Word of the day: mastaba

June 19th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Mastaba is the Arabic word for bench. It is a trapezoid shape which originated in Mesopotamia 6,000 to 7,000 years ago.

Mastaba is also the title of a new 600-tonne, 20-metre high floating sculpture made from more than 7,000 colourful oil barrels which has just been unveiled on London’s Serpentine. It is the work of Bulgarian artist Christo and I’m looking forward to visiting it.

You can see some picture of the structure here.

Posted in Cultural issues | Comments (0)


Will there really be a Brexit dividend to fund increases to the NHS budget?

June 18th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

The Conservative Government has announced that there will be a new funding settlement for the NHS to mark the 70th anniversary of the the creation of the health service. This may well not be enough but the news is welcome.

However, it is unclear how it will be funded. The Prime Minister claims that part of the funding will come from a Brexit dividend when the UK leaves the European Union. Is this true?

The BBC has done a reality check and summarises the situation as follows:

The claim: The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts include an extra £10bn each year from 2019-20 for public spending as a result of leaving the EU – this could be spent on the NHS.

Reality Check verdict: If the UK manages to stop completely its contributions to the EU budget in 2019-20 then there may be some extra money to spend on other things – but in that same year the OBR is predicting that the government will have to borrow an extra £14.7bn as a result of the Brexit vote.

Posted in British current affairs | Comments (0)


Is there a solution to the Cyprus problem?

June 15th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

“The Cyprus Problem” by James Ker-Lindsay (2011)

Before I visit a new country, I like to read about the place and, in the case of a forthcoming holiday in Cyprus, it seemed essential to familiarise myself with the issues around the partition of the island and this short and balanced account by an academic at the London School of Economics fitted the bill. In five chapters occupying around 120 pages, Ker-Linsday poses and answers just over 70 questions, presenting the material in convenient bite-sized junks.

Cyprus is a small nation: an island in the eastern Mediterranean which at its extremes is just 150 miles long from east to west and 100 miles wide from north to south. The estimated population is only just over a million – barely half that of Northern Ireland – although there are almost as many Cypriots living off the island as on it. In spite of its small size, its location has given it a complicated history with successive occupations by the Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans, and British. Independence came in 1960 with a constitution which shared power between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communuities in the ratio 70:30. But the new state lasted less than a decade and a half when Turkey invaded the north of Cyprus in 1974 occupying 36% of the island.

Ker-Lindsay explains that, in the absence of recent data, the figure of 78% is still widely cited as the approximate size of the Greek Cypriot community which is largely located in the south of the island known as the Republic of Cyprus, while 18% is still generally used as the size of the Turkish Cypriot community which is largely located in the northern part of the island which calls itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. He summarises a succession of failed efforts to resolve the Cyprus problem, most notably the Annan Plan of 2004 which envisaged the establishment of a bizonal, bicommunal federal republic.

Ker-Lindsay concludes his book with an examination of the key issues to be addressed in any settlement and the different models that have been proposed to reconcile these issues. On the one hand, he acknowledges that “The current situation can continue indefinitely. After all, there is no conflict on the island.” On the other hand, he argues: “the continuation of the status quo appears to be increasingly unviable. There is a clear imperative for the two sides to reach an agreement”.

He admits of the Cyprus problem that “it appears to be stubbornly immune to all peacemaking initiatives” and notes: “A wit once said that the Cyprus issue is essentially a problem of thirty thousand Turkish troops faced off against thirty thousand Greek Cypriot lawyers. (Or, as someone else put it, while the Turkish army uses warfare, the Greek Cypriots use ‘lawfare’.)”

Posted in World current affairs | Comments (0)


How many states should there be in California?

June 14th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I first heard about it on the American programme “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah”; now it’s been picked up by the British media including this item on the BBC website. It’s a proposal to divided the current US state of California into three and the proposition will appear on the ballot paper in November.

The current state of California – the largest by population in the United States with some 40 million people – would be divided into: Northern California, roughly comprising the northern half of the state, including San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Sacramento; Southern California, stretching from Fresno to the US-Mexico border; and California, comprising six coastal counties between Los Angeles and Monterey.

I had not realised that it was constitutionally possible to divide a state. If approved, the partition of California would mark the first division of a US state since the pro-union West Virginia broke from secessionist Virginia in 1863 during the US civil war.

Will the proposition be approved? An April poll by SurveyUSA found support for the measure among registered voters was just 17%. But this is the age of Trump and Brexit …

Posted in American current affairs | Comments (0)


We need to know more about dementia – what are the risk factors and how do we treat it?

June 13th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I have done several blog postings about a health study on dementia to which I have been invited to contribute. This is a large-scale, longitudinal study based at the Imperial Research Hub at Charing Cross Hospital in London and it is looking particularly at whether the level of beta-amyloid in the brain is a risk factor.

First, I had a four-hour long assessment involving an interview and a whole battery of health checks and cognitive tests. Then I had MRI and PET scans to check respectively whether I have any existing mental problems and the concentration of beta-amyloid in my brain. Following these three sets of tests, I have now been accepted onto the study which will run for three and a half years with further tests every three months.

In the last couple of weeks, I have made two baseline visits to establish my current state of physical and mental health and my current level of cognitive abilities so that, over the coming years, it will be possible to see if my memory deteriorates and if so whether it is possible to identify any risk factors.

Today’s visit lasted three hours. There was a range of physical measures, including weight and blood pressure, and a range of samples, including blood, urine, and saliva (it takes a while to generate 5 ml of the stuff). Then I had another battery of cognitive tests, some assessing numeral, language and spatial skills but most focusing on short-term memory.

One recurrent test involves viewing pictures of 16 random objects. When the medical staffer names a category of object, the subject of the test has to identify and name the relevant object. Then the pictures are withdrawn and you have to try to remember as many as possible of the 16 random objects. After a set period of time, the staffer then prompts you by naming the category of objects that you forgot to see if you can then recall them.

After a completely different test, you are invited again to recall as many as possible of the 16 objects unprompted and then prompted. Then, after another completely different test, you are invited for a third time to record all the objects, again unprompted and then prompted. The idea, I believe, is to see if you are encoding new memories so that you can recall them, even if you need a prompt. Dementia sufferers have problems encoding new memories.

It’s all very interesting but quite exhausting.

Today’s tests were ‘Month zero”. from now on, I’ll have a similar set of tests every quarter (Month 3, 6, 9 ..) until the end of 2021. It’s all in a good cause.

Posted in My life & thoughts | Comments (0)


“Power to the people: How stronger unions can deliver economic justice”

June 12th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

The IPPR Commission on Economic Justice has just published a discussion paper entitled “Power to the people: How stronger unions can deliver economic justice“.

This paper shows why trade unions and collective bargaining are good for workers and good for the economy. It shows how the decline of the union movement has contributed to a growing power imbalance in the economy and to soaring inequality. It highlights the fact that it is the very workers who could benefit most from union membership who are least likely to join, and raises concerns that union membership is set to decline further still.

As public policy – and the hostile environment for trade unions that it has created – has contributed to the decline of trade unions, public policy must be part of the solution. The paper calls for:

A renaissance of collective bargaining, with a target of doubling collective bargaining coverage to 50 per cent by 2030, support for sectoral collective bargaining in low pay sectors, and measures to encourage firm-level bargaining, overseen by a new Minister of State for Labour
Support for trade unions to recruit and innovate, with a Right of Access to workplaces for unions to recruit, a pilot of auto-enrolment for workers in the gig economy, and a WorkerTech Innovation Fund to support unions to embrace new technology
Trade unions to be embraced as social partners in driving the UK’s industrial strategy and in supporting a managed acceleration of automation that works for working people

Posted in British current affairs | Comments (0)


A review of the new animated movie “The Breadwinner”

June 11th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

We are living in a golden age of animation and Oscar-nominated “The Breadwinner” is a wonderful addition to the genre. An Irish-Canadian-Luxembourg co-production, the source material is a young adult novel by Canadian writer Deborah Ellis and both production house (Cartoon Saloon) and director (Nora Twomey) are from the Emerald Isle.

Set in the Afghan capital of Kabul in 2001 during the time of Taliban control, the eponymous central character is 11 year old Parvana (voiced by Canadian schoolgirl Saara Chaudry) who, when her father is arrested, is forced to assume the identity of a boy in order to feed her family.

Inside this contemporary and moving story is a traditional and heroic fable and the two tales are told using different styles of animation – the first more naturalistic but still stylised (long faces and large eyes) and the second simpler and more theatrical. When you add to all these ingredients, the evocative eastern-style music, you have a a truly magical experience.

For me, there were echoes of other works: “The Kite Runner” in terms of Kabul locale and young characters, “Persepolis” in terms of the animation and religious extremism, and “He Named Me Malala” in terms of history told through animation and a young girl inspired by her schoolteacher father. But “The Breadwinner” stands on its own as a unique and splendid achievement.

Sadly you will have to seek out the film – this is no blockbuster – but you’ll be delighted that you did.

Posted in Cultural issues | Comments (0)


Not all politicians are the same – for instance, there’s Nick Boles

June 10th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

At first sight and sound, Nicholas Edward Coleridge Coles, Conservative Member of Parliament for Grantham and Stamford, could be taken as the archetypal Tory politician. The son of Sir Jack Boles (a Head of the National Trust) and the great-nephew of Conservative MP Dennis Boles, he studied at Winchester College and Magdalen College, Oxford. He is intelligent, fluent and has that air of confidence and entitlement that is so common in men of the English upper middle class.

But, as I listened to him being interviewed earlier this week at London’s City Literary Institute, it was clear that he is rather different from what one might expect.

Boles served as Minister of State for Skills in the Cameron Government and backed the remain camp in the EU referendum (but does not favour a second referendum on the terms of Brexit). He has never supported Theresa May and is looking for her to stand down. His oldest friend is Michael Gove and he ran his (short-lived) leadership campaign.

He declared that: “Nominally I am a Conservative but I am not very conservative … I am a liberal and a progressive”. He has joined with the Labour Liz Kendall and the Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb to support a stand-alone funding arrangement for health and social care through a reformed National Insurance system in which the taxation is hypothecated.  He supports abortion rights, he is proud of the Cameron legislation on single-sex marriage, and he would now back legalisation of assisted dying.

How can a man with Boles’ background have such eclectic views? I’m sure that it helps that this cerebral politician was a founder of the think tank the Policy Exchange. But I suspect that more personal issues provide the deeper explanation. Boles is gay and and he has survived two serious bouts of cancer. He is a man to watch.

Posted in British current affairs | Comments (2)


Review of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”

June 9th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

The reboot of the “Jurassic Park” franchise in the shape of “Jurassic World” was such a box office success than a sequel – the fifth dino rampage – was inevitable and, while this has not thrilled the critics, it will do well enough with the fans of the monster genre because it is genuinely entertaining.

Indeed it makes a real effort to take the franchise in a new direction. First, it reverses the jeopardy: instead of humans being in danger from the reconstituted dinosaurs, now the creatures themselves are threatened both by nature and greed. Second, the island of Isla Nublar is the scene of a spectacular volcanic explosion and ironically the release of the film coincided with the horror of the Fuego volcano in Guatemala. Third, half of the movie takes place not on the island but on the mainline and, at the very end of the credits, a clip of the Eiffel Tower makes clear that, from now on, the action is going to be much closer to home.

Chris Pratt – whose career continues to soar – is back as Owen Grady, a kind of modern-day Indiana Jones, and so is Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire Dearing, but she has left her heels behind and has changed her attitude to the creatures. They are joined by two young members of the rescue team with newcomers Daniella Pineda and Justice Smith adding to the demographic appeal of the film, and there is even a plucky little girl (although the rating of the work – at times gory – should preclude her peers from seeing this adventure).

Plus the wonderful Jeff Goldblum – last seen in the franchise almost 20 years ago – returns in a cameo with the best lines. And the empathetic raptor Blue is back and it must be admitted that her character is more nuanced than the raft of human baddies who are classic caricatures.

Posted in Cultural issues | Comments (0)


400 years ago, Europe’s Thirty Years’ War began

June 7th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

This summer, four centuries ago, three characters were thrown out of a window in Prague – they all survived – and, from this bizarre incident, a war began than ran for 30 years and caused utter devastation throughout Central Europe. The Holy Roman Empire was convulsed by a bitter conflict between the Catholic Austrian Habsburgs and the Protestant statelets with interventions by Denmark, Sweden and France.

The war resulted in eight million fatalities, not only from military engagements but also from violence, famine and plague, as up to a third of the largely German population died. Britain was expected to back the ‘Protestant Cause’ but James VI and I of Scotland and England refused to become involved.

When you wonder why Germany is so keen on European integration and Britain is so insular in its attitude to continental Europe, you could do worse that recall the legacy of the Thirty Years’ War.

if you are interested in learning about a film depicting the war, click here.

If you would like a three-minute summary of the war and its consequences, you’ll find it here:

Posted in History | Comments (0)