Word of the day: biome

March 13th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

biome is a collection of plants and animals that have common characteristics for the environment they exist in. They can be found over a range of continents. Biomes are distinct biological communities that have formed in response to a shared physical climate. Biome is a broader term than habitat; any biome can comprise a variety of habitats.

I confess that I had never heard this word until today when I had my weekly video chat with my 10 year old granddaughter. She went back to school a week ago and this is one of the things she learned this week. How come a 10 year old knows more than a 72 year old? It’s called education.

Posted in Environment | Comments (0)

The meaning of life – according to Yuval Noah Harari (and me)

March 12th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

I’ve just finished reading “21 Lessons For The 21st Century” by the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari. The penultimate chapter – by far the longest – addresses perhaps the most important of existential questions: what is the meaning of life?

First, he addresses a popular story told for thousands of years which explains that “we are all part of an eternal cycle that encompasses and connects all beings”. He mentions two examples of this circle of life story: the Hindu epic the Bhagavad-Gita and the Disney epic “The Lion King”.

Next he looks at religions and ideologies that believe in “a linear cosmic drama which has a definite beginning, a not-too-long middle and a once-and-for-all ending”. Such religions include Christianity, Islam and Judaism and such ideologies include nationalism and communism. Harari rejects all such deterministic stories as lacking in evidence and failing to explain the world as we find it.

So he turns to other views on the meaning of life. There is the ‘leave something behind’ approach, the ‘something’ ideally being a soul or one’s personal essence. Again there is a paucity of supporting evidence. Another version of this story is leaving ‘something tangible’, either cultural (such as a poem or a book) or biological (such as children and grandchildren). Of course, many people do not achieve this, so can this really be the meaning of life?

He goes on to consider briefly other ideas such as providing kindness or finding romance. But he regards all such ideas too limited to represent genuine meaning. Indeed he concludes: “Any story is wrong, simply for being a story. The universe just does not work like a story”.

So Harari comes to the view that: “The meaning of life isn’t a ready-made product. There is no divine script and nothing outside me can give meaning to my life.” He is very attracted to Buddhism and explains that “According to the Buddha … life has no meaning and people don’t need to create any meaning”. He argues that “The big question facing humans isn’t ‘what is the meaning of life’ but rather ‘how do we get out of suffering?'”

And how do we do that? He is passionate about Vipassana meditation which involves observation of the present moment with concentration on breath and sensations throughout the body. So keen is he on such introspection that he meditates for two hours each day and each year takes a meditation retreat of a month or two.

So where do I stand on all this? I am sceptical of all metaphysical concepts and all deterministic philosophies. I choose to concentrate not on a release from suffering but on the acquisition of joy. Like Harari, I believe that life has no intrinsic meaning, but I do not accept that we don’t need to create a meaning and I find the notion of excessive meditation something of a retreat from reality.

In the absence of any intrinsic meaning of life, I believe that we can and should create our own meaning and live consistently by that vision. I choose to give my life meaning through creativity (constantly discovering, learning and sharing) and community (giving to family, friends and the global society).

Posted in Cultural issues, My life & thoughts | Comments (2)

Some (brief) personal views on THAT interview

March 9th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

In my 72 years, I’ve never met a member of the British Royal Family and have never had any wish to do so. I don’t read the tabloid press so I’ve missed most of the gossip around the various royal personages. I’ve not seen one episode of “The Crown”. But I did watch the interview by Oprah Winfrey of Meghan and Harry because I knew that it would attract massive worldwide comment and I wanted to have viewed the source material so that I could make up my own mind.

My politics are unashamedly left of centre. I believe that we should have a massive and sustained redistribution of power, wealth and income to create a more egalitarian, more meritocratic and fairer society. So, to place at the apex of our society a privileged and wealthy family who are in this position simply as a historical accident of birth, is against all my political principles.

In 1946, my mother in Naples voted in a referendum to abolish the Italian monarchy. If I had the same opportunity in Britain – which I very much doubt – I would vote for a republic, but I know that this is still very much a minority position in the British electorate.

That said, I welcomed the arrival of Meghan Markle in the British Royal Family. I thought that her Americanism, her ethnicity and her professional experience all represented a breath of fresh air. She showed eloquence and empathy that was sorely needed by this outdated and out-of-touch institution.

To be honest, I can’t get upset about a dispute over flower girl dresses at a wedding, but the blatant bias and constant hounding revealed in the newspaper headlines shown in the interview is shocking and the accusations of racism, indifference and sheer lack of support for someone who was suicidal seem, to me, to be all too credible.

More than anything, I feel a sense of tragedy about it all. Meghan – in some ways like Diana – was never going to ‘fit’ into the Royal Family. As she admitted, she was naive – incredibly so. It was always going to end in tears or much worse. Meghan and Harry are well out of it and I wish them and their new family well.

As Harry indicated, other members of his family are trapped. They are victims of history, the tabloids and ultimately of a British (and indeed worldwide) public who have impossible expectations of a family that is utterly dysfunctional.

If this interview modifies expectations and brings forward a little the abolition of this archaic institution, I will be quietly pleased.

Posted in American current affairs, British current affairs | Comments (4)

Always look on the bright side of life

March 8th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

Sometime ago, I wrote a rather tongue-in-cheek piece about “Why It’s Fun To Be In One’s Sixties Or Seventies In Britain”.

Today England started the 15-week process of lifting the restrictions imposed for the third lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic. The main change is the return to school of children.

This made me think about my earlier essay and if, in the light of the pandemic, I would still hold to the view that people of my age – I’m almost 73 – have had a lucky seven decades.

It’s a hard statistical fact that those over 70 have constituted the overwhelming majority of deaths from covid. BUT, if one managed to stay alive, we did not have to worry about losing our job or homeschooling the children and we were among the first in line for the vaccine.

Always look on the bright side of life.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Just how worried should we be by the threat of terrorism?

March 6th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

I am currently reading “21 Lessons For The 21st Century” by the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari. I am stunned by the breadth of his knowledge of different subjects, different nations and different periods of history.

In a chapter of terrorism, he asks us to keep threats to life in perspective:

“Since 11 September 2001, every year terrorists have killed about fifty people in the European Union, about ten people in the USA, about seven people in China and up to 25,000 people globally (mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria).

In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80,000 Europeans, 40,000 Americans, 270,000 Chinese and 1.25 million people altogether. Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people.”

He is surely right when he points out:

” … governments react to the theatre of terror with a show of security, orchestrating immense displays of force, such as the persecution of entire populations or the invasion of foreign countries. In most cases, this overreaction to terrorism imposes a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves.”

Posted in World current affairs | Comments (0)

How well do you know the flags of the world?

March 4th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

I am currently reading “21 Lessons For The 21st Century” by the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari. I am stunned by the breadth of his knowledge of different subjects, different nations and different periods of history.

In a chapter about how the world has become a global civilisation, he instances how flags of the world are so similar:

“National flags display the same dreary conformity. With a single exception, all flags are rectangular pieces of cloth marked by an extremely limited repertoire of colours, stripes and geometrical shapes. Nepal is the odd country out, with a flag consisting of two triangles …

The Indonesian flag consists of a red stripe above a white stripe. The Polish flag displays a white stripe above a red stripe. The flag of Monaco is identical to that of Indonesia.

A colour-blind person could hardly tell the difference between the flags of Belgium, Chad, Ivory Coast, France, Guinea, Ireland, Italy, Mali and Romania – they all have three vertical stripes of various colours.”

If you would like to check out these flags and others, you’ll find a complete set of illustrations of the world’s flags here.

Posted in World current affairs | Comments (1)

How important is touch – both in times of pandemic and beyond?

March 3rd, 2021 by Roger Darlington

When was the last time you touched someone you don’t live with? One day last March, probably; you’re not sure of the date. Did you shake hands with a new colleague at work? Did your coat brush against another commuter’s on the train? Did someone bump your elbow and mutter an apology when rushing past you on an escalator? If you’d known that was the last time you’d make contact with the body of a stranger, you’d have paid more attention

And what about the 8.2 million British adults who live on their own? Many will have gone nearly a year now without so much as a pat on the arm from another person. Touch is the sense we take most for granted, but we miss it when it’s gone. Psychologists have a term for the feelings of deprivation and abandonment we experience: “skin hunger”.

These are the opening paragraphs of a recent fascinating article in the “Guardian” newspaper. The article really spoke to me as someone who is very tactile (perhaps because my mother was Italian) and as someone who lives alone (so the pandemic has been tough in dramatically reducing opportunities for touch).

Posted in Cultural issues | Comments (0)

How large is the British House of Lords?

February 26th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

The House of Lords is the upper chamber in the British political system but the one with less authority. Its main roles are to revise legislation and keep a check on government by scrutinising its activities.

Since 1911, its power to block “money bills” is limited to one month and its power to block other bills is limited to one session, so ultimately it cannot block the will of the House of Commons. Furthermore, since 1945, there has been the Salisbury Convention that the House of Lords will not oppose a measure that was specifically mentioned in the last election manifesto of the political party forming the Government.

The House of Lords is an utterly bizarre institution that has no parallel anywhere in the democratic world. The explanation for the unusual nature of the Lords is that the British political system has evolved very slowly and peacefully and it is not totally logical or democratic. 

There is no fixed number of members in the House of Lords and the number fluctuates because of deaths, retirements and new appointments, but currently there are around 830 members – many more than in the House of Commons (650), more than the combined houses of the American Congress or the Indian Parliament (although both of these nations have a federal system), and the second biggest legislative body in the world (after the Chinese National People’s Congress which is effectively a rubber-stamping body).

The number was actually halved to 666 in the reforms of 1999 but, since then, succesive Prime Ministers (especially David Cameron and Boris Johnson) have been adding new life peers much faster than members are dying. Indeed the Coalition Government added over 100. Ironically the size of the House of Lords continues to rise at the same time as the House of Commons legislated to reduce its size (although that legislation has not been implemented).

You can find my guide to the British political system here.

Posted in British current affairs | Comments (0)

A review of “The War Of The Worlds” by H G Wells

February 25th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

In my teenage years, I read quite a lot of Wells and studied “The History Of Mr Polly” at school. However, while over the years I saw film and television versions and even listened to a musical interpretation of “The War Of The Worlds”, I was 72 before I eventually read the novel which was first published as long ago as 1897. I was prompted finally to read this classic work by a chance visit to Horsell Common in Surrey where, in the narrative, the first Martians landed (at the time he wrote the novel, Wells lived in nearby Woking).

From the opening words, the reader is gripped:“No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own”. From then on, we are introduced to the cylinders from Mars, the Martians themselves, their towering tripods, the Heat-Ray, the Black Smoke, and the Red Weed. There is a wonderful chapter, entitled ‘What We Saw From The Ruined House’ which provides graphic details of the Martian anatomy including the practice of taking blood from living creatures – preferably humans – and injecting it into their veins.

The imaginative and exhilerating story of this fateful month is told in the first person by an unnamed “professed and recognized writer on philosophical themes” (clearly a stand-in for Wells himself) and, at times, there are some existential musings in the text. I read the novel during the global pandemic occasioned by the coronavirus and it is a neat irony that – spoiler alert – the Martians were finally felled by Earth’s tiny and invisible bacteria.

Posted in Cultural issues | Comments (0)

How should we test for coronavirus?

February 24th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

There are two tests to determine whether someone has coronavirus (and one – a blood test – to establish whether someone has actually had the virus).

The first test for the virus is called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This involves swabbing the back of the throat and the nostrils. The swab has to be sent to a specialist lab that typically takes 24-48 hours to determine the result. The test has a high degree of accuracy.

The second test for the virus is called lateral flow device (LFD). This involves swabbing the nostrils only and gives a result on the spot in 30 minutes. It is reasonably accurate but certainly not as sound as a PCR test.

For various reasons – mainly because I am a volunteer with the National Health Service (NHS) – so far I have done four PCR tests and 21 lateral flow tests (all negative, thank goodness). My poor nostrils!

Now we have promising news from France about a test that can be done faster than the lateral flow one – just 10 minutes – but with the accuracy of the PCR one. You can learn more about this proposed new test here.

Posted in My life & thoughts, Science & technology | Comments (0)