Seven of the many things I learned from Joshua (aged 11)

November 26th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I spent last week in Oxford looking after 11 year old Joshua, the son of my close Chinese friends, while both his parents were in China on separate business trips. In the course of the week, Joshua and I had many discussions and I learned so much from this clever young man including the following:

  • One of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology was someone called Bellerophon – see here.
  • There is a town in Turkey called Batman – see here.
  • Three men have won the Victoria Cross twice – see here.
  • There is a song naming all the elements of the periodic table – see here.
  • A popular children’s novel is “Goodnight Mr Tom” – see here.
  • The smallest unit of measurement is the yocto – see here.
  • The word anatidaephobia means a fear of being observed by a duck – see here.

Posted in Miscellaneous, My life & thoughts | Comments (1)

Three things that I learned about art today

November 21st, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I spent three hours at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford today. Named after Elias Ashmolean, this is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology. It opened in 1683 and is Britain’s oldest public museum.

Each day, they have a lunchtime tour on one aspect of the museum’s collection and today I went on the tour concerning paintings of the Dutch golden age in the 16th century. I learned some new things:

  • There is a genre of paintings which is simply called genre and means ‘everyday life’. For instance, Dutch paintings showed people skating on a frozen canal or at home reading a letter.
  •  The expression ‘a millstone round the neck’ comes from the fashion in 16th century Netherlands for women to wear around their neck a large ruff known as a millstone. Such an item was not easy to paint.
  • Some paintings feature an object called memento mori (literally ‘remember death’) which is a reminder of our mortality. This might be a skull or bones.

Posted in Cultural issues | Comments (0)

A review of the new Coen brothers’ movie “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs”

November 20th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Over a period of 35 years of filmmaking, American brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are known for a succession of movies that are invariably quirky but always engaging. This 18th movie – where again they write, produce and direct – is a six-part love letter to the Hollywood western. Each tale evokes classic characters of the West: guitar-playing sharp shooter, unfortunate bank robber, travelling impressario and his strange act, lone gold prospector, members of a wagon train, and strangers on a stagecoach.

Each segment stands alone in that there are no common characters or themes besides the Old West itself, but the six stories are presented as chapters in a book, each with an opening illustration and a line of dialogue underneath. Perhaps inevitably the components are uneven in their engagement of the viewer with strangely the first (the titular ballad) and last (the stagecoach) being the oddest and the penultimate one – cowboys and indians, love and death on the wagon trail – being the most captivating.

The cinematography is often stunning and all the characters – so many of them gruff men in scraggy beards – are unfailingly wonderful to watch with some fine performances from a largely unknown cast (Liam Neeson – almost unrecognisable – is the only real star). Once again, the Coens have triumphed with their trademark mix of violence, humour and twists plus a deep love of the old movies and a willingness to subvert them.

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The regulation of Internet content – my 100th and last IT column

November 19th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

For the past 16 years, I have written a regular column on information technology for a trade union representing professional and managerial staff in telecommunications and broadcasting. Now that I am 70 and my portfolio career is coming to an end, I’ve decided to call a halt to this exercise and I have just submitted my 100th and last such column.

The subject is regulation of Internet content and I point out that:

“… over time, more and more worries have developed around the use of the Net. Individuals find that they are subject to harassment and fraud, companies are repeatedly hacked, governments face a form of cyber-warfare, and societies see a flood of fake news and attempts to undermine their democratic processes.

The tech giants still struggle to act quickly and effectively against illegal content, such as child abuse images or hate speech, and they seem confused about how to deal with harmful and offensive content, such as sexist, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic material.”

You can read the column here.

And you can access all my 100 IT columns here.

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The Democrats did better in the US mid-terms than was widely reported at the time

November 17th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

It is almost two weeks since the mid-term elections were held in the United States and we still do not have the full results. The day after the elections, it was widely reported that the Democrats had underperformed compared to expectations but, over the following days, the true picture emerged of more victories for the Dems than was apparent at first.

Americans who follow the news might appreciate this, but people outside the US could well have missed the evolving picture.

As the “Guardian” newspaper put it in this piece:

“As the returns poured in on the night of last week’s midterm elections, a narrative swiftly began to take shape: although Democrats succeeded in retaking the House of Representatives from Republican control, the vaunted “blue wave” had failed to materialize.

But just over a week later, the assessment has evolved just as rapidly amid a series of gains by Democrats in contests that on election night were too close to call. Democrats have now picked up 34 seats in the House – a tally that may inch closer to 40 with a number of results still outstanding.

On Tuesday, the party was given another reason to rejoice when Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat to win an Arizona Senate seat in 30 years. Sinema’s hard-fought victory over her Republican opponent, Martha McSally, not only flipped a reliably red seat blue, but also countered the notion that Democrats had taken a beating in the Senate.”

So why did the media at first fail to appreciate the strength of the Democrat performance?

As this posting on the Make Me Aware blog explains:

“Part of the reason was that the first results happened to come from areas where the Republicans had done better than average – Florida, Indiana and Kentucky. The areas where Democrats had done best reported their votes later, either because their voting hours were longer or because like Arizona and California they were in western time zones. This distorted the way the results were reported overnight.

Another reason for bad reporting is lack of understanding of the complexity of American electoral law and vote-counting. In some states many Democratic-voting groups (particularly young people) prefer to vote by mail quite late in the election, while Republicans turn out more in early voting and on the day (these patterns also vary between states).”

Posted in American current affairs | Comments (0)

The British Government has made “a political choice” to increase poverty

November 17th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world, but:

  • About 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty and 1.5 million are destitute, being unable to afford basic essentials.
  • Child poverty could rise by 7% between 2015 and 2022, possibly up to a rate of 40%.

Who says so?

Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who has just ended a two-week fact-finding mission to the UK.

He concludes his report:

“The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.”

You can read the full report here.

Posted in British current affairs | Comments (2)

Who signed the 1918 Armistice Agreement for Germany and what happened to him?

November 16th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

We have just commemorated the centenary of the ending of the First World War. We all know that, following an Armistice Agreement signed in a railway carriage in rural France, hostilities ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

But, until watching a BBC2 documentary entitled “WW1: The Final Hours”, I had not realised that the agreement was signed on behalf of Germany not by a military figure – as was the case for France and Britain – but by a civilian politician. His name was Matthias Erzberger. So, what happened to him? Wikipedia explains:

“The denunciations of the conservative and national liberal press went beyond the ordinary limits of party polemics: the Tägliche Rundschau observed, in allusion to Erzberger’s personal appearance, “he may be as round as a bullet, but he is not bullet-proof.” The climax of these attacks was that Erzberger was murdered on 26 August 1921 in Bad Griesbach, a spa in the Black Forest (Baden) while he was out for a walk.

Due to his signing the armistice of 1918, Erzberger was regarded as a traitor by many on the political right. Manfred von Killinger, a leading member of the Germanenorden, masterminded his killing by recruiting two members of the ultra-nationalist death squad Organisation Consul: Heinrich Tillessen and Heinrich Schulz. Both were former Navy officers and members of the disbanded Marinebrigade Ehrhardt.

Erzberger’s assassins were later smuggled into Hungary and were prosecuted only after World War II.”

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A review of the novel “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez

November 14th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Márquez was born in Colombia in 1927 and died in 2014. This work – perhaps his most famous – was published in 1967 and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. I finally read the work after visiting Colombia and reading his later novel “Love In The Time Of Cholera”.

It is not that easy a read and I know friends who have started it but not finished it. It is over 400 pages of long chapters with no titles and long paragraphs that often cover several pages. Also it is a densely-plotted novel with minimal dialogue and a good many characters, many of whom have the same or similar names.

But it is beautifully written with captivating imagery and deploys the magic realism style favoured by a number of Latin American authors.

As the title suggests, the timescale is an unusually long one. In fact, it is the story of the men and women – all of them unconventional if not actually mad – in seven generations of the Buendía family in the fictional town of Macondo in an unnamed South America country that is clearly the author’s own Colombia.

Márquez is a master storyteller with tale after tale. In this strange world, we have one character who fights 32 civil wars, while another lives for a century and a half, and many retreat into worlds closed by space or silence. The town suffers from insomnia sickness and then has five years of constant rain followed by 10 years of no rain.

There are flying carpets, lots of ghosts, and obsessive efforts to translate mysterious manuscripts. There is a lot of solitude and plenty of sex and many deaths – and ultimately nothing at all.

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It’s World Kindness Day – so try to be kind today … and always

November 13th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

World Kindness Day is observed internationally on 13 November each year. It was introduced in 1998 by the World Kindness Movement, a coalition of nations’ kindness NGOs. It is observed in many countries including Britain.

It is very easy to be cynical about such events, but the world really needs more kindness and sometimes as individuals we need a nudge or reminder to carry out small acts of kindness that can make a difference to the lives of others.

So think what you can do today and try each day to carry out at least one act of kindness.

You can find out more about how the day is being marked in the UK here.

To coincide with World Kindness Day, the Carnegie UK Trust publishes data from the first ever quantitative survey of experiences of kindness in communities and public services. The Ipsos MORI research, which is based on a survey of over 5,000 people conducted on behalf of theTrust, is part of a new report, Quantifying kindness, public engagement and place.

The report presents a reassuring picture about kindness in communities, but also reveals significant variation between the experiences in different jurisdictions and among different social groups.

Posted in Miscellaneous, Social policy | Comments (0)

Without a fair tax on tech, it could be the end of the state as we know it

November 12th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

This is the title of an interesting article by John Harris in today’s “Guardian” newspaper.

He highlights two connected questions:

“The first is obvious: what do we do about the corporations that are driving huge social and economic change, but have so far proved reluctant to pay anything approaching their fair share of tax? From that follows the second, even graver conundrum: if things stay as they are, what could happen to just about everything that depends on government funding?”

He points out:

“According to analysis by the financial services company Standard and Poor’s, between 2007 and 2015 the average effective rate of tax paid in the US by the country’s 500 highest-valued firms was put at 27%. By contrast, over the same period, Apple paid 17% of its US profits in tax, Alphabet (Google’s parent) paid 16%, Amazon paid 13%, and Facebook paid just 3.8 %. In 2017, Amazon’s US profits were more than $5.6bn, yet it paid almost no federal income taxes, partly thanks to “excess stock-based compensation deductions””

.His solution?

“The beginnings of an answer might lie in what economists call a unitary tax. In this model, firms would be obliged to give the tax authorities of any country in which they operate both a set of accounts for their global activities and information about their physical assets, workforce, sales and profits for the territory in question. Tax would then be decided using a formula based on these factors. Some state taxes in the US work on a comparable basis, and the European commission has made supportive noises about the concept.”

You can read the John Harris column here.

Posted in World current affairs | Comments (0)