Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Friday October 24 2014

A few days ago, my beloved Panasonic Lumix FZ150 started misbehaving.  An immobile black blob, the same blob every time, started inserting itself into all the pictures.  Disaster.  I shook the camera to see if it might be a superficial problem like a bit of gunk which further shaking might move to a harmless spot, but the black blob never moved, not by one pixel.  I am sure this could be mended, but I didn’t have time for that, because last night I was about to attend that Libertarian Home cost of living debate, for free, on the clear understanding that I would take lots of photos.

Besides which, I hate not having a camera on me at all times.  Who knows what unimortalisable dramas I might have to endure while being bereft of the ability to photograph them?

So, I immediately went out and bought another camera, from a shop.  I chose the FZ150’s smarter younger brother, the Panasonic Lumix FZ200.  This camera was a bit costly, yes, but, having been around for a while, not as costly as it might have been.  And, it works better than the FZ150 in low light, or so everyone who cares has been saying.  At indoor meetings, for instance.

I had hoped that the FZ200, being so very similar to and merely a bit better than the FZ150, would use an identical battery, which would mean that I would then have two spare batteries for the FZ200, in addition to the one it came with, on account of me having bought a spare for the FZ150 when I bought that.  Alas, not.  The FZ200 has its own somewhat different battery, and that meant I needed yet another spare battery.  Now that SD card space is infinite, it is batteries that are now liable to run out, what with all the snaps you can now put on your infinite SD card.  One battery, for a big event or expedition, is not now enough.

So, I ordered an FZ200 battery via Amazon, and paid extra for it to arrive yesterday, instead of just whenever.

And it did arrive yesterday.  Once again, just as happened with that book that reached me the day before yesterday, the fundamentally important thing got done.  I wanted the book and I got it.  I wanted a new back-up battery, pronto, and I got it.  Good.

An email arrived first thing yesterday morning, saying that the battery would arrive between 11.54 and 12.54, and that I should be in at that time, to sign for the package when I received it.  Excellent. This email was identical in format to the ones telling me about how Macmillan Distribution (MDL) would be delivering the book that they had been promising, but I recognised the email about the battery as genuine, because it had lots of Amazon verbiage at the top of a sort that always signifies genuine Amazon business.  Again, good.  I was all set to write an admiring blog posting about this latest delivery service, the one that delivered the battery, an enterprise called DPD.

Saying when a delivery will be made, to the nearest hour, is a huge step forward, when the receiver is householder in a household rather than an office worker in an office.  An office can have someone present throughout any given day, to receive incoming items and generally communicate with the outside world on behalf of all workers based there, present or absent.  But the idea that a householder should be expected to wait around all day just to sign for one incoming delivery is, frankly, contemptible.  As soon as a delivery person knows approximately when he’ll be arriving, and the chances are he will know this first thing in the morning, that information should be communicated to the householder.  This used not to happen, but with these two delivery enterprises, it did.  As I say, this is a big step in the right direction.

In both of these cases I did get this message.  The book was promised between 8.30 and 9.30, and it arrived then, by which time I just about believed that the book emails were genuine.  This battery was promised between 11.54 and 12.54, and it arrived then, just as I expected it to.

But all this fuss and palaver about timing becomes rather superfluous if all that the delivery person actually does when he arrives is leave the thing, unsigned for, in whatever place near to the householder he considers sufficiently near.  The whole point, as insisted upon in both emails about this, of stating a specified time of arrival, is to make sure that I, the householder, was present in person, to sign for the thing.  But in neither of these two cases was my presence, as it turned out, actually required.  My buzzer, the one outside the front door of all the flats where my flat is, is working fine.  I checked, using a visiting friend to hear it when I myself went downstairs and buzzed.  Yet neither of these two delivery persons deigned to use this buzzer.  They knew the number.  The book deliverer even found his way right to my own personal door.  But, no buzzing.

Let me spell it out.  Both delivery companies told me I had to be there during the hours they each specified.  Failure by me to sign would mean no delivery and further palaver while re-delivery was negotiated.  These proclamations may have been offered in good faith, but they were false.  I did not have to be there.

I got what I wanted.  But if the original supplier wanted proof that I had received the items in the form of my signature, then DPD and MDL, in the form of the two delivery persons, would be unable to supply this proof without faking it.  Were my signatures forged on little electronic devices, I wonder?

In the case of the DPD person, the person who did not even try to get my signature had, according to the DPD email, a name: “Mark”.  I had been anticipating something better from “Mark”. Sadly, not.

The basic problem here, I think, is that the service supply chain is too long and is out of control.  Suppliers of products promise in all sincerity that products will be delivered in exactly the manner they promise.  But the person they are depending on to keep that promise doesn’t care about that promise, or not about all of it.  He knows that, so long as the punter gets his hands on his precious thing, then whether any signing happens is, as far as the punter is concerned, a secondary matter.  Being commanded to be somewhere you didn’t actually need to be is annoying, yes, and this is what happened to me, twice.  But not getting the thing is something else again.  Had one of these items (especially the battery) not arrived when stated, then you can be sure that I would have been complaining.  But complaining as in trying to get my hands on the damn battery, not complaining as in just marking the whole scenario out of ten, after my basic problem (getting the battery) had been entirely solved.

By the way, when I enabled the graphic decoration of one of the Macmillan Deliveries (MDL) emails, the email then proceeded show me a picture of a DPD van.  Either Macmillan are all mixed up with DPD, or else Macmillan stole the DPD email and neglected to expunge DPD from it.  Or something.  I really do not care.

But that’s typical.  Who the hell was I dealing with here?  Who, in the event that either of these items had not turned up at all, would I have had to direct my seriously angry complaints?  As opposed to these mere grumbles about a basically satisfactory state of affairs, underneath all the crap.

When you have a major complaint to aim at one of these complicated supply chains, then you could well be screwed.  It may take you many hours or even days to find out even who to complain to, let alone how to gouge satisfaction out of them.  (Although, to be fair to Amazon, they take responsibility for everything that they do or that anyone unleashed via them does, for and to you, which is all part of why I bought that battery through Amazon rather than by some other cheaper but less dependable means.  (The previous sentence is a short explanation of why Amazon now rules the world.))

But (and to get back to my point before all the brackets), when it comes to lesser complaints, complaints about blemishes on a system that basically works pretty well, well, this is why blogs were invented.  With a blog posting, you can slag off the entire universe.  You don’t have to be bothered with which exact bit of the universe it was that did you wrong.  You can just tell your story.  Then, instead of you begging the universe to correct things, the universe, if any of it cares, has to convince you that there was no problem and to convince you to stop saying it.

In case you are wondering why I have gone on at such length about a basically rather minor problem, the answer is that I am optimistic about problems like this actually being solved.  A business often does a basically good thing, but rather crappily, while they struggle to get it totally organised and running totally smoothly.  People buy whatever it is, but sneer at the crap, because it is crappy and because they can.  The businesses then hears all the sneering and gets it sorted and gets even better.  Compare and contrast: the government.

This is a point I have made here before.  Follow that link, as you now don’t need to, and you will read me deriding a plan to refer to a Big London Thing as the “Safesforce Tower”.  Salesforce is a perfectly decent business, which does whatever it does.  But it had a silly plan to change the name of a Big London Thing from something sensible to something very stupid.  And guess what, what with all the complaints about this plan from me and from multitudes of others, that ridiculous circumstance has now been corrected.  Not in the way I would have liked.  Salesforce has still not been shamed into civility.  But nearby politicians have forced civility down Salesforce’s throat.  And the Heron Tower will not now be officially called the “Salesforce Tower”.

Although, London being London, this tower might now actually be called the Salesforce Tower, unofficially, in perpetuity, as a joke, given that no other joke name now obviously suggests itself for this rather ungainly erection.

By the way, it turned out that one battery sufficed for last night’s meeting.  But, I did not know that this would be the case beforehand, and had I only had one battery I would not have felt free to take as many photographs as I did feel free to take.  With public meetings, it’s a numbers game.  The light is bad and people are constantly moving about, so half your pictures will be rubbish right off, if only because someone was blinking at the time.  The trick is for the other half of your pictures still to be a large enough collection for you to be able to pick out a few truly good ones.  So, the spare battery was useful, even if I didn’t make any actual physical use of it.

I realise that very few readers indeed will have read right to the end of this ridiculously long-winded and repetitious posting.  But, having written it and having posted it, I feel better.

Thursday October 23 2014

Earlier this evening, I attended this gathering.  I took a ton of photos, of which I choose this one to show you:

image

I choose that photo not because it is any great shakes as a photo, but because it focuses (insofar as it does focus) on what was in many ways the most impressive thing about this event, namely the number and quality of those who attended.  In this respect, the evening reminded me of those big Liberty League gatherings that happen earlier in the year. Simon Gibbs and his helpers put in a huge effort to make this occasion work well, and to get a decent turnout of intelligent, paying customers.

Don’t get me wrong, the speakers were numerous and articulate, and all admirably concise, which was necessary given how many of them there were.  A lot of ground was covered.  A lot of food for thought was served up.  If there was a big winner issue, so to speak, that best explains how much harder it has recently got to make ends meet, it was probably the cost of housing.  There was general agreement that planning regulations need to be relaxed, although also general pessimism about the politics of accomplishing that.  Also making a strong showing were energy costs, and the heavy and rising taxes on petrol and drink and tobacco.

But you can have all the speakers up front that you like.  If enough aren’t there to listen, then your event falls very flat.  This one was the opposite of that.

Wednesday October 22 2014

Did the junk mail phenomenon always exist?  Or is it relatively new?  What I have in mind is the way that an entire category of communication becomes broken because it is overused by semi or total crooks shouting rubbish at you, thus overwhelming the actual human persons sending you individually useful messages.  Even real messages just sound like arseholes yelling at you.  The signal-to-noise ratio becomes so stupid that eventually, no genuine signals get through.

A few days ago, I received an email from something called Macmillan Distribution (MDL).  A package was due.  There were various buttons for me to press so that I could track the package, or tell them where else to deliver it, or some such thing.  I immediately assumed that this was an industrialised garbage message, the purpose of which was for me to tell crooks about myself by pressing one of the buttons.  Having received many junk messages just like this in the recent past, I assumed that this one was similarly fraudulent.

I noted that they had my name and address, and this might have supplied me with the clue that this was actually a genuine message about a genuine delivery, from a genuine enterprise, with buttons for me to press which actually did what they said they would do.  But instead, I merely thought: oh dear, now the international conglomeration of bastard junk emailer fraudsters knows my name and address.  Oh well, more crap to delete.

But this morning, the package actually arrived, at a time that the emails had been referring to.  The emails from Macmillan Distribution (MDL) (there were three emails in total) had all been genuine.  It was a book that I had already paid for and wanted to read.  So, good.

The actual delivery was a mess.  Some arsehole just smacked the door of my flat (sounding like when the cleaners vacuum the landings and bang their machines into our doors), and then just stuffed the package through my mail flap (which very luckily was big enough).  No electronic buzzing from outside and downstairs, to get my attention while I slumbered, like a proper delivery.  And how the hell did this arsehole contrive to get through the downstairs front door in the first place?  (We’ve had robberies from people claiming to be delivering things, but actually hoovering up the deliveries of others from our (unlocked and wide open) cubby holes.) So, very unsatisfactory, as home deliveries so often are.  But, the thing itself did arrive, which means the delivery scored one out of one on the one measure that really counts.

And, as I say, those emails were all for real.

No doubt there are various twenty first century, social media like methods that I could have used to track this parcel and its delivery, methods which screen out junk and preserve a benign signal-to-noise ratio.  Maybe, any decade now, I will have to get with the twenty first century and dump email completely.

I vividly recall when having email first became a necessity, when you suddenly started getting dirty looks at parties if you didn’t have it.  And when fax numbers ceased mattering.  (Remember those?)

As of now, regular twenty first century people half my age still seem to do email, or so it says on those little cards they give me.  But how long will this last?

More about package delivering from 6k, here.  “Wumdrop” sounds sort of like Uber, only for things.

Tuesday October 21 2014

There I was, lying in the bath, listening to Radio 3.  Some music had ended, and I was now being subjected to a programme which I do not usually listen to, called Words and Music.  And I heard the actor Jim Broadbent saying these words, by Michel de Montaigne:

I take the first subject that chance offers.  They are all equally good to me.  And I never plan to develop them completely.  For I do not see the whole of anything.  (Nor do those who promise to show it to us.) Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone.  I give it a stab, not as wide, but as deep as I know how.  And most often, I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view. Scattering a word here, there another, samples separated from their context, dispersed, without a plan and without a promise, I am not bound to make something of them, or to adhere to them myself, without varying when I please, and giving myself up to doubt and uncertainty, and my ruling quality, which is ignorance.

Sounds like a blogger, doesn’t he?  A blogger, that is to say, like me. Especially where he says “without a promise”.  I keep saying that. Above all there is that “this is what it is and if you don’t like it you know just what you can do about it” vibe that so many bloggers give off.  With Montaigne, we are arriving at that first moment in history when writing and publishing new stuff had become easy.  Not as easy as it is when you blog, but a whole lot easier than it had been.

I transcribed the above quote from Broadbent’s reading of it.  The punctuation is somewhat uncertain, and at one point assertively creative on my part.  I added some brackets, around what is clearly a diversion from his main line of thought to which he immediately returns.  It’s a sideswipe at others and it is then forgotten.

Such is the wonder that is the internet that I had little difficulty in tracking down the quote.  It is near the beginning of Montaigne’s essay entitled “Of Democritus and Heraclitus”, in volume three of his essays.

image

The BBC used a more recent translation, which I much prefer the sound of, it being less antique and long-winded.  And if Montaigne himself was also antique and long-winded, then I still prefer intelligibility to stylistic accuracy.

LATER: More about Montaigne, also emphasising the modern social media angle, here.

Monday October 20 2014

I sympathise with whoever wrote this:

West Brom can hardly believe their luck. Being denied a win at the death by Manchester United is one thing, but having teased a previously woeful Marouane Fellaini back to life must really does takes the biscuit.

“Must really does takes the biscuit.” I reckon he was choosing between, not two, but three different ways of saying what he was saying, but managed to combine all three.

This is the kind of mistake that can only happen with a computer.  If you were merely writing, or typing with an old school typewriter, there is no way you would have put that.

When I perpetrate something like that, and I frequently do, and if I later spot the mistake, I then allow myself to correct it, no matter how long ago I made the mistake.  Is this wrong?  My blog, my rules.

A subsection of Sod’s Law states that whenever you mention someone else’s mistake in something you say on the www, you will make a similar sort of error yourself.  If I do this in this posting, I will not correct my error, but will add something “LATER”, in which I identify my error.

Computers.  New ways to screw things up.

I attended a talk this evening at Christian Michel’s about robots.  The point was made the robot cars probably will be safer, but every once in a Blue Moon, there will be a truly spectacular disaster, of a sort impossible to perpetrate with old school cars.

Sunday October 19 2014

Here is another way I might get those high up views of London that I am always searching for:

image

DPReview review here:

In my own experiences, aerial shoots have proven difficult to pull off. The window of shooting time was limited, the cabin was cramped, and the first time I ever stuck my camera out the window, the lens flew off and I miraculously caught it in mid-air. It was also roughly $250 for an hour.

But within the past couple of years, aerial photographers have been introduced to a burgeoning market rife with little flying machines that don’t require passengers, don’t need fuel to operate, and can fit inside a cubic foot. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the era of user-operated photography drones is upon us, and it’s already kicking into warp speed.

I’m guessing that the technology of it would be beyond me, and the legality of it a minefield.

Saturday October 18 2014

This funny letter posting got me googling for Viz, which has the best letters page bar none.  I found a clutch of Viz epistolatory masterpieces here, of which this is my favourite:

What is it with vegetarians and their veggie sausages and burgers?  I’m a meat eater, but I don’t go around making carrots and sprouts out of beef.

This is also a good one:

I work in a call centre in Norwich and we’ve just been told our jobs are moving to India.  I’m so excited!  I’ve always wanted to visit India and with the salary they pay me I’ll be able to live like a Maharaja over there.  Well done Aviva, keep up the good work.

Interesting piece about the rise and fall and rise of Viz, here.

Friday October 17 2014

Spent this evening (a) continuing to be ill (thanks for the kind comments), (b) reading a book, because (c) Godot was being built, again, in my kitchen.

This is being posted with Dawkins, because Godot is now not working.  For the last fortnight Godot has been working, but not properly.

As for Godot working, properly, up to speed, all bells ringing, all whistles whistling, well, you know the answer to that.

I am still waiting.

LATER, The Guru photos progress:

image

Digital photography has, I believe, made a huge contribution not only to fun, but to the economy.  So much of work is keeping track of what work you have done, and digital photography makes this far easier.

Thursday October 16 2014

I am rather ill, so will be brief.

I have opened a Bald Blokes Taking Photos photo file.  So far, my favourite bald bloke taking a photo photo is this one, taken in July of this year:

image

I like (a) the Shard in his picture.  There are other photos in this file of equally good bald blokes, and some of them have come out even better, with more detail.  But you can’t tell from the photo what they’re photoing, which I rate a drawback.

And I like (b) the amazing sort of horizontal rift valley at the back of his head, that many bald blokes have (some of them more than one).

Enjoy.  For me, it’s back to being ill.

Wednesday October 15 2014

It’s that time of the year when I go into one of my local supermarkets and immediately start taking photos, like that, or like this:

image

Yes it’s Halloween.  And the shops, in this case Sainsbury’s, are full of Halloween crap.  And I photo it.  I wouldn’t buy any of it.  Oh no.  I am far above that sort of thing.  But, I photo it.

Except, how about these rather cute buckets?  Just the thing for my Last Friday of the Month meetings, to put crappy food in:

image

Only 50p per bucket!  I got two.  And I just might go back for more.

image

Not that.  I wouldn’t want one of them.  That’s my picture of Sainsbury’s, having the last laugh.

Tuesday October 14 2014

A few days ago I purchased a small loaf of sliced bread of my favourite sort, namely Hovis Original Wheatgerm.  And I found something rather strange about it:

image

Not all the slices were like this, but most of them were.

I’m guessing that what happened here was that part of the previous loaf inside whatever space this loaf was cooked in got left inside, and hence incorporated into the next loaf, my loaf.  And, it would appear, it got cooked twice, or at least rather more than the rest of the loaf, and before the rest of the loaf was inserted.  And then everything sliced and sold to a supermarket, and bought by me, just as if nothing odd had happened at all.

I happily ate the resulting hybrid loaf, which seemed fine, even if the darker bits were a bit drier.  This is not a complaint.  If Hovis want to send me more sliced bread, they are welcome, but that is not my purpose with this posting.  I’m just trying to entertain, with an oddity.  Because, odd, don’t you think?  Never seen that before.

On a slight tangent, I believe that I am becoming a better photographer with the passing of the years.  By this I do not mean that I am getting technically any cleverer, although mercifully my cameras are.  What I mean is that now, I realise that this is the kind of thing that needs to be photographed, before it is merely consumed.  A few years ago, I might have eaten this, and then only later realised that I would have liked a photo of it.

Just to emphasise that my improvement as a photographer still has some way to go, I vaguely recall trying not to get any shadows in this photo.  But, if I was so trying, I failed.  You can make out the shadow of my photoing finger, towards the right.  Apologies for that.  You get what you pay for here.

Monday October 13 2014

When someone shows the world a picture like this …:

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… I’m like, as the younger element now puts it, yeah yeah.

But when a newspaper, the kind they still print on paper, reports that they are about to sell bits of it, then that, I say to myself, is actual news.  They’re actually going to build this bizarre Thing.  Next to Battersea Power Station.

And by selling the flats in advance, I guess they are also crowdfunding it.  Interesting trend, that, I think.

Expect (although I promise nothing) more pictures from me as it takes shape.  And that is quite some shape, at any rate in the pictures.

Here is what the architecture of Tausendsassa Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser looks like:

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Often cited for his colorful and curvilinear forms, his name translates to “Multi-Talented Peace-Filled Rainy Day Dark-Colored Hundred Waters.” In everything from his name to his unusual ideas put forth in manifestos, it is immediately evident that Hundertwasser was no ordinary architect.

Looks to me a lot like a beefed up version of Teletubbies architecture.  Did they have that show in Germany?  Yes.  (This is not the first time the Teletubbies have been hailed as architectural pioneers.) I’m not saying this is a bad thing.  I am just, as they say, saying.

Sunday October 12 2014

I have already quoted a couple of interesting bits from Bill Bryson’s excellent book, At Home.  I have now finished reading this, but just before I did, I encountered some interesting stuff about paint (pp. 453-5):

When paints became popular, people wanted them to be as vivid as they could possibly be made. The restrained colours that we associate with the Georgian period in Britain, or Colonial period in America, are a consequence of fading, not decorative restraint. In 1979, when Mount Vernon began a programme of repainting the interiors in faithful colours, ‘people came and just yelled at us’, Dennis Pogue, the curator, told me with a grin when I visited. ‘They told us we were making Mount Vernon garish. They were right - we were. But that’s just because that’s the way it was. It was hard for a lot of people to accept that what we were doing was faithful restoration.

‘Even now paint charts for Colonial-style paints virtually always show the colours from the period as muted. In fact, colours were actually nearly always quite deep and sometimes even startling. The richer a colour you could get, the more you tended to be admired. For one thing, rich colours generally denoted expense, since you needed a lot of pigment to make them. Also, you need to remember that often these colours were seen by candlelight, so they needed to be more forceful to have any kind of impact in muted light.’

The effect is now repeated at Monticello, where several of the rooms are of the most vivid yellows and greens.  Suddenly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come across as having the decorative instincts of hippies. In fact, however, compared with what followed they were exceedingly restrained.

When the first ready-mixed paints came on to the market in the second half of the nineteenth century, people slapped them on with something like wild abandon. It became fashionable not just to have powerfully bright colours in the home, but to have as many as seven or eight colours in a single room.

If we looked closely, however, we would be surprised to note that two very basic colours didn’t exist at all in Mr Marsham’s day: a good white and a good black. The brightest white available was a rather dull off-white, and although whites improved through the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1940s, with the addition of titanium dioxide to paints, that really strong, lasting whites became available. The absence of a good white paint would have been doubly noticeable in early New England, for the Puritans not only had no white paint but didn’t believe in painting anyway. (They thought it was showy.) So all those gleaming white churches we associate with New England towns are in fact a comparatively recent phenomenon.

Also missing from the painter’s palette was a strong black. Permanent black paint, distilled from tar and pitch, wasn’t popularly available until the late nineteenth century. So all the glossy black front doors, railings, gates, lampposts, gutters, downpipes and other fittings that are such an elemental feature of London’s streets today are actually quite recent. If we were to be thrust back intime to Dickens’s London, one of the most startling differences to greet us would be the absence of black painted surfaces. In the time of Dickens, almost all ironwork was green, light blue or dull grey.

Famously, the rise of the Modern Movement in Architecture was triggered by, among many other things, a revulsion against the excesses of Victorian-era decoration, especially architectural decoration.  Decoration became mechanised, and thus both much more common and much less meaningful.  What did all this mechanised decoration prove, what did it mean, when you could thrash it out with no more difficulty than you could erect a plain wall?

What the above Bryson quote strongly suggests, at any rate to me, is that something rather similar happened with colour.

Why is the overwhelming atmosphere of Modernist architecture and architectural propaganda so very monochrome, still.  Part of the answer is that it was only recently learned how to do monochrome.  Monochrome looked modern, from about 1900-ish onwards, because it was modern.  Monochrome was the latest thing.  Colour, meanwhile, had become much cheaper and had been used with garish nouveau riche excess, and there was a reaction to that also, just as there was to excessive decoration.

Saturday October 11 2014

Indeed.  You don’t see this kind of thing every day:

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But I did.  Today.

As a general rule, I don’t advise combining ice cream with photography.  Do one or the other.  That is the rule I recommend.  But these guys were doing an excellent job of merging these two things, and they weren’t just eating their ice creams and doing photography.  They were photoing their ice creams.

I congratulated them for the excellence of their photographic imagination, and they were really pleased to hear this.  I asked if I could photo them.  Yes, they replied.  And when I said “photo”, I meant, as they surely understood, photo them and put pictures of them up at my blog:

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I also took lots photos of a demo outside Parliament by Kurds, demanding help from Britain in their battles against ISIS.  Maybe (I promise nothing) I’ll put some of those snaps either here or on Samizdata, perhaps tomorrow.