1) I can’t brake and 2) I can’t steer. Otherwise all is well. I’m sure I would be a champion at rudderless kamikase skiing. Also, if there a prize for the most awkward looking skiier, I would be well in contention. My sister told me that it was amazing that I could stay upright for so long given my unorthodox style of leaning back on the skis with my knees and legs bent in a particularly unattractive fashion.

When it comes to skiing I am absolutely fearless. I am also absolutely clueless. A dangerous combination, I think.

We were absolutely wrecked by the end of the day. I had a very pleasant Indian meal in Burlington followed by a few drinks close to my sister’s apartment.

On Sunday, I headed into town with my sister to a shopping centre in Dundas for a spot of shopping. It’s a lot safer than skiing. I didn’t fall down once. I’ll wait to see the size of my credit card bill before I do that..

Dundas shopping centre

I had a relatively uneventful flight back home (well, I *did* lose my passport and my car keys, but enough said about that) and I’m back safe, sound and jet-lagged in Ireland. The weather is moist, relatively warm and there’s not even a hint of snow. I’m missing Toronto already.


Croke Park

Some of you may know that Ireland has two unique field games – hurling and gaelic football. Both games have massive followings and they draw a fanatical attendance from all over the country during the summertime each year. The two games are by far the biggest sports in Ireland. The games are strictly amateur, and much of the attendance money gained has gone into developing the games and the sporting infrastructure around the island. The greatest achievement from decades of investment is a huge stadium in Dublin called Croke Park. It’s truly enormous. It’s the fourth largest stadium in Europe and it has a capacity of over 80,000.

For decades however, Croke Park has been strictly off-limits to the “foreign” games of rugby and soccer. No major international sporting event featuring these two games has ever happened there. The reason for this is wrapped up with the history of modern Ireland and the foundation of the Irish state.

The Gaelic Athletic Association, or GAA, is the ruling body for hurling and gaelic football. They have always been passionately devoted to promoting all things Irish (particularly Catholic Irish), and this view was hardened during the the War of Independence when in 1920, British Auxiliaries opened fire on a crowd of supporters during a match in Croke Park, killing 13 people. For a long time afterwards, no foreign games were permitted in any GAA ground in the country including, of course, Croke Park*. What’s more, members of the GAA were not even allowed to attend any games of rugby, cricket or soccer. Even though this particular restriction was repealed in the 1970’s, the ban on the use of Croke Park for “foreign games” persisted into the 21st century. Although there has always been a lingering sense of anti-Britishness within the GAA, the prevailing view among supporters of the ban was that the other sporting organisations (i.e. the FAI and the IRFU) had done nothing to deserve access to it – that they were riding on the GAA’s coat-tails, in effect.

All this changed in 2005, after a very passionate and drawn out public debate. The GAA finally agreed to open Croke Park temporarily while Landsdowne Road, the home of rugby and football on Dublin’s south-side, was being refurbished.

Tomorrow, Croke Park hosts its first ever international rugby game – Ireland versus France. It’s a sell-out (and some GAA supporters think it’s a sell-out in another way too), with an attendance that will be more than double that of any home rugby international ever played in the country.

A week or so from now, Ireland will play England in Croke Park. The Union Jack will be hoisted there, and God Save the Queen will ring out from within the stadium grounds.

It’s a bit of history alright.

* with the exception of American Football, Athletics and Australian Rules. Go figure.

Wikipedia is one of the most surprising hits to arise out of the Internet age. The proposition, when it was introduced back in 2001, sounded ludicrous. “What if, instead of having an encyclopedia compiled by a small group of experts, we open it up to millions of people and let them write it up instead?” It sounded preposterous. Letting non-experts provide and monitor the content sounded like a recipe for pure anarchy. Few restrictions were imposed. A few seeder articles were written by the in-house team, and then control was handed over to the mob. Despite trenchant criticism, it has been an incredible success. Now, 6 years later, it has 6 million articles in 250 languages, greatly overshadowing physical offerings such as Encyclopedia Brittanica and the World Book. And the thing is, somehow it works. It has evolved into a huge self-correcting, authoritative, dynamic organism. False, biased and slanderous entries do get written, but in general the work is quite accurate, and when errors do occur they can be corrected pretty quickly. One view on it is that in general it is an excellent repository of information even though many specifics might be flawed.

This idea that “mob rule” can evolve into something vibrant, self-correcting and comprehensive is intriguing to say the least. It’s a good example of the Wisdom of Crowds idea that I spoke about some time back.

So, what about applying the same rules to democracy, then?

Even though many people equate “democracy” with “freedom” and tend to think of the prevailing Western system of government as the best possible system, a debate still rages as to whether it is true democracy at all. If we go back into history (and indeed to many countries around the world today), the elites have been in power – people who have been educated, guided and born into privileged positions tended to take the reins of government when the chance arose. They often had exclusive authority over the “little people” and indeed sometimes asserted a “divine right” to rule over them. In the last 300 years or so, the populace started to demand a greater say in how things were governed, and the hard-won result is a compromise between the elites and the mob. This is parliamentary republicanism, or what many people call “democracy”.

In a republican system, the elites still rule, but us plebs can now attempt to throw them out every 4 years or so. Power is centred in the hands of a very small number of people, and that power is then tempered by the judicial system, the parliament or congress, international agreements, and the press and public opinion generally. It’s quite robust and certainly highly successful. A possible factor in its success is that change is possible in the medium term, without violence or coups d’etat, thus leading to greater stability and security. The addition of innovations such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and property rights etc have given people a lot of latitude and freedom in their personal lives.

But it’s far from being a perfect system. Legislation tends to lag the issues of the times, sometimes by many years. People who have experienced injustice often feel that no-one is listening. Corruption and cronyism persist. People with ties to the elite tend to be treated more leniently than those further down the pecking order. The same old names continue to rule over long periods. Many people feel disenfranchised, and this is evidenced in part by the decline in the number of people voting in elections all across the Western world.

So, it’s interesting, even as just a thought experiment, to imagine a world where legislation can be changed by professionals and amateurs alike, in much the same way as in Wikipedia. Normal citizens become the lawmakers, or law refiners, or critics, or whatever they choose. The public debate the issues and collaborate in the drafting of the laws of state. Where problems are found, these laws are then amended quickly, again though participatory discussion and collaboration. No one group has a monopoly on power – laws arise through the mechanisms of debate and consensus. Flawed legislation can be corrected or removed quickly. Everyone who wants to can have a say.

It seems perverse. It seems anarchic. And yet, as we are finding out with Wikipedia and its offshoots, it is possible to create something beautiful and workable by simply providing a framework and letting people get on with it.

Churchill once said “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried”. Could Wikidemocracy lead us to a less worse form of goverment perhaps?

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February 2007

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Cork Skeptics

Be Honest in the Census

365 Days of Astronomy