What do you know about the Republic of Salo?

October 19th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

I’m currently reading a novel by Martin Cruz Smith titled “The Girl From Venice”. It is set in northern Italian at the end of the Second World War and some of the action takes place in Salo.

The relevant Wikipedia page opens as follows:

“The Italian Social Republic, informally known as the Republic of Salò, was a state with limited recognition that was created during the later part of World War II, existing from the beginning of German occupation of Italy in September 1943 until surrender of German troops in Italy in April 1945. The Italian Social Republic was the second and last incarnation of the Italian Fascist state and was led by Duce Benito Mussolini and his reformed anti-monarchist Republican Fascist Party which tried to modernise and revise fascist doctrine into a more moderate and sophisticated direction.

The state declared Rome its capital, but was de facto centered on Salò (hence its colloquial name), a small town on Lake Garda, near Brescia, where Mussolini and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were headquartered. The Italian Social Republic exercised nominal sovereignty in Northern and Central Italy, but was largely dependent on German troops to maintain control.”

If you’re interested in knowing more about the Republic of Salo, you can access the Wikipedia page here.

Posted in Cultural issues, History | Comments (0)


Albert Einstein vs Philipp Lenard: a clash of intellectual titans

October 18th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

I’ve been watching recordings of the 10-part National Geographic television series called “Genius” which is a fascinating presentation of the life of the brilliant scientist Albert Einstein. A theme of the series is just how human Einstein was in his problems with family, friends and colleagues.

Scientists may be incredibly intelligent but they can be subject to some very basic emotions. In the series, I’ve been particularly struck by the ferocious conflict between the two German Nobel Prize winners Philipp Lenard and Einstein. You can read a short piece on this controversy here.

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The great storm in south-east England in 1987

October 16th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Thirty years ago today, a great storm unexpectedly hit the south-east of England (coincidentally a similar storm is hitting Ireland today and Scotland tomorrow). I’ve kept a daily diary since I was 13 (I’m now 69) and I’ve looked up what I wrote for Friday, 16 October 1987:

“I was awakened about 4.30 am by the telephone ringing but, since I could not see without lenses and could not get any light to work, it stopped before I could reach my study wall. I could hear wind but the new double glazing cut out most of the noise and nothing special had been forecast by the weathermen.

However, when we woke up, we found that there was still a power failure – electricity was restored about 8 am – and the garden was littered with branches snapped off the trees in the spinney, one of them so large it had smashed a gap in the Harringtons’ new fence.

Two more pieces of felt from the dorma roof and all the guttering over the upper landing window had been pulled off. It turned out the the telephone call had been from Mari, frightened at being without Derek and losing some ridge tiles and a lot of fencing in the wind.

During the day, we learned the full measure of the freak storm. The London Weather Centre recorded a wind of 94 mph at 4 am and the storm was classed as the worst since 1703. At least 17 people have been killed and a third of the trees in Kew Gardens have been destroyed or damaged.”

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


A review of the new film “The Party”

October 15th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

This black comedy is a British oddity of a film in so many respects: written by a woman (Sally Potter), directed by a woman (the same Potter), as many female roles as male (actually one more out of seven), shot in black and white, located wholly on the ground floor of a London house, told in real time, and running for only 71 minutes.

Newly appointed (shadow) health minister Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) are hosting a small celebration of her success with an odd American/German couple April and Gottfried (Patricia Clarkson & Bruno Ganz), a mixed-age lesbian couple Martha and Jinny (Cherry Jones & Emily Mortimer), and a hyped-up husband Tom (Cillan Murphy) waiting for his wife to arrive.

All the performances by this starry cast are a delight, enhanced by a witty and twisting script, while the opening and closing scenes, so intertwined, are simply wonderful.

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If you fancy the idea of a story about a London dinner party but can’t get to see “The Party”, you might like to read my short story on this theme here.

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A fascinating course on the rise of social movements

October 14th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Today I attended a one-day course on social movements held at London’s City Lit college. Social movements have a long history around the world, but over the past few years we have seen a significant rise. The day provided an opportunity to hear about, explore and discuss some of the key ideas of contemporary social movements, with speakers focusing on the changing landscape of ‘people movements’.

The first speaker was Dr Christina Julios, Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Geography, Birkbeck, University of London; and City Lit Sociology. She spoke on contemporary social movements focused on ‘honour’-based violence including forced marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). She will explore initiatives by Diasporas in Western countries as well communities in developing nations.

The second speaker was Dr James Chiriyankandath, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and History/Politics tutor at City Lit. He spoke on the Arab Spring and its aftermath – exploring the people movements that started from the Arab Spring and the impact these have had in the North African and Middle East regions.

The third speaker was Zulfia Chynar-Satimbai who works with Amnesty International where she is currently responsible for supporting activist movement in countries in former Soviet space with no Amnesty’s presence. She spoke on her experience of working with activist groups in Central Asia – as a student activist, then aid/development agency employee then as member of an international human rights movement; exploring the multiple narratives about social movements and journeys of minority narratives towards change.

The fourth speaker was Dr Mark McQuinn, Convenor of the Aid and Development course on the MSc Development Studies course, Development Studies Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and a Politics tutor at City Lit. He spoke on civil society, informal associations and social movements related to trade unions and labour across the African continent, with particular emphasis on his research in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Tanzania.

It was a fascinating and often inspirational day.

Posted in World current affairs | Comments (0)


Assessing the risk factors for dementia

October 13th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Over the years, I’ve taken part in a number of health studies and trials. I like to contribute to the overall health of the nation and it does me no harm to be regularly checked across various health dimensions. I’ve now been invited to participate in a new trial to assess the risk factors associated with the onset of dementia.

The formal Protocol Title is as follows: Cognitive Health in Ageing Register: Investigational, Observational, and Trial studies in dementia research: Prospective Readiness cOhort Study (CHARIOT:PRO for short). Comparison of the ADCS-PACC and RBANS in Participants Asymptomatic at-risk for Alzheimer’s Dementia

For this substudy, the Neuroepidemiology and Ageing Research Unit (NEA) of Imperial College, London is inviting volunteers aged 60-85 years who are eligible and have no diagnosis of dementia. The substudy is planned to involve up to 500 people in 2 sites in London and Edinburgh, each followed up for 3.5 years.
This study involves lots of investigations, and so a high level of commitment is needed – usually 4 visits in the first 3 months, followed by one visit every 3 months thereafter. In order to take part, I must have a Study Partner, someone who knows me well and can accompany me to study visits approximately 4 times over the course of the 3.5 years. My sister has kindly agreed to be my Study Partner.

Why are they conducting the substudy?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive degenerative disorder of the brain and the most frequent cause of dementia. The study plans to measure cognition, biomarkers indicating a potential risk of dementia, and lifestyles of individuals whose cognition is presently intact, over a period of several years in order to gain a better insight into the factors influencing cognitive decline. They hope that this substudy will provide important information that will improve our understanding of the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease before overt symptoms are made apparent. This will help to identify opportunities for the right kind of effective intervention with the ultimate goal to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease. This substudy will:

  1. Measure cognition (thinking, memory and function) and worsening over time.
  2. Study genetic and other biologic risks of Alzheimer’s disease and worsening over time.
  3. Examine how lifestyle (such as education, diet and exercise) may affect the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
  4. Explore if physical activity and sleep quality may affect the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

As well as exploring how genetic and other biological information is associated with changes of mental function over time, this substudy will in particular attempt to identify the most sensitive tests of thinking and function in people who have high Beta-amyloid (amyloid) levels in their brains compared to an equal number of those who have lower levels of amyloid in their brains. Amyloid is a protein that forms dense plaques on the outside of brain cells. While most individuals, over the age of 60, have variable amounts of amyloid in their brains, research indicates that it may be one of several risk factors associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

It will be an interesting project …

Posted in My life & thoughts | Comments (0)


A review of the recent film “A United Kingdom”

October 12th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

This film is based on a fascinating story – both political and romantic – of which I was previously totally unaware. Tne kingdom in question is not Britain today but Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana) in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The unlikely romance was between the black lawyer who is a prince, Seretse Khama played so well by David Oyelowo, and the white, working-class Londoner, Ruth Williams ably portrayed by Rosamund Pike. Against all the odds, they defy opposition to their marriage from both the British colonial authorities and elements of Khama’s tribe led by his uncle who has been regent for so long.

The British establishment – both politicians (including Clement Atlee and Winston Churchill) and civil servants – come out of this narrative as much more concerned with collaborating with apartheid South Africa than with respecting the wishes and interests of the people of the Protectorate of Bechuanaland. But the end titles assure us that the marriage survived and the nation thrived, so this is an uplifting message of endurance and justice.

Much of the film is shot in glorious terrain in Bechuananland and the house occupied by Khama and his bride is the actual property where they lived. For some at least of the creators of this enjoyable work, the project was personal: the director Amma Asante (previously best-known for “Belle”) is both female and black (how often can you say that of a director?) and David Oyelowo is himself married to a white woman (who actually has a small acting role in the film).

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My congratulations to Nobel prize winner Richard Thaler

October 10th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

US economist Richard Thaler, one of the founding fathers of behavioural economics, has won this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics. Professor Thaler, of Chicago Booth business school, co-wrote the global best seller “Nudge”, which looked at how people make choices. To mark the award, I reproduce below my review of his seminal book.

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“Nudge” by Richard H Thaler & Cass R Sunstein (2008)

Like “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely (which I read first), this is a work essentially about behavioural economics from an American academic stable – Thaler is a Professor of Behavioural Science and Sunstein is a Professor of Jurisprudence, both at the University of Chicago – but it is a duller read than Ariely’s book, although it covers broader ground in being concerned with non-economic as well as marketplace decisions.

Thaler & Sunstein present their writing as about choice architecture which they describe as “organizing the context in which people make decisions”. The choice architecture which they advocate is what they call “libertarian paternalism”: the libertarian element derives from their stance that people should be free to do what they want and to opt out of undesirable arrangements if they wish, while the paternalism bit lies in their claim that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behaviour “in a way that will make choosers better off as judged by themselves”. The means of achieving this is what they characterise as a ‘nudge’ which is defined as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”.

What sort of ‘nudges’ do Thaler & Sunstein suggest? Options include simplification of choices, careful presentation of choices, provision of relevant and timely information, early and useful feedback, application of peer pressure, use of priming, application of default options, and use of incentives. The authors review the use of such ‘nudges’ in a whole variety of contexts including selection of a mortgage, use of a credit card, selecting a prescription drug scheme or a social security plan, choosing a pension plan and paying into it over its life, deciding how much to invest and where to do so, designing an organ donation programme, and even the privatisation (as they term it) of marriage.

In terms of when and where ‘nudges’ can be most useful and appropriate, they argue that ‘nudges’ are necessary when decisions are difficult and rare (such as chosing a mortgage or a pension arrangement), for which they do not obtain prompt feedback (such as diets and long-term investments), and when they have trouble translating aspects of the situation into terms that can be easily understood (such as the implications for the environment of consumption choices).

The main messages of this valuable work are that people do not make wholly rational choices based on what classical economics and traditional economists predict or politicians and policymakers expect, decisions can and should be shaped or influenced by a wide variety of ‘nudges’, and – since ‘nudges’ cannot be avoided – we should use choice architecture that is based on the principle of libertarian paternalism. It is a practical and pragmatic stance which should appeal to both conservatives and liberals.

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If you’re interested in how we take decisions, check out my essay on “How consumers and citizens make choices”.

Posted in Consumer matters, Social policy | Comments (0)


My weekend films: the rather different “Blade Runner 2049” and “The Lego Ninjago Movie”

October 9th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

“Blade Runner 2049”

You really need to have seen the original 1982 “Blade Runner” to appreciate this long-delayed sequel because the new film is not a self-contained story but – and all the more satisfying for being so – a clever development of the earlier narrative. For this, we must thank Hampton Fancher, the co-writer of both works. Fortunately I’ve seen and massively admired the classic first movie four times, including “The Director’s Cut”, which meant that I was familiar with the back story but anxious about how the new work would turn out. In minutes, my fears were dispelled because “2049” delivers just about all that fans could expect.

It is not just the plotting that is so consistent with the original movie. French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”), British cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Sicario”) and Canadian production designer Dennis Gassner (“Skyfall”) have created a visually stunning world with some awe-inspiring sets and sequences that resonate convincingly the dystopian Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s earlier work. Even the music, from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, while having having its own compelling character echoes the Vangelis soundtrack of old.

While in our world we’ve had to wait an astonishing 35 years for this second film, rather neatly in the cinematic world the action has moved forward three decades. The central blade runner this time is Officer K – Ryan Gosling in an ideal piece of casting – who is tasked with terminating replicants who have gone rogue and, unlike last time when it was merely hinted that Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was himself a replicant, we are clear that the runner is an android who, initially at least, understands exactly who he is and what he needs to do.

Although women have not been flocking to see “2049”, the film does have four fascinating female characters: K’s virtual girlfriend Joi (Cuban Ana de Armas), his boss Lieutenant Joshi (American Robin Wright), his intended nemesis Luv (Swiss Sylvia Hoeks), and dream-maker Dr. Ana Stelline (Swiss Carla Juri). And, of course, it’s no secret that Harrison Ford is back. Plus we have more musing on the nature of humanity and identity. What’s not to like?

One of the many other delights of the movie though is that it offers some surprises and concludes in a manner that sets us up nicely for a third segment. Hopefully this won’t take 35 years to arrive because I can’t imagine being around that long. Meanwhile I’m going to see “Blade Runner 2049” again because, although it is long (164 minutes) and often leisurely, it is so rich in visuals and narrative that it invites repeat viewing. If I have a reservation about the work, it is that it lacks some of the iconic action scenes of the original, but I can imagine a final part of the trilogy with more vigour and a “Spartacus”-like exposition subtitled “The Replicant Rebellion”.

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“The Lego Ninjago Movie”

“The Emoji Movie”, an attempt to emulate the success of “The Lego Movie”, was released just weeks before “The Lego Ninjago Movie”, the third construct in the popular plastic brick film franchise. “Emoji” was a disappointment, whereas “Ninjago” continues the winning formula of the Lego series.

Many children will already be familar with the Ninjago television series and, like “Power Rangers” (another recent film based on a television series), we have a set of heroes with their own colours and powers and, for those are unfamiliar with them, there is a quick exposition of the the six members of the Secret Ninjago Force. Like “The Lego Movie”, the story is neatly book-ended by some live action.

“Ninjago” does not have the originality of the first film in the franchise, but my 10 year old companion really enjoyed it and we can be sure that Lego characters will be back on the big screen sometime soon.

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Young people communicating less by post

October 9th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

A poll of 2,000 people finds 43% of millennials (those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) have never sent a handwritten letter, thank you card or parcel to someone they know. However, 80% are sad that these are not sent as much anymore, according to the research which was carried out for ipostparcels .

A research study for Citizens Advice found 45% of people aged 18-34 use post (letters, cards or packages) to contact others. In contrast, 67% of those aged 55-74 use post for personal communications. However despite these findings, recent Citizens Advice research confirms 98% of people aged 16-30 are using post offices for postal services.

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