Word of the day: voluptuary

April 13th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

I’ve recently started reading the novel “”Where My Heart Used To Beat” by Sebastian Faulks, the author best-known for his earlier work “Birdsong”. On the first page, the narrator states: “I supposed I’d say I was a voluptuary, someone who had seen it all …”

The word ‘voluptuary’ was new to me, so I looked it up. It is defined as “a person devoted to luxury and sensual pleasure”. Not me at all.

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At last, I get to see the stage version of “Les Miserables”

April 12th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Five years ago, I saw the film version of this famous musical [my review here]. It’s quite a complicated plot but there’s a good summary here.

Meanwhile the musical has been running in London for over 30 years, but only this week did I finally see it at the Queen’s Theatre. The storyline is quite dark and many of the sets were dark and bare, but the barricade sequence was particularly well done and the singing was excellent.

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An update on the United States Supreme Court

April 11th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

One of the most visited sections of my web site is my short guide to the American political system which you can read here.

Following President Trump’s successful appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, I’ve updated the section of my guide relating to the court and you can access that here.

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Remembering one of the most magical days of my life

April 10th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

I was saddened to read a report in today’s “Guardian” that explains that, following massive bleaching events in both 2016 and 2017, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is severely damaged along two-thirds of its length and has entered a “terminal stage”.

Four years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend a day at the Great Barrier Reef and snorkelling there was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. You can read my account here.

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How many films have you seen?

April 7th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Since childhood, I have been a massive movie fan and, since the age of 13, I’ve kept a diary which includes a record of every film that I’ve seen at the cinema, on rental, or on television (I’m a man – I like counting things!).

I’ve just reached the grand total of 2,500. With luck, I should live long enough to reach 3,000 before I go to that great cinema in the sky.

Since I created a web site in 1999, I’ve written and published online reviews of all the films that I’ve seen. You can access all these reviews – probably around 1,000  – here.

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36 once-popular names that have fallen very much out fashion

April 7th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Online resource BabyCentre has compiled a list of 36 once-popular names that are yet to be registered on its database in 2017. Of course, this is not a statistically accurate sample of the whole baby population in the UK, but it’s probably quite a good indication of some broad trends. These are the names that they believe have fallen out of favour:

  • Angela
  • Bertram
  • Beverley
  • Cecil
  • Carol
  • Clarence
  • Clive
  • Cyril
  • Debra
  • Diane
  • Donna
  • Dean
  • Doris
  • Dennis
  • Derek
  • Duncan
  • Elaine
  • Ernest
  • Geoffrey
  • Horace
  • Joanne
  • Leonard
  • Maureen
  • Malcolm
  • Nigel
  • Neville
  • Paula
  • Roy
  • Sally
  • Sandra
  • Sharon
  • Sheila
  • Tracey
  • Wendy
  • Yvonne
  • Wayne

I’m fascinated by naming practices around the world and you’ll find my essay on the subject – with lots of information on Britain and many other countries – here.

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A review of the science book “The Big Picture: On The Origins Of Life, Meaning And The Universe Itself” by Sean Carroll

April 6th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology and an award winner for writing science books. As the title suggests, this book is hugely ambitious with a vast and complicated subject matter. At 440 pages, it is probably longer than it needs to be and at points is a struggle to comprehend, but what makes the work so readable is the breaking of the material into 50 chapters, each of which is sub-divided into sections of a few pages at a time, plus Carroll’s clear exposition and, of course, the sheer fascination of the material itself.

The core message of the book is that there is something called “the core theory” which asserts that everything consists of particles (such as electrons, protons and neutrons) and forces (such as the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism) that arise out of fields (such as the Higgs field). He offers a very brief and very simple explanation of quantum mechanics that the core theory describes and predicts, while admitting that actually nobody really understands quantum mechanics. Carroll is clear that “there is only one world, the natural world, operating according to the laws of physics” and describes his position as “poetic naturalism” which asserts that “there is only one, unified, physical world, but many useful ways of talking about it”.

So existence, whether at the levels of the sub-atomic world, our human-size world, or the whole universe itself can be explained completely and only by physics. There is no need or case for any metaphysical or supernatural concepts such as God, life-force, soul, spirits, afterlife, miracles, magic, physic powers and the like. He accepts that there is still a great deal we do not know, but argues that we can only achieve knowledge through science. Those who argue otherwise have to provide evidence for the existence of metaphysical concepts and crucially explain how the metaphysical impacts the physical and can contradict the laws of physics with forces or processes that cannot be detected.

As far as the origin of the universe is concerned, Carroll conventionally subscribes totally to the Big Bang model, “an extraordinarily successful theory of the evolution of the observable universe”, but distinguishes this from the Big Bang itself, which he tells us is “a hypothetical moment that we know almost nothing about”. He explains that the Big Bang is “a moment in time, not a location in space” and underlines that “the Big Bang doesn’t actually mark the beginning of the universe; it marks the end of our theorectical understanding”. Eventually he concludes: “What is the world really? It is a quantum wave function. At least until a better theory comes along”.

As far as the origin of life is concerned, Carroll admits that we do not know how life on Earth originated and how life outside Earth might originate. There are all sorts of theories, taking the cell as the basic unit of life and hypothesising about metabolism-first or replication-first processes. He is convinced that “There is no reason to think that we won’t be able to figure out how life started”. Meanwhile the truth is that we do not have a single agreed-upon definition that clearly seperates things that are ‘alive’ from things that are not. NASA has a working definition but it may be that, in the future, we find something beyond Earth yet cannot be sure whether it constitutes life or not. He quotes one Nobel laureate as defining life as “nothing but a free electron looking for a place to rest”.

As far as the origin of meaning is concerned, Carroll is clear than meaning cannot come from God (because there is no supreme being in a purely physical universe) and cannot come from the universe (because this simply runs according to impersonal underlying laws), so “it’s up to you, me, and every other person to create meaning and purpose for ourselves”. He quotes one geochemist as suggesting that “the purpose of life is to hydrogenerate carbon dioxide” but, more usefully, in a concluding chapter entitled “Existential Therapy”, he offers “Ten Considerations” which includes the advice: “Whenever we ask ourselves whether something matters, the answer has to be found in whether it matters to some person or persons. We take the word and we attach value to it, an achievement of which we can be justly proud.”

So, in short, this is a challenging, but ultimately liberating, read. It underlines how much we know and how much more we do not know about our universe and how responsibility for understanding it and living a moral life in it are matters for us as humans and cannot be found in any supernatural or metaphysical externality.

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A short history of the Easter egg

April 5th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

In the midst of the ridiculous row over whether the National Trust’s “Great British Egg Hunt” has neglected the religious significance of Easter, in this article the “Guardian” newspaper offers a potted history of the Easter egg as follows:

“Eggs at Easter are thought to have their origins in pagan rather Christian traditions. Now the consumption of chocolate is indelibly associated with Easter, and has become an industry worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

Pagan festivals to celebrate the start of spring incorporated eggs as a symbol of fertility and new life.

Eggs became important in Christian festivities when the church forbade their consumption during Lent. People began to decorate them, perhaps as symbols of the resurrection, to be eaten after the fast.

Later, eggs made from cardboard and covered in satin were filled with small gifts and sweets.

The first solid chocolate eggs appeared in the 19th century in France and Germany, with Britain following suit. It took confectioners many decades to perfect the production of hollow chocolate eggs. The first creme eggs were sold in the 1920s.

Easter egg hunts have grown in popularity. Some 350,000 people are expected to take part in egg hunts at National Trust sites this year.”

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A review of the new sci-fi movie “Ghost In The Shell”

April 4th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Beginning in 1989, there was a Japanese manga serial by Masamune Shirow. Then in 1995 there was a Japanese anime movie by Mamoru Oshii, said to be one of the best ever in this genre. Now we have a Hollywood remake directed by the British Rupert Sanders.

I have no familiarity with the original series or anime work, but I understand that this new film is more conventional but also more accessible – dialing down the philosophical considerations but turning up the action sequences. Certainly this is a visually stunning work which constantly reminds one of “Blade Runner” with its Asiatic urban landscape and ubiquitous advertising.

Set in the not too distant future, the technology has developed which enables a human brain (the ghost) to be implanted into a robotic body (the shell) providing a combination of intuitive thinking and physical toughness that makes the ideal weapon. Major – played by Scarlett Johansson – is the first of her kind, but she is soon involved in a mission of unexpected danger and revelation.

If we have to have a non-Asiatic actor in this role, Johannsen is perfect, following hard on the heels of her previous other-worldly roles in “Lucy” and “Under The Skin” plus – voice only – “Her”. As the sexiest cyborg since Eva in “Ex Machina” and the most gymnastic female agent since Trinity in “The Matrix”, Major is a force to be reckoned with, but also someone with vulnerabilities as glitches reveal glimpses of her past.

“Ghost In The Shell” may not be a science-fiction classic, like the aforementioned “Blade Runner” or “The Matrix”, but it is a fine addition to the genre which I thoroughly enjoyed. And it’s tempted me to seek out the anime version …

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Who will speak for liberal Britain?

April 3rd, 2017 by Roger Darlington

“In the film adaptation of James Ellroy’s LA Confidential, Officer White (Russell Crowe) makes a home visit to an elderly woman whose daughter is missing. There’s an unpleasant smell coming from the basement. “A rat died behind a wall,” the woman, who is called Mrs Lefferts, says. Crowe investigates and discovers a decomposed body hidden under some sacks. “Was it a rat?” Mrs Lefferts asks. “A big one,” Crowe says. It’s as if the woman had grown used to the smell and could tolerate it as one tolerates changes in the weather.

It is something like this now with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The electorate can smell that something is seriously wrong and is recoiling, but those closest to the triumvirate of the leader, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott seem oblivious to or unconcerned by the stench of failure. Meanwhile, as a consequence of Brexit, the fractures in the Union widen and deepen, yet Labour abandons all pretence at competent and unified opposition. And so the question remains: who will speak for liberal Britain?”

These are the concluding paragraphs of an article in the “New Statesman” by Jason Cowley. Sadly, I believe that the analysis – though brutal – is fair.

As a lifelong member of the British Labour Party, I despair at the weakness of the Opposition in the House of Commons and the slump in polling support in the country.

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