Is it time to control the tech giants?

November 14th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Five behemoths bestride the Internet world. They are Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (owners of Google), Facebook and Microsoft – all American-owned and all simply enormous.

Do you have any idea what these companies are worth? Do you realise the reach of their operations? Do you think that governments and regulators need to do more to control these giants?

These are the questions that I’ve addressed in the latest of my series of columns on IT  issues. You can read my short column here.

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Please don’t forget the suffering in eastern Ukraine

November 12th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

“In February it will be four years since Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, annexed Crimea and helped foment a rebellion in Ukraine’s industrial east. Since then about 10,000 people have died, including 3,000 civilians, and more than 1.7 million have been displaced. Aid agencies say that 4.4 million people have been directly affected by the continuing hostilities, while 3.8 million need urgent assistance. But the world has turned its gaze elsewhere.

The rise of Islamic State, and attendant atrocities in European cities, has seized centre stage in the preoccupations of the west. Moscow has focused on exerting influence in Syria’s bloody, endless civil war. The related migration wave sweeping southern Europe has generated a popular backlash that dominates the agenda of European politics.

Inexorably, the fate of the contested eastern rump of a former Soviet state has slipped down the order of priorities. In 2015, Kiev and Moscow signed the “Minsk agreement”, which stipulated a ceasefire and a special constitutional status for the rebel-held territories of the Donbass region, which would re-integrate into Ukraine and hold elections.

None of that has come into effect and the number of ceasefire violations runs into the thousands. And so a low-intensity conflict, squalid but deadly, has become the grinding everyday backdrop for a region that no longer sees a way out of its misery.”

This is an extract from an article in today’s Observer” newspaper.

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A review of the new version of “Murder On The Orient Express”

November 10th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

I saw the star-stunned 1974 film version of Agatha Christie’s famous 1934 novel, so I knew the outcome of the equally star-stunned 2017 remake, but I still found it an enjoyable ride through the snow. It has to be said that the plot is massively contrived and the whole thing sags somewhat in the middle, but the cast and direction make the work eminently watchable.

Heading the cast is Kenneth Branagh as the Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot and he is splendid in his clever deductions, while it is a special pleasure to see the return to the screen of Michelle Pfeiffer who is particularly good in a cast-list that also includes male stars Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe & Derek Jacobi and female talent such as Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley & Penélope Cruz. The director is Branagh who offers us a flashy production with lots of soaring camerawork and plenty of colour and noise.

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American elections provide major wins for Democrats and diversity

November 9th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Outside of the USA, the media focus on American elections is concentrated on the four-yearly event when Americans elect the president, the whole of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate. There is some media interest in what are called the ‘mid-term’ elections when every two years voters again elect the whole of the House of Representatives and a different third of the Senate.

But, of course, in a very large, federal nation like the United States, there are always elections going on somewhere, most of them at state and county level but some of them with implications for the federal government. This week has been one of those times. And it’s been an excellent week for Democrats fighting back after Trump’s  election to the White House a year ago and for diversity at a time when Trump and his allies are so bigoted and discriminatory.

Sone of the bigger victories are as follows:

  • In Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie by nearly nine percent, the biggest margin of victory for Democrats in the state’s governorship election in decades.
  • In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy crushed Republican Chris Christie with a 14 percentage point lead.
  • In New York City, incumbent Democrat mayor Bill de Blasio won re-election, taking 67% of the vote.
  • In Boston, again the Democratic mayor; Marty Walsh, was returned with a good majority.

Furthermore, the elections brought a substantial number of firsts and near-firsts for racial and religious minorities, for the LGBT community and for far-left progressives.

You can check out 10 such victories  here.

But Democrats did not win every contest on Tuesday night. For instance, a special election in Utah kept an open House of Representatives seat in Republican hands.

Meanwhile President Donald Trump, currently touring Asia, has a disapproval rating of 59%, the worst figure for any president at this point in his term since modern polling began and the worst mark for his term so far. Yet 81% of Republicans still approve of his performance.

So what happens now?

Democrats will be focused on the election to the House of Representatives in November 2018 and stand a reasonable chance of securing a majority – but there is a lot of hard work to do. As a consequence of gerrymandering, money in politics and voter suppression, Democrats will face plenty of challenges next year.

As far as the White House is concerned, I can’t see a ‘smoking gun’ appearing from investigations into the relationship between Trump and Russia and I can’t see a successful impeachment of Trump, but I could imagine him resigning either through scandal or frustration. The trouble is that he would be succeeded by Vice-President Mike Spence who is ideologically probably even worse than Trump. But at least we might have some basic competency in the Oval Office.

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Britain is no longer a Christian nation. Indeed more than half of the UK population has no religion.

November 8th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

According to the latest survey of religious belief among the British population conducted by British Social Attitudes, 53% of adults describe themselves as having no religion. In 1983, the figure was only 31% and the increase in the percentage is clear and consistent.

The percentage is closely correlated with age. Currently, among 18-24 years old, 71% have no religion. For those over 75, the figure is 27%.

Among those in Britain with a faith, Christianity is the main religion: 15% Anglican, 9% Catholic, and 17% other Christian – a total of 41%. So we cannot really say now that Britain is a Christian country.

You can find more information on this survey here and the full data sets here.

The data was published a few weeks ago, but I’m blogging about it now because today I was interviewed about the survey for a short piece for Czech radio. I welcomed the trends.

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Reasons to be cheerful: the seven megatrends that could beat global warming

November 8th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

… a series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-dollar investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just now hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.

“If we were seeing linear progress, I would say good, but we’re not going to make it in time,” says [Christiana] Figueres [the former UN climate chief ], now the convener of the Mission 2020 initiative, which warns that the world has only three years to get carbon emissions on a downward curve and on the way to beating global warming. “But the fact is we are seeing progress that is growing exponentially, and that is what gives me the most reason for hope.”

This is the opening to an encouraging feature in today’s “Guardian” newspaper. You can read about the seven megatrends here.

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Long overdue for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs to tighten up seriously on tax avoidance

November 8th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

The ‘Paradise Papers’ are just the latest in a long line of tax scandals. The system, which is rigged to benefit the privileged few at the expense of everyone else, is broken. The impact on our public services of these corrupt practices, protected by a veil of secrecy, has been devastating. After seven years of austerity, it is time for irresponsible tax dodging to come to an end.

HMRC, the government body tasked with policing the tax system, has seen its staff numbers and budget halved since it was formed in 2005. Meanwhile, the UK government has failed to take the opportunity to clean up the offshore system, in territories like Bermuda that are under its control, and make it harder for individuals and companies to avoid tax. It is little wonder that tax dodgers are taking advantage.

Tax Justice UK, the country’s leading campaign organisation for a fairer tax system, is now calling for the UK government to take decisive action to end the scourge of tax avoidance, once and for all, by tightening up on enforcement and introducing new transparency rules.

The Government needs to clamp down on tax avoidance in the UK by:

■ Increasing the resources available to HMRC to enforce UK tax legislation
■ Stopping the practice of granting amnesties to those who hide their money tax offshore
■ Abolishing ‘non-dom’ status
■ Tightening the regulation of accountants, lawyers and bankers
■ Introducing public registers of beneficial ownership for trusts as well as companies, and compelling the UK’s crown dependencies and overseas territories to do the same
■ Mandating public country-by-country reporting for all publicly quoted companies
■ Publicly reviewing tax breaks for corporates and wealthy individuals

A petition advocating these changes has been launched by the campaign organisation 38 Degrees. I’ve signed the petition. If you’d like to do so, you can do that here.

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A review of the new life-affirming film “Breathe”

November 7th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Breathing is the most natural thing on earth, right? But when British tea broker Robin Cavendish contracted polio in Kenya in 1958, he found that he was paralysed from the neck down and could not breathe without the constant support of a mechanical ventilator. This true story is told with Andrew Garfield as Robin and Claire Foy as his wife Diana, both of whom give fine performances of nuanced emotion.

Inevitably the film will be compared with “The Theory Of Everything” but it is no bad thing to be reminded that people with disabilities can achieve remarkable things. In Stephen Hawking’s case, he was still able to make great contributions to theoretical physics; in the instance of Robin Cavendish, he transformed the treatment of those with paralysis, both in the UK and much wider.

For first time director Andy Serkis, this is clearly a very personal project. His professional partner and producer on the film is Jonathan Cavendish, the son of Robin and Diana, while Serkis’s sister has multiple sclerosis. Serkis is known for his acclaimed acting in performance-capture roles, but the only major use of special effects here is to enable Tom Hollander to represent both of Diana’s identical twin brothers.

At the end especially, the heart strings are well and truly plucked, but it is gratifying to see such a well-made and life-affirming work on our screens.

Link: Wikipedia page on Robin Cavendish click here

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What are the Paradise Papers and what do they tell us?

November 6th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

What are the Paradise Papers?

The name refers to a leak of 13.4m files. Most of the documents – 6.8m – relate to a law firm and corporate services provider that operated together in 10 jurisdictions under the name Appleby. Last year, the “fiduciary” arm of the business was the subject of a management buyout and it is now called Estera.

There are also details from 19 corporate registries maintained by governments in secrecy jurisdictions – Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Labuan, Lebanon, Malta, the Marshall Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent, Samoa, Trinidad and Tobago, and Vanuatu.

The papers cover the period from 1950 to 2016.

What do the documents show?

The files show the offshore empire is bigger and more complicated than most people thought. And even companies such as Appleby, which prides itself on being a standard bearer in the field, have fallen foul of the regulators that try to police the industry.

The files set out the myriad ways in which companies and individuals can avoid tax using artificial structures. These schemes are legal if run correctly. But many appear not to be. And politicians around the world are beginning to ask whether they should be banned. Are they fair? Are they moral?

A fundamental question posed by the Paradise Papers is: has tax avoidance in all its guises gone too far?

These are extracts from a helpful question & answer summary of the current scandal as covered by today’s “Guardian” newspaper in nine full pages (but this is just the first day).

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How can you cope with Brexit, Trump, North Korea and all the crazy things happening in the world right now?

November 5th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

A feature in the colour supplement of this weekend’s “Guardian” newspaper concludes with five pieces of advice.

1 Look after yourself
“Self-care” has become a cliche, but while it is far from the panacea it is sometimes claimed to be, it is a crucial ingredient in staying sane. You may be surprised how frequently even the most dramatically apocalyptic thoughts and feelings turn out to be down to insufficient food or sleep. Meanwhile, plenty of research testifies to the enormous psychological benefits of even a small amount of time spent in nature.

2 Limit your exposure
The straightforward advice issued by the American Psychological Association during the US election campaign – “If the 24-hour news cycle is causing you stress, limit your media consumption” – still applies. Every news update trumpets its own importance, but it hardly follows that each one matters.

3 Stop fighting reality (or your feelings)
According to several schools of psychotherapy, a great deal of the unpleasantness we attribute to external events, or to our emotions, arises from resisting them. It is worth remembering that “anxiety and similar feelings are fairly appropriate reactions, normal responses, to completely abnormal things going on,” says therapist Paul Saks. There is no need to feel bad about feeling bad.

4 Take real-world action
“Solidarity is huge and being active really matters,” says therapist Emmy van Deurzen. Any actions you consider meaningful will start to replace feelings of helplessness – which are closely associated with depression – with a sense of agency. If possible, keep the emphasis on those involving direct interaction with other people, rather than online “slacktivism”.

5 Keep a sense of perspective
None of this means the end of the world. (Well, probably not – and not just yet.) “Keep in mind that there’s a longer game to be played,” Saks says. Especially in the current climate, news that seems monumental today may not seem very significant in a month or two, let alone a year or more. “Not to negate the fact that real harm is being done now, but we’re resilient and, in the long run, this will pass.”

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