Visit to Georgia (1): the country

September 12th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Top of my bucket list is the wish, so long as I have sufficient health and wealth, to have visited as many countries as my age. I am now 69 and I am about to experience my 71st country thanks to the invitation to attend the launch of a book by my good friend Eric Lee. I will be accompanied by my sister Silvia and there will be 16 of us in Eric’s group.

The book, entitled “The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution”, is about a short period of Georgian history (1918-1921) when the county was politically a social democracy before the Russians occupied the nation and imposed communism.

Present day Georgia obtained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 but has lost control over two secessionists areas Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is a little country, slightly smaller than Austria or Ireland, and less than half the size of the American state of Georgia. It is boarded by Russia to the north and by Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south. Is Georgia in Europe or in Asia? It competes in the Eurovision Song Contest but it has an Asian telephone code.

The population is only 5 million. Three of its most famous sons are Josef Stalin and Lavrenti Beria, two of the most barbarous architects of the Soviet Union, and Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet Foreign Minister and first President of independent Georgia. One of its most famous daughters is the singer Katie Melua.

It should be a fascinating, if short, trip.

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How much and what sort of television do you watch?

September 11th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Over the past 15 years, I’ve written a regular column on IT issues for a trade union and my latest piece (the 95th) looks at television viewing habits in the UK. Do you watch more or less television than the average Briton and do you watch the channels most popular with UK viewers in real time?

You can compare your viewing habits with the national picture by reading my column here.

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What are the links between climate change and all these devastating hurricanes?

September 10th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

“Climate change cannot be blamed for the hurricane count in any single season, nor for the occurrence of any single storm, but there are three ways in which it is making the consequences worse.

First, although the intensity of a hurricane depends on many factors, warmer seawater tends to promote stronger storms. Average sea surface temperatures have been rising, and some parts of the North Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico are warmer than average at the moment, which is a key reason why both Harvey and Irma became so strong so quickly.

Second, a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour, which can result in heavier rainfall. That is true not only for hurricanes but also for weaker storms across the world. Even relatively mild tropical storms can cause great damage by dropping huge volumes of rain over one area.

Third, apart from strong winds and heavy rainfall, hurricanes cause damage through storm surges as their winds push seawater ahead of them. Storm surges can inundate extensive low-lying coastal areas, sweeping away everything in their path. Sea levels have been gradually rising globally, making storm surges bigger and deadlier.”

This is an extract from an article in today’s “Observer” newspaper by Bob Ward who is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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A review of the recent Holocaust film “Denial”

September 9th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

When British history writer David Irving sued for libel the American historian and academic Deborah Lipstadt, because she had accused him of being a Holocaust denier, I assumed that he had no chance of winning and that, having been defeated in a court of law, the cause of Holocaust denial would be irredeemably damaged. I was wrong on both scores which is why, 17 years after the trial, it is so important that this big name film about the case has been made.

As the film makes clear, Irving’s defeat was far from certain because, in an English libel case, the defendant has to prove the veracity of the offending material and an important part of the price paid by the defence was that neither Lipstadt nor Holocaust survivors were called to testify so that Irving, who conducted his own case, could not exploit them. The film is released at a time when social media online and Trump in the White House are giving extraordinary prominence to falsehoods in an era which has been dubbed “post-truth”.

The Holocaust happened and, if this film helps to remind people of this incontrovertible fact, it will make a valuable contribution to evidence-based discourse. The main problem for such a cinematic work of less than two hours is that the case was so prolonged and complex. It ran for five years (2000-2005) and, when it came to trial, it went on for 32 days and ended with a judgement of 355 pages. A further problem is that the viewer always knows the outcome, which inevitably diminishes the tension of the narrative, although director Mick Jackson and writer David Hare do their best to build up a sense of uncertainty. So, as a film, this is never going to be a crowd-pleaser.

But it tells an important story about an issue of huge historical significance and it does it with a roster of fine British actors. Rachel Weisz (herself Jewish) is the feisty Lipstadt and Timothy Spalling is convincing in the unsympathetic role of Irving, while Tom Wilkinson is formidable barrister Richard Rampton and Andrew Scott is cerebral solicitor Anthony Julius. Some of my Jewish friends feel that the film is unfair to the British Jewish community, but a good deal of research went into this work and every word that Irving utters during the screen version of the trial is taken verbatim from the court records.

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A new vision for the British economy: the Interim Report of the IPPR Commission on Social Justice

September 8th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

This week, I attended the launch of the Interim Report of the Commission on Social Justice convened by the Left of Centre think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). At the event in London’s Church House, we heard especially from the Chair of the Commission, IPPR Director Tom Kibasi, and Director of the Commission, Michael Jacobs.

The Interim Report highlights four key findings supported by some fascinating data:

1) The British economy today is not generating rising prosperity for a majority of the population. Economic growth no longer leads to higher pay: the period from 2008 to 2021 will be the longest period of earnings stagnation for around 150 years. Young people today are poorer than previous generations at the same age. For too many people and parts of the country, the ‘economic promise’ of rising living standards has been broken.

2) The British economy suffers from deep structural problems. We have less a ‘British economic model’ than an ‘economic muddle’– a mixture of powerful strengths and profound weaknesses. Many of these problems go back a quarter of a century or more. Many are the product of deliberate policy choices. Together they have generated an economy in which too much power is concentrated in too few hands.

3) These structural problems argue for a new approach to economic policy. The case is made stronger by the challenges and opportunities confronting us as we enter the 2020s. Britain faces a ‘decade of disruption’, for which we are as yet largely unprepared as a result of Brexit, deeper globalisation, demographic change, technological change, and environmental degradation.

4) To respond to these challenges and opportunities of the future, and address the economy’s structural weaknesses inherited from the past, the economy will need fundamental reform. Reform of this kind has happened twice before in the last century, following similar periods of economic crisis. The established economic order broke down first after the Great Depression of the 1930s and then again after the oil shocks and ‘stagflation’ (simultaneous high unemployment and inflation) of the 1970s. In both cases, economic crisis led to a major shift in economic understanding, policies and institutions.

You can read a summary of the report and the full text here.

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Word of the day: synesthesia

September 7th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Synesthetic associations can occur in any combination and any number of senses or cognitive pathways.

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme-colour synesthesia, numbers are perceived as inherently coloured. In spatial-sequence or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, or days of the week elicit precise locations in space.

You can learn more about this condition here.

I recently came across the term while watching a fascinating television series about the brain described here.

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A review of the powerful new film “Detroit”

September 6th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

There are far too few female film directors and probably none as commercially and artistically successful as the American Kathryn Bigelow. Her two previous works, “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”, were both outstanding and showed men in uniform under pressure. “Detroit” has the same essential theme but, as the title makes clear, this time we are on Bigelow’s home territory of the United States. Indeed we are in the midst of actual events, the race riot which took place in one of the country’s major cities over five days in July 1967 when 43 were killed, 1,200 injured, 7,000 arrested, and 2,000 buildings burned down.

As the film unfolds, the focus constantly narrows, starting with a quick animated history of black migration in the USA, moving on to the rioting throughout the 12th Street area of Detroit, then closing in on the Algiers Motel, and finally remaining in real time in an annex to the motel where we find ourselves in a kind of horror show. This is a long film and the final segment jumps forward a couple of years, with glimpses of the court case where all the accused were acquitted, to conclude with short text advising the viewer on what happened to the chief characters in the incident.

If this is a cinematic tour de force by Bigelow, it is a tribute too to writer Mark Boal and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, both of whom she has worked with before. The inter-cutting of contemporary news footage and the use of hand-held cameras mean that the viewer is drawn into a seamless exposition that, from the beginning, induces anxiety and, during the interrogation sequence, is some of the most uncomfortable viewing outside of the horror movie genre. The acting is excellent across the piece, but the stand-out performances come from two British actors: John Boyega (“The Force Awakens”) as the black security guard caught up in the events and Will Poulter (“The Revenant”) as the white Detroit cop who orchestrates the whole macabre, and ultimately murderous, shake-down

I saw Bigelow interviewed about her latest movie on “The Daily Show” and it is clear that she regards “Detroit” as, not simply a 50th anniversary commemoration of a dark period of American history but, a call to today’s America to recognise that race is still a bitterly divisive feature of society that continues all too often to witness young black men being shot down by white policemen who are rarely called to account at a time when the current occupant of the White House is adding by word and deed to the already toxic atmosphere.

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The current state of religious belief in Britain

September 5th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

The latest data on religious belief in the UK comes from the 34th British Social Attitudes BSA) survey conducted by the National Centre for Social Research. It might surprise many non-Britons who think that the UK is still basically a religious nation and it might surprise some Britons who seem to think that the UK is going Muslim.

Some 53% now declare that they have no religion. Only 15% call themselves Anglican, while 9% are Catholic and a further 17% opt for the category of other Christian. This means that the majority of the population is non-religious and only 41% in total are Christian – so the UK can no longer be regarded as a Christian country.

Those who say that they belong to non-Christian religions are a mere 6%, so to view Britain as increasingly Islamic is a massively exaggerated and irrational fear.

I am a member of the 53%, but I have family and friends who are religious and respect their beliefs. So: does religion matter? It depends. There are problems with religion, as I have discussed in this short essay.

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Who have you heard of? Albert Einstein or David Hilbert?

September 4th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always known of the German-born physicist and humanitarian Albert Einstein but, until a few days ago, I’d never heard of the German mathematician David Hilbert. I came across Hilbert in the book I am currently reading: “Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey To Quantum Gravity” by the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli.

In his explanation of the origins of the theory of relativity, Rovelli presents the exposition of the theory as a race that could have gone either way: “The sprint to the finish between the two giants was a nail-biting affair, eventually decided by a matter of just a few days”.

Now, in the case of many scientific discoveries, there are rival claims to being first and/or questions about how far the discoverer used the work of others. In the case of the theory of relativity, you can see the discussion here.

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Climate change + urban development = massive flooding worldwide

September 3rd, 2017 by Roger Darlington

“Houston may have broken the US rainfall records, but lost in the dramatic worldwide coverage of Texas has been the plight of tens of millions of people across Asia and Africa who are also counting the human cost of equally intense storms in which months of rain has fallen in just a few hours.

One of the heaviest monsoons recorded in the past 30 years has swamped large parts of India and south-east Asia, affecting millions. Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Pakistan have all been hit and major cities such as Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Karachi and Dhaka have been paralysed as roads turn to rivers and waters flood villages.

The scale of the flood disasters in the US and south Asia has shocked governments worldwide and left aid agencies struggling. Around 1,200 people are known to have died so far in Asia, more than 40 million people have been affected and millions of hectares of crops have been destroyed.”

“So what is to blame for these severe weather events and some of the worst flooding ever seen? Climate scientists agree that extreme rainfall will increase as the world warms. Other researchers argue that poor urban infrastructure and the rapid, unchecked sprawl of cities on to marshlands and other places that usually absorb excess rainwater have led to flooding.”

“Flooding is already one of the world’s greatest causes of illness and death. According to the Dartmouth Flood Observatory, between 1985 and 2014 floods worldwide killed more than 500,000 people, displaced over 650 million people and caused damage in excess of $800bn. Between 2003 and 2008 large-scale floods that displaced at least 100,000 people occurred in more than 1,800 cities in 40 countries.”

These are extracts from an interesting article in today’s “Observer” newspaper

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