Red card suspensions unfair?

There have been a flurry of red cards at the start of the Premiership season. One in particular caught my eye: Dave Kitson of Reading was sent off after just 37 seconds as a substitute, against Manchester United. By all accounts he deserved the red card and hasn’t decided to appeal. He gets an automatic three game suspension, which means he gets banned for 270 minutes for his 37 seconds of infamy. (“Infamy! Infamy! They all have it in for me!!” Caesar in Carry on Cleo).

Suspension is a disproportionate punishment for such offenses. Suspensions punish entire football clubs, robbing managers of essential players at critical times and depriving supporters of their favourite players.

Red cards can change games, depending on when they occur. A red card in the first five minutes is clearly different to one given in injury time at the end of a game. Some may be ‘awarded’ (what a strange term!) for a mistimed tackle or a rush of blood to the head, or maybe for two minor yellow cards. Yet the punishment is rigid: a three game suspension.

And red cards range from the absolutely deserved to the highly dubious. It seems too crude a mechanism to distinguish between merely incompetent players and the deliberately dangerous ones.

Players do need to be protected from rash or dangerous play, so red cards are an essential part of the game. But referees should only have to decide on the instant an incident happens whether to enforce the rules and send a player off or not. To have that instant decision turn automatically into a three game suspension is asking too much of them.

I’d prefer to see a system where referees send players off, but only a panel of judges, armed with the referee’s report, eye-witness accounts, player’s explanations, and video evidence, should decide on the suspension. That might lessen the foolishness and unfairness.  

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Leaving Certificate results

It’s that time of year again. What dread! What terror! It is time for the results of the Leaving Certificate….

Here’s a summary of the results as I have them now:

Drinking: Students continue to do well in this subject. There has been a notable increase in A1s which experts attribute to increasing affluence.

Fashion: Results have been disappointing this year, with girls well ahead of boys again, for the 75th year running. Pupils taking the pass level continue to show a love of loose tracksuits, but with pyjamas making a surprising surge.

Sport: A traditional boys subject, but results were down this year because of the very tricky question about naming three Irish teams in the League of Ireland, which 92% of people failed to do. (Examiners asked me to point out that “Liverpool Reserves” are still an English team and do not play in Ireland.)

Littering and loitering: Excellent results this year show all round impressive improvement. It seems that this generation excel at dropping cigarettes and loitering around shops in particular. The influx of Spanish students over the last couple of decades, coupled with Big Brother, have helped in this regard. Examiners hope to introduce “Loitering with Intent” as an optional subject next year.

Petty Pilfering: An ever less popular subject, particularly with boys. Experts say that money has become too widespread and the incentive to steal just isn’t there any more.

Moaning: Ireland leads the world in this very traditional subject, which is one of the compulsory ones. Some students fail to see the point of studying it however, given their expertise in it from their early years.

Sex: Always popular. This year, there was a notable increase in teenage pregnancies which indicates that “Applied Sex” is even stronger than usual.

Texting: v gd! Nuf 2do nxt yr, vgd fons rnd, c if u lke it. txtn & wlkn best.

Dawkins on the enemies of reason

Richard Dawkins usually goes through a repetoire of facial twitches and stern looks when he makes a TV programme. Last night, in the first episode of The Enemies of Reason on Channel 4, he had more reason than usual to express dismay and shock, but he managed to keep calm. Maybe he is mellowing out? I don’t think so. I guess he had been in training for weeks beforehand, to interview the crackpots and looneys without giving everything away with frowns and disgusted facial expressions.

That he managed to interview so many of them at all surprised me. They must have known who he was and that he only intended to dismiss their beliefs (everything from horoscopes and astrology, to mediumship and spiritualism). But they probably were either confident in their beliefs or were following the adage that no publicity is bad publicity.

At one point, he was a guest at a scientifically-organised, double-blind test of dowsing. None of the dowsers scored any higher than chance. Most of them shrugged off the test as a gimmick. But one poor woman was reduced to incredulity and tears. She clearly had had her precious illusions completely shattered by her failure in the test. Actually, my heart went out to her. She seemed so upset at her failure that her belief in her ‘gift’ was obviously genuine. I regard genuine people with illusory beliefs as eccentric, or harmless. This woman’s dowsing gift gave her a feeling of being special; a sense of connection with the natural world. It seemed harsh on her to have that illusion shattered. (Harsh on a personal level – but I agree with Dawkins that it is right to have it tested scientifically).

His attack on astrology consisted mainly of citing the psychological phenomenon called The Barnum Effect. It is a well-known and very well confirmed theory, that offering people random personality descriptions produces a suspiciously high self-identification rate. In other words, more people than you’d expect by chance say that some randomly chosen text refers to themselves quite accurately. Another way to put it, is that people are gullible. The effect produces distortions that astrologers cleverly exploit.

I remember once having a quite funny conversation with a woman who was convinced that astrology was scientifically valid. She posited the notion that planets changed behaviour via the differential effect of gravity on different types of brain, although she was hazy on the details. When I queried the possibility that the cyclical movements of planets placed millions of miles from the earth could have any conceivable effect on Capricorns or Geminis, she countered that the moon’s gravity caused the tides, so why would not Jupiter and Saturn’s gravity cause changes in humans? Nothing I said could dissuade her. But I remember that my main despair was not at her incredible beliefs but that I didn’t have the words to change her mind. I felt like I was using plyers to shift a rock. I felt undereducated myself.

Dawkins is a tonic. He doesn’t face these problems when put on the spot by the average faith healer or spiritualist. He knows what to say and he is efficient and accurate in what he says. Oh how I’d love to have had him by my side all those years back!

Christians United for Israel

I wrote a post about Islamic terrorism yesterday, so I might as well follow with one about Christian terrorism. Max Blumenthal has made a brilliant video about the organisation called Christians United for Israel. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Here are some choice quotes from the video:

Woman: Are you Jewish?
Max: Yes
Woman: So do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?
Max: No, I’m Jewish.

Max: Are you looking forward to Armageddon?
Man: Yes, I definitely am.

Pastor John Haggee: “…therefore it is time for American to embrace the words of Senator Joseph Lieberman and consider a military pre-emptive strike against Iran to prevent a nuclear holocaust in Israel”.

Lieberman: “Haggee is a man of God”.

It might be tempting to dismiss all this as the fantasies of a deluded minority. But Senator Joe Lieberman is right at the centre of it all. Only reason, science, rationality, and logic will thwart these people. Or not. Probably not. Damn.

I know! Let’s try ridicule and satire instead!

Islam and terrorism?

There’s an article in today’s Irish Times featuring Syyed Siraj H Zaidi and Susan Philips debating that most contentious of topics, Does Islam encourage terrorism? (Paid subscription required).

There are good points made on both sides, but I wanted to comment on just two or three that I thought were particularly startling, by Syyed Siraj H Zaidi.

The first startling statement was that “Islam considers murder as one of the gravest sins and as a capital crime.” The logic seems to be that murder is a grave crime, so being so serious it needs to receive the ultimate punishment: death. (In fairness, Christians have historically seen no contradiction in this either). But to my rationalist, humanitarian viewpoint, killing murderers in revenge for killing just seems inhuman and illogical. It is a punishment best written off as out-dated and inhuman.

Then he states: “One cannot even juxtapose the word terrorism with Islam – they are contradictory terms. In true Islam, terror does not exist.” As an argument, this is simple sophistry. If these “terrorists” happen to also be Muslim, and they claim they are conducting a jihad, and their faith is central to their belief system, then they are “Islamic Terrorists”. Moderate Muslims may protest that it is a mis-use of the term “Islamic”, but it is evading the central truth.

He then goes on to say: “In Islam, killing a human is an act equal in gravity to unbelief.” (my italics). This is scary! Killing someone is a terrible act. But if it is equal to “unbelief”, then it just shows how repressive and aggressive is the Islamic mindset. So, he is saying, I think, that if someone fails to believe in Allah, then that is an equal crime to killing someone? Well, I don’t believe in Allah. Am I as bad as a murderer in his eyes? And if the penalty for murder is death, what does that mean for the equal crime of “unbelief”.

Something is rotten in the state of Islam. It has to stop living in denial and start addressing the causes of this sickness (terrorism). And that is not to say that the Western world is blameless – I think the war being conducted in Iraq is shameful. But it is just a call to say that Islam has to address its inner contradictions before it can preach to the rest of the world. Using clever word-games and sophistry to deny that the problem lies with their religion is delaying the day when they address it.

A tribute to Viktor Korchnoi

(I am dedicating this post to Jimmy, whom age has not dulled).

Viktor Korchnoi is one of my all-time chess heroes. I was prompted to write this post because he leads yet another tournament today: the György Marx Memorial tournament in Paks, Hungary.

He is probably the chess player with the longest top-class career ever. He is still winning top-class tournaments at the grand age of 76 (in 2006 he won the World Veteran’s title). But let’s put his career in some context to judge just how good he has been for so long: He hit the chess world as early as 1947, when he won the USSR Youth championships. He qualified for the full USSR championships in 1952, which was no mean feat (at that time it was becoming the predominant chess country in the world). By 1960 he won his first of four USSR championships (the others being 1962, 1964, and 1970). Of course, he is most famous for his series of extraordinary world championship matches against Anatoly Karpov in the 1970s and early 1980s. It started with a candidates final in 1974, and ended with his defeat in Manila in 1981. Although he lost all three matches, he was clearly the second best player in the world for those years. He has been in the world’s top hundred players for the best part of 50 years now (or even longer).

Korchnoi is also my hero because of his defection from the Soviet Union in 1976. One story goes that he calmly asked English GM Tony Miles how to spell ‘political asylum’ while he was competing at a tournament in Holland. That’s cool! If you’re about to defect from the world’s most oppressive communist state, you’d think your mind would be on other things! But he still managed to win the tournament, jointly, with Tony Miles.

The word “irascible” would have had to have been invented for Viktor if it didn’t already exist. He is a loveable old rogue, which probably makes him a right pain to be around, but for me enhances his humanity and honesty. The stories of his fights with Karpov are legendary and well worth looking up: http://www.mark-weeks.com/chess/78kk$$01.htm. After you’ve read about mysterious blueberry yoghurts, x-ray glasses, hypnotists, the ‘Stateless’ flag, swivelling chairs, and other bizarre goings-on, you’ll never again look at chess the same way.

One story about Korchnoi has always puzzled me. I read that he once got up from a game to ask the arbiter a straight-forward question about queen-side castling. He asked, is it legal to castle queenside when there’s an enemy rook attacking the b1 square? It is, and Korchnoi continued the game and won. It is a well-known rule and it always struck me as odd that he had to ask.

Korchnoi has been making videos for Chessbase of his favourite games. He comes across as personable, funny, and wise. His shrugs and raised eye-brows and constant grins show how much he loves chess. What a star! I hope he lives to be 100 and keeps winning chess games all of that time.

If Ryanair ran a sandwich bar…

…they’d advertise them as costing 1c each.

When you’d go to buy them, they’d tell it you it was actually €6.41. When you ask why, they’d tell you that it is composed of the following:

Basic sandwich  €0.01
Wrapper   €0.30
Government tax  €0.60
Butter   €0.20
Fillings  €1.50
‘Freshness’ fee  €0.20
Insurance levy  €0.50
Labour   €1.00
VAT   €1.10
Handling fee €1.00
Total   €6.41

Seeing as you’ve been suckered in, you decide to go ahead and buy it anyway. “That’ll be €6.81 please”, they’d say. Ah, six euros eighty one? “I thought you just said it was €6.41!” you’d say. It is, they say, but now that you’re actually buying one, we need to charge a booking fee.

After paying over the €6.81, they then would get you to run across the sandwich shop to fight with the other customers over the sandwiches. First come, first served. Egg sandwich anyone?

After picking it up, and dusting off the remains of a stale chicken deluxe from your shirt, you’d ask them if they have a seat where you can sit down and eat your sandwich. That’d be €3 please, they’d reply. €3 for a lousy seat! They’d answer: if you’d ordered the seat with the sandwich, it would only have been €2!

Okay….so you decide to pay the €3. “That’ll be €3.50 please” would be the answer. Not wanting to ask why, you just pay it over.

Finally, after all of that, you’d sit down and unwrap the sandwich. At least I can eat, you’d think to yourself. Then you’d hear a voice in the background saying, “Sir, if you’re going to actually eat that sandwich, you need to pay the ‘eating fee’…”

Aaaaargh!

Five stages of a transfer saga

All football transfers happen in stages and I have been struck repeatedly at how monotonous and regular this procession of media reports, rumours, and denials can be. They are so predictable and regular as to almost form a law of nature. It reminded me of those famous five stages of grief and bereavement of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

Denial
The first sign that a player is being sold is always the “official denial” by the selling club that they are prepared to sell, or even contemplate selling. Like Middlesbrough saying, adamantly, that Yukubu has not requested a transfer. Other famous denials include Manchester United denying that David Beckham was going to Real Madrid, or Southampton saying Gareth Bale was not for sale (he was).
A club saying a player is “not for sale” is the biggest lie of them all. All players are for sale, at the right price and at the right time.

Anger
Managers typically get very angry in the second stage of a transfer. This is usually when they get pestered by reporters endlessly needling them about it. Or it might be that they want to turn up the heat on the negotiating team.

Fans turn their anger towards the chairman for trying to sell their prize-possession. All around, rumours fly and heated debates rage. Rarely, a player himself gets angry, such as Gabriel Heinze getting angry because he cannot join Liverpool.

Bargaining
Behind the scenes, despite the public anger, the hard bargaining has normally started long before anyone else knows about it. The golden rule is: money talks, bullshit walks. Agents, like “super-agent” Pini Zahavi get involved and want their slice of the action, including up to €4.5m for selling Aiyegbeni Yukubu to Middlesbrough, reputedly. Other clubs get dragged into the sale, trying to drive up the price. It is all unseemly and chaotic, but with only one ultimate aim: maximum price for the seller, minimum price for the buyer.

Depression
This is the stage when the deal gets done, is made public, and reality begins to sink in for the fans and clubs alike. The reaction of fans of the sellers on hearing the news resembles the full five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance. But depression is the predominant feeling.

Acceptance
There comes a time when everyone gets over it. The deal has been done, the player has moved on, and other distractions fill the airwaves. Healing begins.

Smart bombs, intelligent bullets

Another US first: artificially-intelligent ammunition. You can fire a bullet directly at any target and the bullet decides whether the target is a terrorist or not. Those it discovers to not be terrorists, or has the slightest doubt about, it leaves unharmed by releasing a chemical solvent that dissolves metal instantly, thus rendering the bullet completely harmless! Magic. And it solves all moral problems by ensuring no collateral damage, ever.

I can reveal, completely exclusively, a drawing of this intelligent bullet, or Intelli-Bullet (c) for the first time:
intelligent-bullet.gif

It allows them to do things like the following:
http://uk.news.yahoo.com/rtrs/20070808/tpl-uk-iraq-43a8d4f_5.html
“BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. and Iraqi forces killed about 30 people in raids in Baghdad’s Shi’ite slum of Sadr City on Wednesday, the U.S. military said. Iraqi and Coalition Forces killed 30 Special Groups Cell terrorists and detained 12 suspected terrorists during operations Wednesday in Sadr City,” the U.S. military said in a statement.”

You see! All 30 people killed were “Special Groups Cell terrorists” and all 12 detained were only “suspected” terrorists. Amazing! But only because of the amazing Intelli-Bullet(c).

Intelli-Bullets don’t come cheap. Each one costs a staggering $75,000. But it is worth it, to bring those folks to justice.

Will Ireland’s population hit 12 million?

I came across an article today in a morning paper, where Marc Coleman, a well-known economist and ex-Irish Times journalist, is promoting a new book of his, entitled “The Best is Yet to Come”. In it, he argues forcibly that Ireland’s population could hit 12 million people before the end of the century. This would create an economic boom (the bit he presumably describes as “the best”) of unprecedented proportions, he claims. I am sure it would! Our current population is 4.2 million, so the population would have to almost treble to reach 12 million.

Here are the main reasons why this could happen.

Recent developments

In 1841, the last census before the Irish famine (1845-49), we (meaning the counties comprising the 26 counties of the Irish Republic) had a population of 6,528,799. Due to the famine and subsequent emigrations, this had dropped dramatically to 5,111,557 by 1851. It continued to drop over the next century, aside from some minor wobbles, reaching 3,221,823 by 1901 (less than half of that 60 years earlier) and a low of 2,818,314 by 1961. Since then, more or less, it has climbed steadily but unspectacularly. By 1996 it had reached 3,626,087. [You can view the entire statistics for the period 1841-2002 for Ireland on the Central Statistics Office’s page: http://beyond2020.cso.ie/Census/TableViewer/tableView.aspx?ReportId=1822)].

But it has recently accelerated dramatically. The Celtic Tiger has sucked in immigrants; the emigration of Irish citizens has slowed hugely; and the birth rate has increased. By 2006, the latest census has revealed 4,239,848 people now living in Ireland (excluding Northern Ireland), an increase of 16.9% over 10 years. At that rate (16.9% every 10 years) in 70 years, our population will increase to 12.64 million.

Population density

In thinking about what Ireland’s population should be, we have to bear in mind a whole complex gamut of factors, including history, geography, economics, emigration, culture, and societal attitudes to birth and death. History and economics explain why we showed such a drastic drop in population figures from 1841 to now. Geography might set an upper limit on how many people can occupy a given land area (e.g. Canada’s population density is quite low). Emigration and immigration depend on economic opportunities, along with other cultural factors. Traditionally, we are a nation of large families, but this is no longer true, and is anyway so changeable and shifting all the time that it is hard to estimate where it will be over the long term.

But let’s cut through all this complexity and put forward one possible scenario: that we should have a comparable density to the UK, since, in the main, our Island is as flat, productive, and easily navigable as our closest neighbour.

Broadly speaking, we should expect over the long term that our population density should trend back to that of comparable European nations, such as Italy (193 people per square kilometre), the United Kingdom (246), France (110), or Germany (232). Let’s take a middle figure of 200, somewhere between Britain and Germany, and Italy and France. It is as good as any other figure! That would indicate a baseline population of 14 million (we have an area of 70,000 square kilometres.)

What if?

Another argument considers what would have happened had we not suffered the series of catastrophic reversals of fortunes that we did do in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, what would have happened had we kept pace with Britain’s population growth rate over that period? In 1841, England’s population was roughly 15 million people. Now, it approaches 50 million, an increase of 333% or more. Applied to Ireland, that would indicate a population of nearly 22 million people!

Arguments against

All three arguments presented above try to argue that Ireland’s population, by some natural law or other, should in fact be much higher than it is currently. Given the recent rate of increase of that population, we could reach 12 million people or more by 2077. But some scepticism should be attached to these figures. For a start, nothing ever goes up in a straight line. Our population cannot simply grow at a rate of 16.9% every decade for the next 70 years without experiencing some change (up or down). In other words, it is foolhardy to extrapolate out from the present trends.

Secondly, where will all these extra 8 million people come from? Clearly, the vast majority of that increase will have to be of immigrants, typically from other EU states (the rest will be indigenous births). That will cause great disruption to our culture, our homogenous racial mix, and our sense of identity. Under current EU legislation, there is nothing we can do about it. We cannot refuse immigrants from any EU country, except for Romania and Bulgaria. Even that will change over time. However, these stresses to our identity will inevitably produce a backlash of a sort. Perhaps it will create an anti-immigration party or platform, calling for wide controls on immigration. In any case, even without legislation or political change, why do we believe that immigrants will want to come into Ireland every year over the next 70 years? Perhaps we will even have a hard time convincing the ones that are here now to stay!

We’d have to boost employment to perhaps 6 or 7 million (from the current 2 million). This is mainly why Marc Coleman predicts a boom that will make the Celtic Tiger look puny in comparison. But can we expect growth rates of 7 or 8% a year for the forseeable future? Hardly. Without that sort of boom over a period of 60 or 70 years, we’d never be capable of absorbing that many immigrants without huge unemployment.

Implications

If Ireland’s population is really headed for 12 million, then we ought to start thinking through the implications of that. First, we will need huge infrastructural improvements, including metros, railway lines, motorways, hospitals, schools, churches, and so on. Secondly, it will cause massive changes to our self-identify. We need to prepare for an Ireland where, like Texas or southern parts of California, the majority of the people living here do not speak English as a first language. We need to tackle conspicuous racism before it rears its ugly head.

We need to plan for housing an extra 8 million people – perhaps requiring upwards or 3 or 4 million new homes. That would only amount to around 55,000 new houses per year, over 70 years, which is already exceeded by the current construction industry (output last year was closer to 80,000 units). So it is achieveable. But we have to shift to higher density housing or else risk building a city around Dublin that reaches to Athlone, Dundalk, and Wexford. We need changes to planning, construction, and transport.

Where is the debate on all of this potential change? As usual, our politicians lack the foresight, or willpower, to start a debate on this issue. It will profoundly change Ireland, perhaps beyond recognition. We need to start thinking through the vast implications (which I have barely skimmed here) in order to either meet the challenges directly, or else try to avoid them altogether. Are we happy to see the population drive ever upwards? Will we be happy to share our beautiful land with millions of Eastern Europeans or others? Who will be the President of Ireland in the year 2077 – Lech Jserilack?

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