A review of the new super-hero film “Justice League”

November 25th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

This is a movie which has divided the professional critics and the general public with the former being hard on the work but the latter generally enjoying it. I confess that my feelings fall somewhere between the two. It seems that DC Comics just cannot replicate the success of Marvel Universe’s Avengers.

Superman is dead but the Earth is under great threat and so Batman and Wonder Woman put together a league of superheroes, adding Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash to the team facing somebody called Steppenwolf. The movie has considerable visual appeal with a whole variety of locations and worlds and lots of crashing action, but the plot is weak – yet again a small number of objects of great power which must not be brought together – and the characters (too many of them) are of variable impact.

Ben Affleck is dull as Batman, never achieving Christian Bale’s convincing portrayal of the role, and it is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman – fresh from her success in her stand-alone appearance – who is the most appealing character, not least because we know so little of the back story of the other three league members. As for the huge and ugly villain Steppenwolf, he is just like so many other sci-fi bad guys and his entourage of flying warriors looks too much like the monkeys in “The Wizard Of Oz”.

The film had a troubled production with original director Zack Snyder – who helmed “Man Of Steel” and “Batman vs Superman” – having to step aside and leaving the final shooting to Joss Wheldon. This mixed heritage is combined with a confusion of tone with the work unsure whether it wants to be as serious as the previous two films or more comedic in the vein of “Guardians Of The Galaxy”. There are extra scenes at the very beginning and the very end of the credits.

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Word of the day: decimation

November 24th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

In current usage, the word decimation has come to mean something approaching annihilation achieved by one force against an opposing force. In fact, the term originally meant the death of ‘only’ one in ten of a group and was actually a punishment imposed by the Roman army on its own soldiers for an assumed lack of discipline or valour.

As the relevant Wikipedia page explains:

“A cohort (roughly 480 soldiers) selected for punishment by decimation was divided into groups of ten. Each group drew lots, and the soldier on whom the lot fell was executed by his nine comrades, often by stoning or clubbing. The remaining soldiers were often given rations of barley instead of wheat (the latter being the standard soldier’s diet) for a few days, and required to camp outside the fortified security of the camp. As the punishment fell by lot, all soldiers in a group sentenced to decimation were potentially liable for execution, regardless of individual degrees of fault, rank, or distinction.”

And why am I writing about decimation? Well, I recently viewed a television documentary by the British historian Bethany Hughes who described the famous slave revolt led by Spartacus and I learned that the Roman leading the soldiers against the slaves used the act of decimation against his troops. This was before Spartacus was killed in battle (the “I am Spartacus” scene was just an invention for the film) and the surviving slaves were crucified along the Appian Way. Brutal stuff.

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It it time to consider an universal basic income?

November 23rd, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Nearly half of Britons would support giving all citizens a cash allowance, regardless of whether they were employed, according to a recent survey.

Once considered a policy belonging firmly to the radical left, polling by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath found that 49 per cent of 18 to 75-year-olds supported the introduction of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). If UBI were to be established in the UK, it would drastically overhaul the welfare state by providing a set payment to cover the basic needs for every citizen.

You can learn more here.

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7 things you can do to reduce plastic pollution

November 22nd, 2017 by Roger Darlington

I’m currently watching the wonderful new BBC series “Blue Planet II” and the latest episode highlights the issue of plastic in our oceans. Consider these facts – compiled by Plastic Oceans – on plastic pollution:

The proliferation of plastic products in the last 70 years or so has been extraordinary; quite simply we cannot now live without them. We are now producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is for single use. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year.

Plastic is cheap and incredibly versatile with properties that make it ideal for many applications. However, these qualities have also resulted in it becoming an environmental issue. We have developed a “disposable” lifestyle and estimates are that around 50% of plastic is used just once and thrown away.

  • Plastic is a valuable resource and plastic pollution is an unnecessary and unsustainable waste of that resource.
  • Packaging is the largest end use market segment accounting for just over 40% of total plastic usage.
  • Annually approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide. More than one million bags are used every minute.
  • A plastic bag has an average “working life” of 15 minutes.
  • Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century.

You can check out 7 ways you can help here.

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Is it over for Germany’s Angela Merkel? Nein – not yet anyway

November 21st, 2017 by Roger Darlington

The electoral system in the German political system means that coalition governments are very common. The Social Democratic Party was in coalition with the Greens – the Red/Green coalition – from 1998-2005 and then, from 2005-2009, there was a ‘grand coalition’ between the Christian CDU/CSU and the SPD. Between 2009-2013, the CDU/CSU was in a coalition with the FDP. In the election of 2013, the FDP failed to win representation in the Bundestag, so Germany went back to a ‘grand coalition’.

Following the federal election of September 2017, the Social Democrats will not serve in a government, so the CDU/CSU will have to form a coalition with other smaller parties in order to secure a majority in the Bundestag. Negotiations have taken place over the past two months in an attempt – which has now failed – to form a “Jamaica alliance”, so-called because the colours of the three intended partners – the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Greens – are the colours that make up the Jamaican flag.  Another general election in early 2018 is now possible.

As this short comment piece in today’s “Guardian” concludes:

“Yet even if there were to be new elections in spring next year it is possible that Merkel could run again. Seventeen years after she took charge of Germany’s conservative party, there are still no credible candidates for a coup at the top, nor candidates with her blessing that look ready to take over the helm. For now, the only party in Germany calling on Merkel to go is the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The end of Merkel may be closer than it has ever been. But when it comes, it will still be because she has decided to jump, rather than because she was pushed.”

If you would like to understand more about the German political system, you can read my short guide.

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Monaco and the crazy world of the super-rich

November 20th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

As has recently been underlined by the Paradise Papers, the super-rich live in a world of their own, financially, geographically, and morally. An example of this is Monaco.  This is one of the few European countries that I’ve never visited – it has nothing to interest me.

But it attracts the super-rich big time. Less than 38,000 people live in this city-state, but almost 35% of them are millionaires.

The problem is that there’s not enough space for all the super-rich who want to live in this tiny nation. So they are going to build out into the sea. You can read more about this project here.

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It’s World Toilet Day – and that’s no joke

November 19th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly officially designated 19 November as World Toilet Day. World Toilet Day is coordinated by UN-Water in collaboration with governments and partners.

World Toilet Day is about inspiring action to tackle the global sanitation crisis. Today, 4.5 billion people live without a household toilet that safely disposes of their waste

The Sustainable Development Goals, launched in 2015, include a target to ensure everyone has access to a safely-managed household toilet by 2030. This makes sanitation central to eradicating extreme poverty.

More information here.

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Just !% of the world’s population owns half the total wealth of the planet

November 17th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

According to Credit Suisse’s latest annual global wealth report published earlier this week,  the globe’s richest 1% now owns half the world’s wealth. The world’s richest people have seen their share of the globe’s total wealth increase from 42.5% at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1% in 2017, or $140tn (£106tn),

At the other end of the spectrum, the world’s 3.5 billion poorest adults each have assets of less than $10,000 (£7,600). Collectively these people, who account for 70% of the world’s working age population, account for just 2.7% of global wealth.

More information on the report here.

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A review of “The Brain” by David Eagleman

November 16th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Eagleman is an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. A wonderful presenter, he created and wrote the fascinating six-part television series “The Brain” which was first aired on PBS in the United States in 2015 and subsequently shown (and reshown) on BBC in Britain (which is how I saw it). This book, issued to accompany the series, covers exactly the same ground in six chapters and, as you read it, you can hear Eagleman’s fluent and mellow tones.

What is the brain? Eagleman explains that an adult brain weighs three pounds (1.4 kilograms) and has the same number of cells as a child’s brain (in fact, a child of two has double the number of synapses of an adult prior to a process of neural “pruning”). He tells us that the typical brain has about 86 billion neurons and each neuron makes about 10,000 connections sending tens or hundreds of electrical pulses to thousands of other neurons every second. Consequently Eagleman estimates that the number of connections in the brain is around quadrillion (that is 1,000 billion). Twenty per cent of the calories we consume are used to power the brain which uses about the energy of a 60-watt light bulb. Since the brain has no pain receptors, a patient can be awake during brain surgery.

If there is one clear message from the series and the book, it is that the brain exhibits remarkable plasticity. People talk of the brain as hard-wired, but it is the opposite of that. So, over a period of weeks, participants in one study could cope with prism goggles that flip the left and right sides of vision. Eagleman describes some remarkable cases of people recovering from injury or operation and concludes: “The brain is fundamentally unlike the hardware in our digital computers. Instead, it’s ‘liveware’.” This plasticity has enabled the use of the cochlear implant to restore hearing or the retinal implant to restore sight and is behind the notion of sensory substitution where blind people can ‘see’ through pressure or sound.

Eagleman underlines that there is no objective reality out there, waiting to be accessed by all of us all of the time. Instead, even people with a full range of the five senses are only experiencing a version of the world created by the brain which is both very limited and very personal. Take the sense of sight. Visible light constitutes only a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. Furthermore the brain constructs visual images based in large part of what it expects to see from previous viewing, so that “at any moment, what we experience as seeing relies less on the light streaming into our eyes, and more on what’s already inside our heads”. If the present is a variable ‘reality’, then the past is even more problematic: “Our past is not a faithful record. Instead it’s a reconstruction, and sometimes it can border on mythology.”

Neuroscientists are especially fascinated by people with special mental deficiences or proficiences caused by genetics or accidents and Eagleman quotes some amazing cases.

A young girl called Cameron Mott suffered so seriously from violent seizures as a result of a rare form of epilepsy that would eventually lead to her death, so a team of neurosurgeons removed an entire half of her brain and, except for some weakness on one side of her body, she encountered no problems because the remaining half of her brain dynamically rewired to take over the missing functions. Ten year old Austin Naber holds a world record for a sport known as cup stacking which involves transforming a stacked column of cups into a new symmetrical display in a matter of a few seconds while not actually thinking about it. Eagleman is especially interested in people who experience what is called synesthesia which is a condition in which senses are blended, so that for instance people taste words or see sounds as colours.

And we are only just beginning to understand how the brain works and why sometimes it does not (such as the growing problem of dementia). In the final chapter, Eagleman considers how we could augment our senses and extend our bodies and even speculates about whether we could one day free the brain from the body and upload our consciousness to a different platform or place. Mind-boggling stuff.

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A review of the new film “Paddington 2”

November 15th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

I loved “Paddington” and – to my delight – I loved “Paddington 2” too.

Of course, we start with the adorable character created by Michael Bond (who died between the release of the two films), the brilliant CGI representation of our furry friend, and the purr-fect voicing by Ben Wishaw. This is such a British franchise with so very many British character actors (OK, and one Irish) and so many London locations, although this is the kind of gentle London that we saw in “Notting Hill” (most notably in the prison scenes). Indeed the villain this time is less threatening than Nicole Kidman’s character in the first film and played brilliantly by the ever-so-English star of “Notting Hill”, Hugh Grant, who – following his success in “Florence Foster Jenkins” – shows that he is not just a pretty face.

The film is endlessly inventive, not least in bringing to life a pop-up book of London landmarks which is at the heart of the plot, and it is stuffed full of visual gags as well as so many funny lines, a few aimed at adult viewers rather than little ones. My granddaughter (almost seven) found it thoroughly enjoyable with one of her favourite scenes being Paddington’s window-cleaning efforts. Be sure to stay for the credits – a final delight in 100 happy minutes.

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