Commemorating the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela

July 18th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Nelson Mandela was born a year ago today on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mvezo in Umtata, then part of South Africa’s Cape Province. So today is a good time to remember this remarkable man and his wonderful achievements.

You can learn a lot more about Mandeal’s life from his excellent biography “Long Walk To Freedom” which I have reviewed here.

Mandela spent 17 years in jail on Robben Island and you can read about my visit to the island here.

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A review of the new movie “Sicario 2: Soldado”

July 17th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

In the taut and exciting original movie, the action began with FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), but slowly and inexorably shifted to Columbian ‘adviser” Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) who – with support from CIA black ops expert Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) – emerged as the ‘sicario’ (hitman) of the title. In this accomplished sequel. there is no Kate, Alejandro is front and centre, and Matt’s position is more conflicted than ever.

This time, the action does not centre on drugs but people smuggling, while the intention is still the same: to create a war between the Mexican cartels so that the Americans have some kind of cause to intervene in a most brutal fashion. The inclusion of a couple of young characters – neither virtuous but both with their own vulnerabilities – adds texture to the tale.

There is a different director (Stefano Sollima of “Gomorrah”) and cinematographer (Dariusz Wolski of “The Martian” but, with the aid of the original scriptwriter (Taylor Sheridan), the sequel has the same gritty feel as the original with bleak landscapes, lots of tension, and frequent bloody action. The only real reservation is an unexpected ending which clearly sets us up for a third film. If the third act builds successfuly on the two other films and if it is a finale rather than just another money-maker, the “Sicario” trilogy will have been a triumph.

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Perhaps we are alone in the universe after all – the outcome of the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation

July 15th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

So many science fiction books, films and television series involve other life forms – often lots of of them – but what are the scientific chances that we are, or we are not, alone in this huge (and expanding) universe? Two of the greatest thinkers on this subject have been the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and the American astrophysicist Frank Drake.

The first of these men posed what is known as the Fermi paradox which can be summarised as follows:

  • There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are similar to the Sun and many of these stars are billions of years older than the Solar system.
  • With high probability, some of these stars have Earth-like planets and, if the Earth is typical, some may have developed intelligent life.
  • Some of these civilisations may have developed interstellar travel, a step the Earth is investigating now.
  • Even at the slow pace of currently envisioned interstellar travel, the Milky Way galaxy could be completely traversed in a few million years.

And yet, as Fermi noted, there has been no convincing evidence of other life forms, leading him to ask: “Where is everybody?”

The second of our thinkers devised what is known as the Drake equation. This equation attempts to calculate the likelihood of life outside our planet using seven variables:

  1. The average rate of star formations in our galaxy,
  2. The fraction of formed stars that have planets,
  3. For stars that have planets, the average number of planets that can potentially support life,
  4. The fraction of those planets that actually develop life,
  5. The fraction of planets bearing life on which intelligent, civilised life, has developed,
  6. The fraction of these civilisations that have developed communications, i.e., technologies that release detectable signs into space, and
  7. The length of time over which such civilisations release detectable signals,

The first attempt to put figures into the Drake equation in 1961 resulted in the conclusion that there were probably between 1,000 and 100,000,000 civilisations in the Milky Way galaxy. But the most recent attempt to populate the variables in the equation in 2018 – by three philosophers at Oxford University – has come to a radically different conclusion.

If you want to read the Oxford paper of 19 pages, you can access it here. If you want to read a layperson’s summary, you can go here.

If you can’t be bothered to look at either analysis, I can tell you that the latest calculations suggest that, based upon the current state of astrobiological knowledge, there’s a 53 to 99.6 per cent chance we are the only civilisation in this galaxy and a 39 to 85 per cent chance we are the only one in the observable universe.

As an editorial in the “Guardian” newspaper put it:

“The Oxford paper shows that when you take these uncertainties into account and run hundreds of thousands of simulations exploring them, the probability that we are alone in our galaxy, and perhaps in the universe, rises to entirely reasonable levels. The Fermi paradox vanishes. There is quite probably no one out there to rescue or to care about us. What happens to our species is in our hands alone. We had better get on with it.”

My own view is that we are probably the only intelligent life in the universe because, if that were not the case, we should have detected radio waves from other civilisations by now. In any event, even if there is life out there, it is likely that the distances involved in communication would be so great that any meaningful interaction would be impossible.  So, it’s just us guys.

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A review of the recent film “Fences”

July 13th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

This is the film adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning 1983 stage play written by August Wilson who refused to have the work made for the big screen unless there was an African-American director helming it. It tells the poignant tale of Troy Maxson, a black waste collector in 1950s Pittsburgh who received no love from his own father and cannot find any for his own sons.

The challenge with any film of a play is to avoid the outcome being more of a play than a film. This danger is especially acute when the author of the play is also is the writer of the film’s script, when the two leading stars of the film – Denzel Washington as the truculent Troy and Viola Davis as his loyal wife Rose – are reprising their roles in a Broadway revival of the play, and when the main star (Washington) is also the producer and director for whom this was clearly a passion project.

So what we have here is a tour de force performance from Washingron and outstanding support from Davis (both received Academy Award nominations) in a work full of magnificent dialogue and scenes of considerable pathos, but the whole thing is just too reverential to the original play with too little movement and too many words for the different medium of cinema.

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The Royal Air Force’s 100th anniversary flypast

July 10th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

The wonderful flypast over Buckingham Palace at 1 pm today consisted of 100 aircraft of 23 types with nearly 200 aircrew from 25 different squadrons operating from 14 RAF stations and three civilian airfields. The highlight was a formation 22 Typhoons making out the number 100.

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What’s happening in Ethiopia? – and do you care?

July 10th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Two important books which I’ve read recently – “Enlightenment Now” [my review here] and “Factfulness” [my review here] – both make the fundamental point that most of the progress which is being made by humankind is not reported by the media  because it is gradual and undramatic and therefore unnewsworthy.  This is especially true of developments in Africa and Asia which seem to be of little interest to many people in Europe and America.

It appears to me that a good example of this is the advances being made in Ethiopia – a country you’ve never visited and you hardly ever read about.

I visited Ethiopia three years ago and the conclusion of my account noted:

“… for the tourist who wants something different and is prepared for some challenges, Ethiopia is a great destination. The exotic names of places we visited were themselves magical: Addis Ababa, Axum, Lalibela … But the history was so rich and fascinating, whether it was the skeleton of Lucy, the stelae of Axum, the rock churches of Lalibela, or the castles of Gondar and the terrain was awesome whether it was the mountains of the Simien National Park or the waters of Lake Tana. In fact, four of the locations we viewed are World Heritage Sites.”

In recent months, some significant political developments have been occurring in Ethiopia. As this article explains:

“Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, has accelerated a radical reform programme that is overturning politics in the vast, strategically significant African country.Since coming to power as prime minister in April, Abiy has electrified Ethiopia with his informal style, charisma and energy, earning comparisons to Nelson Mandela, Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev.

The 42-year-old – who took power following the surprise resignation of his predecessor, Haile Mmariam Dessalegn – has so far reshuffled his cabinet, fired a series of controversial and hitherto untouchable civil servants, reached out to hostile neighbours and rivals, lifted bans on websites and other media, freed thousands of political prisoners, ordered the partial privatisation of massive state-owned companies and ended a state of emergency imposed to quell widespread unrest.”

Ethiopia still has huge problems but there are reasons to be cheerful including a new accord between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

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A review of the independent film “The Butterfly Tree”

July 9th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I saw this very low budget film last weekend at the Oz Film Festival in London when it was followed by a Q & A with first-time Australian writer and director Priscilla Cameron.

It tells the tangled story of how widower Al (Ewen Leslie) and his emotionally damaged son Fin (Ed Oxenbould) are both attracted to the undoubted charms of Evelyn (Melissa george), a former burlesque dancer who now runs a local flower shop.

It is a colourful and inventive production. but rather quirky and somewhat unclear, and therefore the kind of film that would benefit from a second viewing – but you would really have to search it out even for a first viewing (worth it though).

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My review of “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling – or 10 reasons we’re wrong about the world

July 9th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I read this important book by Swedish professor of international health Hans Rosling shortly after reading “Enlightenment Now” by American professor of psychology Steven Pinker which was published just a few months earlier [my review here].

Both works essentially have the same message: if you look at the facts, on most measures humankind is making immense, sometimes spectactular, progress – but most people do not know or will not accept this. Whereas Pinker concentrates on the facts with a little analysis of the reasons for disbelief in quite a heavy work, Rosling offers fewer (but enough) facts and instead focusses on the “ten reasons we’re wrong about the world” in a lighter, more anecdotal and – frankly – somewhat repetitive treatment.

Another significant difference between to the two books is that Rosling – influenced by his work as a doctor – emphasises the progress made in Asia and Africa which are unappreciated by the western media and those who consumer it. He writes: “Over the past twenty years, the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty has halved” and asserts that “I consider this to be the most importtant change that has happened in the world in my lifetime”.

Rosling devotes a chapter each to the following issues to explain why we are so blind to incredibly important facts:

  1. The Gap Instinct: “that irrestistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups with an imagined gap”, such as the view that the globe in neatly divided into rich and poor nations with little appreciation of the spread of wealth between and within countries.
  2. The Negativity Instinct: “our tendency to notice the bad more than the good” because exceptional set-backs are more newsworthy than sustained but gradual progess, so we remember reports of murders or fatal accidents but underplay an increase in life expectancy from 31 years in 1800 to 72 years today.
  3. The Straight Line Instinct: the assumption that a straight line graph will continue into the future, making us think for example that the global population (now 7.7 billion) is irresistibly growing when convincing UN forecasts show a flattening of the population (at somwehere between 10-12 billion) by the end of the century.
  4. The Fear Instinct: the tendency to be afraid of risks that are in reality ever-diminishing, such as disasters which – measured as deaths per million people in 10-year averages – has slumped from 453 in the 1930s to 10 in 2010-2016.
  5. The Size Instinct: the habit of looking at “a lonely number” and getting things “out of proportion”, so that a terrible statistic like the number of babies who died worldwide in 2016 (4.2 million) needs to be be seen in the context of the toll the year before of 4.4 million and in the 1950s of 14.4 million.
  6. The Generalization Instinct: the prejudice to depend on stereotypes, instead of evidence, which means that we fail to appreciate that “the main factor that affects how people live is not their religion, their culture, or the country they live in, but their income”.
  7. The Destiny Instinct: “the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures” which, as a result. meant that “the fastest drop in babies per woman in world history went completely unreported in the free Western media” (this was in Iran where the figure is now only 1.6).)
  8. The Single Perspective Instinct: a “preference for single causes and single solutions” which can lead us to think for instance that the solution is always free markets, but the USA spends twice as much per capita on health care than other capitalist cointries while 39 other countries have a higher life expectancy.
  9. The Blame Instinct: a wish “to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened” when “to understand most of the world’s significant problems we have to look beyond a guilty individual and to the system”(he discusses the topical and controversial issue of refugees).
  10. The Urgency Instinct: the wish “to take immediate action in the face of a perceived danger” so for example, in the area of climate change, we need to avoid overstating particular risks and look hard at the actual data and consider what would be most effective.

Note: Hans Rosling died of pancreatic cancer in 2017, having devoted the last years of his life to writing “Factfulness”, and the book was completed by his son and daughter-in-law who were the co-founders with him of the Gapfinder Foundation.

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Is Britain’s National Health Service the best healthcare system in the world?

July 6th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

In the week that the NHS celebrated its 70th birthday, this is a good question to ask. On the one hand, the British are immensely proud of the NHS; on the other hand, there is a widespread view that the system is now underfunded and failing to deliver consistent service.

Some relevant facts and figures can be found in this article in the “Guardian” newspaper.

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Will there be Cabinet resignations at today’s crucial Chequers meeting? Perhaps not …

July 6th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Hard Brexit? Soft Brexit? Mish-mash Brexit? Who knows? But a special meeting of the Cabinet today at the Prime Minister’s country retreat of Chequers is supposed to provide some clarity. The trouble is that Cabinet ministers are totally divided on the best way forward.

The conclusion of a piece on the Chequers meeting in today’s “Guardian” newspaper points out:

“There has been speculation that the Chequers summit could could be marred by cabinet resignations. However, there are immediate reasons why this may not be an attractive option: any minister who quits on the spot would lose access to their ministerial car, meaning that they would have to walk several miles to the nearest train station.”

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