Category Archive • The Internet
November 16, 2004
Other people using Brian Micklethwait photos!

Incoming email yesterday, from my friend Amoy:

Hi Brian

Hi.

Hope all is well.

That would be a bit of an exaggeration, but, to answer what you mean rather than what you say: yes.

[… personal stuff that is not BCB business …]

I reply, ditto. Then …

I have been keeping a bit up-to-date with your life through your culture blog. All of us here at Londoneasy love it and I must say, you've become quite good with that camera – so many of your photos lend themselves to a thousand stories, which is absolutely brilliant. …

Well, yes, indeed, thank you thank you.

… I am sure you know this though.

It's good to be told again, even so.

A few months ago we launched a new Features Section within Londoneasy. I have a team of four who write daily articles. They are very much in the same vein as yours – short, quirky, anecdotal. We look for stories that try to capture Londoners' preoccupations with the city.

And occasionally profound. Don't forget occasionally profound.

Last week one of my journalists had the cheek of borrowing two of your images for articles we have online: one titled Home Truths, and another titled Culture: Empire in the Capital.

We have given you credit for the images. This has only just come to my attention so apologies for not asking in before using. If you are not okay with this, I will take them down ASAP.

Seriously, and as I said to Amoy in my email back, this is fine. My line on other people using my photos is: go ahead, but please give me credit for them, as Londoneasy did. Also, please do, if you are making tons of money, give me a tiny crumb – to encourage the others and all that. If not then don't bother. I leave that to you.

The photopostings here that Amoy is referring to are this one about Foxtonspersons, and this one about Bomber Harris.

My plan for personal global domination includes people using my photos for free and me becoming a world famous layabout instead of the mere layabout that I am now, at which point, then, well, I'll take it from there. I'm just another blogger in other words. So copy away.

Besides which, what Amoy is apologising for having done is what I do anyway, namely not ask permission, give credit, and stand ready to take them down instantly if there is any problem or objection. This seems to be emerging as the blogosphere norm. So far, despite numerous featurings of other people's photos, I have had no grief whatsoever from aggrieved photo-posters.

A final thought. Although I did get credits from Londoneasy, I did not, because that is not how they do things, get any links back to my original postings. Fair enough. But, not problem. Ruminating upon this circumstance, I once again found myself being grateful that my name is Brian Micklethwait, rather than something more like Brian Smith or John Smith. Google for John Smith, and the problem is, of course: which John Smith? Suppose you are seeking the John Smith who, during the Peninsular War, married a Spanish Bride (to quote the title of Georgette Heyer's most amusing novel about that gentleman and lady), who ended up being immortalised, or so I recall reading, in the name of the city of Ladysmith in South Africa. But suppose instead that you get deluged with references to a drearily dead Labour politician. You see the problem. But if you google Brian Micklethwait, you get me and only me. Hurrah. (Caution: if you google only Micklethwait, you get a lot of stuff about my Nth (as N tends to infinity) cousin John Micklethwait.) This means that if Brian Micklethwait gets credited by name for a photo, then that, from the point of view of me building my reputation, is sufficient. No need for a link, because google will quickly find you those blog postings anyway.

Are lots of people even now changing their names from John Smith (or similar) to John Cratchetweaver (or similar), or even to Themistocles Cratchetweaver (just to be sure), for this one reason? It would make sense.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:36 PM
October 13, 2004
Late night thoughts on intellectual property etc.

The Social Affairs Unit blog is everything that Brian's Culture Blog is not, culture-wise. They have a theatre and opera critic, who goes to the theatre and to the opera. They have a guy who reads novels, a guy who goes to art galleries, a guy who goes to classical music concerts. No need for links, just go there and scroll down. It's all there. Seriously, if you are angry with me for not being cultural enough and just bombarding you with my stupid photos and my stupid opinions about old classical CDs that have been around for decades, and non-classical movies ditto, that's the place to go.

The latest posting there is by Tyler Cowen and it is really interesting, I think. It's about the lawsuits that Big Music is launching against lots of quite big downloaders. I tried picking out paragraphs that were better than the other paragraphs, but the truth is they're all good, and I recommend you read the lot.

I have already posted on this subject here, here being at the CNE Intellectual Property blog, which I actually get paid to do a weekly piece for. As Monica in Friends would say: I know!

The line that CNE takes on Intellectual Property is that it is Very Good. But the line I tend to take at that blog is that given the state of technology these days, there's at least a decent chance that a different approach to people stealing ideas will emerge, based on the fact that when they do, that might be good. I mean, take today. This guy stole something of mine, from in among this). Just copied it and stuck it up at his blog. The nerve of him. "Quote of the day" or some such palaver. But he didn't fool me. He nicked it. He couldn't be bothered to write his own posting, so he swiped a bit of mine instead. But am I bitter? Moi? No of course I'm not bitter. Why would I be? This is the age of the Internet, and when this kind of thing happens, the stealee gains as well as the stealer, to the point where we don't think of it as stealing at all.

Now you may say, he did a link to my original, and he cited me as the one who originally wrote it, and he even spelt my surname right, which doesn't happen always I can tell you. What if he hadn't done this, and had really stolen it, to the point where he had tried to pass it off as his own? My point is, even if he had tried that, and I had eventually heard about it only by some very roundabout means, I could have pointed to my original post and said, pretty convincingly I believe, that I thought of it first and aren't I wonderful? Or, other people could have done this for me, thus boosting by global grandeur without me even knowing. In the Internet age, the people who first think of something tend to get the credit and the reputation, provided only that they tell the Internet as soon as they think of it. This didn't use to be, but now it is. When you consider how many people there are in the world, and how well connected they are all getting, that has to mean income-income to those with the reputational grandeur as well as just psychic income.

Besides which, don't knock psychic income. If you have lots of that it's amazing what you can get by on, income-income-wise. And, people will swap a lot of their income-income for psychic income. Or happiness, as it used to be called.

Anyway, I'm going to bed now. Tomorrow, more digital photography!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:49 AM
July 18, 2004
Partying – film reviewing – internetting – photo-ing

On the Friday before last, I attended the talk already referred to here given by David Carr at the Evans home, and present also was Amanda Oliver, who mentioned afterwards that she had written a review of The Barbarian Invasions. I missed this the first time round, despite having myself seen the movie and having enjoyed it and admired it a lot, and despite the fact that Amandas' review was linked to at the time by the Reason Hit and Run blog. Either that or I read the review but didn't clock that she was who had written it. Her piece is very good, and a model of what a review should be. That is, she tells you what she thought of it, but gives you enough information to be able to tell whether you would be likely to share her opinion. My Samizdata piece, by comparison, is a muddle. It started with how wrong some Guardian bloke was about the movie, and that, if present at all, should have been at the end. Live and learn.

AmandaT2s.jpg

That's Amanda Oliver on right. This is one of the best photos I've taken recently. The redness is real, not Photoshopped, the walls being all red, which means they turn all light bouncing off them red. I'm in it once again (which Scott Wickstein will like – see his comment here – although I'm probably far too easy to spot for his liking), and Patrick Crozier looks on, all unaware that he's in it too. Patrick and I are blurred, while Amanda is sharp (or as sharp as my camera and your screen can between them contrive) which is as it should be. Click on it if you want it larger.

If you find my relentless photo-blogging wearisome, you can, as stated in the bit linked to above, blame my friend Gerald Hartup. He made a point at that same gathering of telling me how good some of my photos are.

GeraldH1s.jpg

I wonder what he thinks of them now. Gerald has a most interesting face, and I always seem to get great pictures of him. That was taken on that same evening. With flash this time, which changes everything.

The Internet combines very well with partying, doesn't it? You go to a party, and learn of some interesting internetted item, and can google it as soon as you get home. Without the party you wouldn't have heard about it, but without the internet, reading it would be a nightmare of clumsy snail mail correspondence that would probably not be bothered with.

And now tonight, another party means that I need to post the picture of Amanda, because she will be there tonight again too. Having delayed posting it all week, I now have an excuse. Also, a reason, because she might have asked me tonight why I didn't use it (still might), what with emailing her to say can I?, blah blah.

The Barbarian Invasions is now out on DVD. I will buy it when its price comes down to a tenner or less.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:58 PM
June 12, 2004
Closure

Brancusi2.jpg"Artdaily.com" - that sounds interesting. (I got to it by googling "art".)

Seems like I picked the wrong day to get interested. Still, with luck it will stick around, what is already there.

The picture on the right is the one they chose to illustrate how they feel about it all. It is of something by this guy.

The face looks like regular sculpture, but the top of the head, because of strange looking marks on it, looks like a not completely inflated balloon.

Odd. Obviously if you look at the thing itself, it's hair. But, odd.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:37 PM
April 16, 2004
Photos about greatness and ungreatness

This afternoon I came across this vehicle.

solidarnosc.jpg

Now I remember Solidarnosc as the Gallant Trade Union that did away with the USSR by making Poland impervious to Soviet Imperialism. Solidarnosc.co.uk? What could that be? Something heroic, I hoped. Something terrible I feared. I feared right. It's a porn site. Either that or it is a branch of Solidarnosc Poland that you have to be over 18 to learn about. How depressing.

No link from here. This is a family blog. Well no it's not, but anyway, no link.

So let me cheer you - myself anyway - up with another picture I took from almost the exact same place, which is a street called Lower Marsh, a regular haunt of mine because there is a guy there who sells second hand classical CDs from a market stall, and a regular indoors second hand classical CD shop called Grammex.

One of the things about London's big new landmarks is that, because London is not yet choc-a-block with big tall buildings or big things generally, when there is a great big thing in the vicinity, it towers over the surrounding muddle and confers distinction upon the otherwise undistinguished, thus:

wheelmess.jpg

I like this. I'm not saying this is a great picture, although please feel free to think so. I am saying that if you are actually there, it's a nice effect.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:10 PM
April 05, 2004
Mad Professors

The record industry believes – to hell with that, it knows – that file sharing is hurting its sales of CDs. Yet here come two economists (see today's New York Times) who say the opposite:

But what if the industry is wrong, and file sharing is not hurting record sales?

It might seem counterintuitive, but that is the conclusion reached by two economists who released a draft last week of the first study that makes a rigorous economic comparison of directly observed activity on file-sharing networks and music buying.

"Downloads have an effect on sales which is statistically indistinguishable from zero, despite rather precise estimates," write its authors, Felix Oberholzer-Gee of the Harvard Business School and Koleman S. Strumpf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The industry has reacted with the kind of flustered consternation that the White House might display if Richard A. Clarke showed up at a Rose Garden tea party. Last week, the Recording Industry Association of America sent out three versions of a six-page response to the study.

The problem with the industry view, Professors Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf say, is that it is not supported by solid evidence. Previous studies have failed because they tend to depend on surveys, and the authors contend that surveys of illegal activity are not trustworthy. "Those who agree to have their Internet behavior discussed or monitored are unlikely to be representative of all Internet users," the authors wrote.

Instead, they analyzed the direct data of music downloaders over a 17-week period in the fall of 2002, and compared that activity with actual music purchases during that time. Using complex mathematical formulas, they determined that spikes in downloading had almost no discernible effect on sales. Even under their worst-case example, "it would take 5,000 downloads to reduce the sales of an album by one copy," they wrote. "After annualizing, this would imply a yearly sales loss of two million albums, which is virtually rounding error" given that 803 million records were sold in 2002. Sales dropped by 139 million albums from 2000 to 2002.

"While downloads occur on a vast scale, most users are likely individuals who would not have bought the album even in the absence of file sharing," the professors wrote.

In an interview, Professor Oberholzer-Gee said that previous research assumed that every download could be thought of as a lost sale. In fact, he said, most downloaders were drawn to free music and were unlikely to spend $18 on a CD.

"Say I offer you a free flight to Florida," he asks. "How likely is it that you will go to Florida? It is very likely, because the price is free." If there were no free ticket, that trip to Florida would be much less likely, he said. Similarly, free music might draw all kinds of people, but "it doesn't mean that these people would buy CD's at $18," he said.

This is Mad Professor talk. Counter-intuitive? Make that bonkers. Crazy. These guys call themselves economists but they clearly don't have any understanding of economic behaviour, otherwise known as shopping. None at all. Not the faintest notion. Who is paying these fools? Why?

They have analysed the behaviour of people who are musical downloaders and who are not CD buyers, and have discovered – surprise surprise – that they download stuff from time to time, but don't ever buy CDs. Cock-a-doodle-do.

The point is not just to observe that "these people wouldn't have bought CDs anyway", but to understand why they wouldn't. And why they wouldn't is that these non CD buyers have stopped being or never in the first place became CD buyers. All the Professors are saying is that downloaders are not CD buyers, ergo, downloading doesn't in the short run "affect" CD buying. This is like saying that, because I won't buy a black plastic record or a cassette of some particular recording if denied the opportunity to buy it on CD (which I definitely won't), CDs therefore have had no impact on black plastic sales or cassettes, when in truth, and as everyone with two brain cells to rub together knows, CDs pretty much destroyed the black plastic and cassette trade.

What these guys are saying is that because, if your car breaks down, you don't immediately hire a horse, therefore cars haven't hurt the horse trade.

I am an unashamed member of the CD buying generation, as all regulars here will know. Having struggled for a quarter of a century first with black plastic records and then with cassettes, I and my contemporaries hit the CD shops when they finally arrived and became reasonably cheap to shop in like Visigoths hitting Rome, and so it has continued. I love the things, and not just the music they make but the things themselves.

But the next generation, when working out how to supply itself with entertainment in general and musical entertainment in particular, looked at CDs and said: pass. And why? Well, lots of reasons, to do with price and portability and computers, but mainly because there was now another way to get hold of music. They turned their backs on CDs because they could. They may possess CD players, on the same sort of basis that I possess a cassette player, to play back tapes of radio broadcasts and whatnot, but they don't buy pre-recorded CDs. Ergo the CD business is collapsing, and the music companies know this, and know why, just as everyone else does, apart from these two Mad Professors.

For a restatement of the above truisms, see also this, which makes sense. The Mad Professors do not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:57 PM
February 27, 2004
True colours?

tintmor1.jpgSo I was browsing through one of the art books my brother brought me the other day, and I liked the look of Vincenzo Morosini, painted by Tintoretto in about 1580. Here are two different versions of it. I like the colours of the one on the left, which I found here, but it is disappointingly small. And it's no use enlarging it. It would just end up looking electronically enlarged, and even less like the original painting, or any sort of painting, than it did before.

tintmor2.jpgThis, on the other hand, to my right, was more than big enough for my purposes, but the colours look all wrong. And if you look here which is the page of images thrown up by google when I typed in "Tintoretto" and "Morosini", you'll see that most of the pictures there are like this one, and in fact, if my guess is anything to go by, several of them probably are this one.

Until now, I would just pick out the least bad picture of what I wanted, and ignore the rest. But these pictures are really bad, and make me think of all kinds of questions.

Is most of the imagery on the internet of old oil paintings this tacky? Is the situation getting better? I'm guessing: yes, but only very gradually.

And: have I finally picked an unpopular painting out of an art book, and is that why the internet versions of it are so abysmal?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:39 PM
January 09, 2004
Eric Raymond on giving away identity goods – and then selling them

My thanks to Alan Little for commenting (on this posting almost immediately below) with a link to this response from Eric Raymond to Instapundit about giving stuff away. (And boy, did I have to scroll down to find that Insta-piece again? Boy: "Yes, you certainly did. So why didn't you just copy Raymond's link to it? Fool.")

Says Raymond:

I'm one of a handful of technical-book writers who publishers treat like rock stars, because I have a large fan base and my name on a cover will sell a book in volumes that are exceptional for its category (for comparison my editor at AW mentions Bruce Eckel as another). I'm not certain my experience generalizes to authors who aren't rock stars. On the other hand, it's more than possible that I'm a rock star largely because I have been throwing my stuff on the Web since 1991. It's even likely — after all, I was next to an unknown when I edited The New Hacker's Dictionary.

So I don't find the InstaWife's experience very surprising. Webbing one's books seems to be really effective way to build a fan base. My impression is that people start by browsing the the on-line versions of my books, then buy the paper copy partly for convenience and partly as what marketers call an identity good.

An identity good is something people buy to express their tie to a group or category they belong to or would like to belong to. People buy The New Hacker's Dictionary because they are, or want to be, the kind of person they think should own a copy of it.

Here's the causal connection: A Web version can't be an identity good, because it doesn't sit on your bookshelf or your coffee table telling everybody (and reminding you!) who you are. But Web exposure can, I think, help turn a book with the right kind of potential into an identity good. I suspect there is now a population of psychologists and social workers who perceive the InstaWife's book as an identity good, and that (as with my stuff) that perception was either created or strongly reinforced by web exposure.

If so, this would explain why webbing her book made the auction price for the out-of-print paper version go up. The price of the paper version reflects buyers' desires to be identifiable as members of the community of readers of the book. By making softcopy available for download, the InstaWife enhanced the power of the paper version as an identity token, by making it easy for a larger population to learn the meaning of the token.

I would go so far as to predict that any book (or movie, or CD) that functions as an identity good will tend to sell more rather than less after Web exposure. All three of my in-print books happen to be identity goods rather strongly, for slightly different but overlapping populations. I suspect the InstaWife's book has this quality too. About those things which aren't identity goods, I can't say. Not enough experience.

And I severely doubt if slicing great gobs of his bloggings to put on a lesser blog does the guy any harm either.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:27 AM
January 08, 2004
Giving it away

Here's an interesting proclamation, concerning an SF author who is making all his writings available as pdf files, free of charge or condition, on the Internet. He explains why, and his explanation can be summarised in one word: profit.

Thanks to Instapundit for the link. (Mrs Instapundit also has a book available free online, a cheery little number about juvenile murderers. Summary: too much self esteem.)

And a reminder that my only two works of fiction, and one a very short short story (pdf and html), and a short story about three times as long as that one (pdf and html, are both available to be read on a similar basis. Or, you can buy them on paper (which is just a photocopy of the pdf stuff) for 20p and 40p respectively. Don't all write in at once, in fact my preference would be for nobody to write in at all.

And hey, look at this. Funny how, when you start to write about something, the same thing suddenly pops up elsewhere. (Or maybe it was always there and you suddenly notice it.) Here's Jackie D linking to this clutch of 700 free online e-books.

Clearly this is not a trend which will go away. But where is the best site for getting free stuff of this kind? It seems to me that there will sooner or later be a market leader for old writings out of copyright, based on number of hits, quality of text, excellence of edition choice, and so forth.

This stuff is a natural next step for publicly funded libraries and universities. They have the skills. They have the money. So let them just use it. Personally I want the public sector to drop dead, but if I was in favour of it, this is what I would be begging it to do, to justify its existence.

The reason that the public sector is especially well placed to do such things is that, what with them already being paid by the government, they don't have to chase every last little micro-penny and micro-cent from their users, which is in any case a losing strategy as this guy explains (in a piece I've already linked to from here.

Come to think of it, I did a posting on Samizdata not so long ago which made the point, which I still think is a good one, that the big distinction on the Internet is not between the "blogosphere" and other things, but between what's free to start reading right away with no bullshit about paying or registering or telling them your email or your granny's maiden name, and what is not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:51 PM
December 29, 2003
Gerald (Ratner) on line - the jewelry may be okay this time but the pictures are terrible

Gerald Ratner, famous for saying of one of his own products that it was "total crap", has, having long ago lost that job and that business, started a new online jewelry business.

I know and care very little about jewelry of this sort, but one thing does strike me about this website, which is what total crap the photos are. Unbelievably feeble and uninformative. A million and half hits per day, apparently, but how many of those hits will be one hit wonders, wondering why he doesn't use a better photographer? The likelihood that Mr Ratner knows things about his business which I don't is very high, but from where I sit, I don't get it.

Presumably the idea, if there is one, is that a site which loads reasonably quickly is more important than a site which tells you very much about the products. Nevertheless, it really looks to me like they overdid the loading-friendliness and underdid the informativeness with this stie. And anyway, nice pictures don't have to take for ever to load. And surely with jewelry, the way it looks, in detail, is the most important thing about it. I mean, guys in jewelry shops look at the stuff with magnifying glasses. No point in scrutinising these pictures.

Selling jewelry on the internet ought to work really well, but I can't believe that this is how to do it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:53 AM
December 22, 2003
This blog posting opens globally now

Good piece in today's NYT about the trend towards big Hollywood blockbusters opening simultaneously all over the world rather than dribbling into separate national and regional markets over a period of months. This stops piracy, and cuts marketing costs. A staggered release starting in the USA stirs up interest elsewhere which is then met by the pirates if locals can't immediately see the thing in their local cinemas. A worldwide media blitz and a worldwide opening makes more sense.

And in the days of the Internet, serious media blitzes are almost impossible to prevent becoming worldwide.

Also, if Hollywood knows that the word-of-mouth – and the word-of-Internet – is likely to be bad, as was the case with Matrices 2 and 3, a worldwide release gets bums on seats everywhere in large numbers before the w-o-m and w-o-I kicks in.

Result? The latest Lord of the Rings movie took in a quarter of a billion dollars in its first five days.

The global village is getting ever more global.

It makes sense to me. We all saw Saddam captured at the same time, apart from Alice. People everywhere can all read the latest on Brian's Culture Blog as soon as I've done it. Why not LOR3?

(By the way, the w-o-m for LOR3 seems to be good. Jonathan Ross likes it, anyway. Personally I shall wait until it is out on DVD and then not see it on DVD either.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:15 AM
December 21, 2003
Painted ladies

Instapundit links to this, and this links to this.

I love the Internet. From a deposed despot to decorated damsels in two clicks.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:37 PM
December 20, 2003
Coffee in history – the Economist enthuses about the internet

This counts as "culture" I think. Busy day, so I'm just following an Instapundit link. But it is a real boost for bloggers and blogging, coming as it does from the Economist.

I have the feeling this piece may soon become inaccessible by the direct route, so here's all of it. If it disappears from here too, it means I've had lawyers on me. I hope it stays. (Information wants to be free!) Read the whole thing.

The internet in a cup

Dec 18th 2003

coffeehs.jpg

Coffee fuelled the information exchanges of the 17th and 18th centuries

WHERE do you go when you want to know the latest business news, follow commodity prices, keep up with political gossip, find out what others think of a new book, or stay abreast of the latest scientific and technological developments? Today, the answer is obvious: you log on to the internet. Three centuries ago, the answer was just as easy: you went to a coffee-house. There, for the price of a cup of coffee, you could read the latest pamphlets, catch up on news and gossip, attend scientific lectures, strike business deals, or chat with like-minded people about literature or politics.

The coffee-houses that sprang up across Europe, starting around 1650, functioned as information exchanges for writers, politicians, businessmen and scientists. Like today's websites, weblogs and discussion boards, coffee-houses were lively and often unreliable sources of information that typically specialised in a particular topic or political viewpoint. They were outlets for a stream of newsletters, pamphlets, advertising free-sheets and broadsides. Depending on the interests of their customers, some coffee-houses displayed commodity prices, share prices and shipping lists, whereas others provided foreign newsletters filled with coffee-house gossip from abroad.

Rumours, news and gossip were also carried between coffee-houses by their patrons, and sometimes runners would flit from one coffee-house to another within a particular city to report major events such as the outbreak of a war or the death of a head of state. Coffee-houses were centres of scientific education, literary and philosophical speculation, commercial innovation and, sometimes, political fermentation. Collectively, Europe's interconnected web of coffee-houses formed the internet of the Enlightenment era.


The great soberer

Coffee, the drink that fuelled this network, originated in the highlands of Ethiopia, where its beans were originally chewed rather than infused for their invigorating effects. It spread into the Islamic world during the 15th century, where it was embraced as an alternative to alcohol, which was forbidden (officially, at least) to Muslims. Coffee came to be regarded as the very antithesis of alcoholic drinks, sobering rather than intoxicating, stimulating mental activity and heightening perception rather than dulling the senses.

This reputation accompanied coffee as it spread into western Europe during the 17th century, at first as a medicine, and then as a social drink in the Arab tradition. An anonymous poem published in London in 1674 denounced wine as the "sweet Poison of the Treacherous Grape" that drowns "our Reason and our Souls". Beer was condemned as "Foggy Ale" that "besieg'd our Brains". Coffee, however, was heralded as

... that Grave and Wholesome Liquor,
that heals the Stomach, makes the Genius quicker,
Relieves the Memory, revives the Sad,
and cheers the Spirits, without making Mad.

The contrast between coffee and alcoholic drinks was reflected in the decor of the coffee-houses that began to appear in European cities, London in particular. They were adorned with bookshelves, mirrors, gilt-framed pictures and good furniture, in contrast to the rowdiness, gloom and squalor of taverns. According to custom, social differences were left at the coffee-house door, the practice of drinking healths was banned, and anyone who started a quarrel had to atone for it by buying an order of coffee for all present. In short, coffee-houses were calm, sober and well-ordered establishments that promoted polite conversation and discussion.

With a new rationalism abroad in the spheres of both philosophy and commerce, coffee was the ideal drink. Its popularity owed much to the growing middle class of information workers – clerks, merchants and businessmen – who did mental work in offices rather than performing physical labour in the open, and found that coffee sharpened their mental faculties. Such men were not rich enough to entertain lavishly at home, but could afford to spend a few pence a day on coffee. Coffee-houses provided a forum for education, debate and self-improvement. They were nicknamed "penny universities" in a contemporary English verse which observed: "So great a Universitie, I think there ne'er was any; In which you may a Scholar be, for spending of a Penny."

As with modern websites, the coffee-houses you went to depended on your interests, for each coffee-house attracted a particular clientele, usually by virtue of its location. Though coffee-houses were also popular in Paris, Venice and Amsterdam, this characteristic was particularly notable in London, where 82 coffee-houses had been set up by 1663, and more than 500 by 1700. Coffee-houses around the Royal Exchange were frequented by businessmen; those around St James's and Westminster by politicians; those near St Paul's Cathedral by clergymen and theologians. Indeed, so closely were some coffee-houses associated with particular topics that the Tatler, a London newspaper founded in 1709, used the names of coffee-houses as subject headings for its articles. Its first issue declared:

...All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White's Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will's Coffee-house; Learning, under...Grecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James's Coffee-house.

Richard Steele, the Tatler's editor, gave its postal address as the Grecian coffee-house, which he used as his office. In the days before street numbering or regular postal services, it became a common practice to use a coffee-house as a mailing address. Regulars could pop in once or twice a day, hear the latest news, and check to see if any post awaited them. That said, most people frequented several coffee-houses, the choice of which reflected their range of interests. A merchant, for example, would generally oscillate between a financial coffee-house and one specialising in Baltic, West Indian or East Indian shipping. The wide-ranging interests of Robert Hooke, a scientist and polymath, were reflected in his visits to around 60 coffee-houses during the 1670s.

As the Tatler's categorisation suggests, the coffee-house most closely associated with science was the Grecian, the preferred coffee-house of the members of the Royal Society, Britain's pioneering scientific institution. On one occasion a group of scientists including Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley dissected a dolphin on the premises. Scientific lectures and experiments also took place in coffee-houses, such as the Marine, near St Paul's, which were frequented by sailors and navigators. Seamen and merchants realised that science could contribute to improvements in navigation, and hence to commercial success, whereas the scientists were keen to show the practical value of their work. It was in coffee-houses that commerce and new technology first became intertwined.

The more literary-minded, meanwhile, congregated at Will's coffee-house in Covent Garden, where for three decades the poet John Dryden and his circle reviewed and discussed the latest poems and plays. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary on December 3rd 1663 that he had looked in at Will's and seen Dryden and "all the wits of the town" engaged in "very witty and pleasant discourse". After Dryden's death many of the literatured shifted to Button's, which was frequented by Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, among others. Pope's poem "The Rape of the Lock" was based on coffee-house gossip, and discussions in coffee-houses inspired a new, more colloquial and less ponderous prose style, conversational in tone and clearly visible in the journalism of the day.

Other coffee-houses were hotbeds of financial innovation and experimentation, producing new business models in the form of innumerable novel variations on insurance, lottery or joint-stock schemes. The best-known example was the coffee-house opened in the late 1680s by Edward Lloyd. It became a meeting-place for ships' captains, shipowners and merchants, who went to hear the latest maritime news and to attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd began to collect and summarise this information, supplemented with reports from a network of foreign correspondents, in the form of a regular newsletter, at first handwritten and later printed and sent to subscribers. Lloyd's thus became the natural meeting place for shipowners and the underwriters who insured their ships. Some underwriters began to rent booths at Lloyd's, and in 1771 a group of 79 of them collectively established the Society of Lloyd's, better known as Lloyd's of London.

Similarly, two coffee-houses near London's Royal Exchange, Jonathan's and Garraway's, were frequented by stockbrokers and jobbers. Attempts to regulate the membership of Jonathan's, by charging an annual subscription and barring non-members, were successfully blocked by traders who opposed such exclusivity. So in 1773 a group of traders from Jonathan's broke away and decamped to a new building, the forerunner of the London Stock Exchange. Garraway's was a less reputable coffee-house, home to auctions of all kinds and much dodgy dealing, particularly during the South Sea Bubble of 1719-21. It was said of Garraway's that no other establishment "fostered so great a quantity of dishonoured paper".

Far more controversial than the coffee-houses' functions as centres of scientific, literary and business exchange, however, was their potential as centres of political dissent. Coffee's reputation as a seditious beverage goes back at least as far as 1511, the date of the first known attempt to ban the consumption of coffee, in Mecca. Thereafter, many attempts were made to prohibit coffee and coffee-houses in the Muslim world. Some claimed it was intoxicating and therefore subject to the same religious prohibition as alcohol. Others claimed it was harmful to the health. But the real problem was the coffee-houses' alarming potential for facilitating political discussion and activity.

This was the objection raised in a proclamation by Charles II of England in 1675. Coffee-houses, it declared, had produced

very evil and dangerous effects ... for that in such Houses ... divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majestie's Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm.

The result was a public outcry, for coffee-houses had become central to commercial and political life. When it became clear that the proclamation would be widely ignored and the government's authority thus undermined, a further proclamation was issued, announcing that coffee-sellers would be allowed to stay in business for six months if they paid £500 and agreed to swear an oath of allegiance. But the fee and time limit were soon dropped in favour of vague demands that coffee-houses should refuse entry to spies and mischief-makers.

Dark rumours of plots and counter-plots swirled in London's coffee-houses, but they were also centres of informed political debate. Swift remarked that he was "not yet convinced that any Access to men in Power gives a man more Truth or Light than the Politicks of a Coffee House." Miles's coffee-house was the meeting-place of a discussion group, founded in 1659 and known as the Amateur Parliament. Pepys observed that its debates were "the most ingeniose, and smart, that I ever heard, or expect to heare, and bandied with great eagernesse; the arguments in the Parliament howse were but flatte to it." After debates, he noted, the group would hold a vote using a "wooden oracle", or ballot-box – a novelty at the time.

Sweet smell of sedition

The contrast with France was striking. One French visitor to London, the Abbé Prévost, declared that coffee-houses, "where you have the right to read all the papers for and against the government", were the "seats of English liberty". Coffee-houses were popular in Paris, where 380 had been established by 1720. As in London, they were associated with particular topics or lines of business. But with strict curbs on press freedom and a bureaucratic system of state censorship, France had far fewer sources of news than did England, Holland or Germany. This led to the emergence of handwritten newsletters of Paris gossip, transcribed by dozens of copyists and sent by post to subscribers in Paris and beyond. The lack of a free press also meant that poems and songs passed around on scraps of paper, along with coffee-house gossip, were important sources of news for many Parisians.

Little wonder then that coffee-houses, like other public places in Paris, were stuffed with government spies. Anyone who spoke out against the state risked being hauled off to the Bastille, whose archives contain reports of hundreds of coffee-house conversations, noted down by informers. "At the Café de Foy someone said that the king had taken a mistress, that she was named Gontaut, and that she was a beautiful woman, the niece of the Duc de Noailles," runs one report from the 1720s. Another, from 1749, reads, "Jean-Louis Le Clerc made the following remarks in the Café de Procope: that there never has been a worse king; that the court and the ministers make the king do shameful things, which utterly disgust his people."

Despite their reputation as breeding-grounds for discontent, coffee-houses seem to have been tolerated by the French government as a means of keeping track of public opinion. Yet it was at the Café de Foy, eyed by police spies while standing on a table brandishing two pistols, that Camille Desmoulins roused his countrymen with his historic appeal – "Aux armes, citoyens!" – on July 12th 1789. The Bastille fell two days later, and the French revolution had begun. Jules Michelet, a French historian, subsequently noted that those "who assembled day after day in the Café de Procope saw, with penetrating glance, in the depths of their black drink, the illumination of the year of the revolution."

Can the coffee-houses' modern equivalent, the internet, claim to have had such an impact? Perhaps not. But the parallels are certainly striking. Originally the province of scientists, the internet has since grown to become a nexus of commercial, journalistic and political interchange.

In discussion groups and chatrooms, gossip passes freely – a little too freely, think some regulators and governments, which have tried and generally failed to rein them in. Snippets of political news are rounded up and analysed in weblogs, those modern equivalents of pamphlets and broadsides. Obscure scientific and medical papers, once available only to specialists, are just clicks away; many scientists explain their work, both to their colleagues and to the public at large, on web pages. Countless new companies and business models have emerged, not many of them successful, though one or two have become household names. Online exchanges and auction houses, from eBay to industry-specific marketplaces, match buyers and sellers of components, commodities and household bric-à-brac.

Coffee, meet WiFi

The kinship between coffee-houses and the internet has recently been underlined by the establishment of wireless "hotspots" which provide internet access, using a technology called WiFi, in modern-day coffee-shops. T-Mobile, a wireless network operator, has installed hotspots in thousands of Starbucks coffee-shops across America and Europe. Coffee-shop WiFi is particularly popular in Seattle – home to both Starbucks and such leading internet firms as Amazon and Microsoft.

Such hotspots allow laptop-toting customers to check their e-mail and read the news as they sip their lattes. But history provides a cautionary tale for those hotspot operators that charge for access. Coffee-houses used to charge for coffee, but gave away access to reading materials. Many coffee-shops are now following the same model, which could undermine the prospects for fee-based hotspots. Information, both in the 17th century and today, wants to be free – and coffee-drinking customers, it seems, expect it to be.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:54 PM
October 07, 2003
Smart left

Okay these people are very post-modern and lefty and all that. I mean, here's what they think of the Pentagon.

But you do get a sense from their site of just how expressive the Internet can be when it's in inventive (don't miss this and this) and exuberant hands like these.

Well worth a look. Link via b3ta.com.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:43 PM
September 29, 2003
Txt from The Goddaughter

So, The Goddaughter sent me an email about a week or two ago:

i just decided to look on your culture blog to see woh you were gettin on. Do u pay to make your wbsite?

I told her the bad news about what it costs to have a website, and her next email suggested that she write stuff for my blogs, presumably because that's cheaper for her, and maybe also less of a bother:

want me to tell you anyfink 2 put on u r web? if u do, justr tell me wat ya wanna know

Fair enough. So my reply included the following:

Here are some questions that you could answer, if you feel like it:

What are your favourite books, and why?

What is your favourite music, and why? Do you like classical at all, or do you really like only pop? How's that awful cello playing coming along? And the singing?

What schools have you been too? Which were the best and which were the worst? Who was your best teacher, and what made that teacher so good?

I'm interested by the way you write emails. No capital letters. "2" instead of "to". "u r" for "your", "u" instead of "you", wanna instead of want to. I think I know why this is fun. It's creative, it saves screen space on small screens, and it annoys stupid adults. Is that it? Or are there other reasons for it?

As you can see, I was looking for stuff for my education blog, as well as for here, but I'll give the whole answer here, because what interests me most about what The Goddaughter had put is beyond mere education. It is, of course, the way in which she puts it. Is the word for it "Txt"? I'll call it that here from now on.

Mi fav books R Nancy Drew books cos i like detectiv books. She's 18 and shes the daughter of a lawyer called Carson Drew. She has a b/f called Ned (Nickers)on

I dont necesarly like POP, its just mor modern music dat i like. I like da new singer Avril lavigne. Shee's OK. I like classical as well, but it depends wat it is.Im gettin a bit betta on da cello. I had a lesson 2day wiv my "teacher". I also had a singin lesson 2day. I like singin but id like 2 do mor.

At skewl we R startin da choir. I hope dey R gonna chose me as a solo. Its an english song.

I've bin 2 loads of skewls and the best 1 was Wimbledon House skewl cos i was best of da clas. I was alwayz da best of da class in england!!!!

My fav teach was Mrs. Whales cos she was loads like me. I dont know y, but i just like her.

And this was the answer I was most eager to hear about. What's wiv all the Txting? Y, oh Goddaughter, do u, best of da clas at Wimbledon House skewl, rite like dis?

I rite like dis cos its easier. U make a mistake and u hav an excuse! But this is also easier cos instead of havin 2 think about da word be4 ritin it u just rite it as it is pronounzd!

The Goddaughter is no under-educated underclasser. She was, just as she said, best of the class at Wimbledon House School. Yet here she is riting like dis. Her answer, about why she likes doing this Txt stuff is, I'm sure, all true, and I thank her for it. Very interesting, and most informative. Alice Bachini, who visited me this afternoon and who read all this, commented that when kids write like this, they always seem to be happier, and I bet they are, for all the reasons The Goddaugher itemises, plus they are having creative fun. I bet they have permanent grin on their faces, because of the last little bit of phonetic inventiveness they did. They are playing, rather than working. Doing what they want, rather than following someone else's rules. When you play, there is no wrong answer. Txt turns writing from science into art.

But having lived for almost half a century longer than The Goddaughter, I can assure her that hers is not the first generation of children who would have liked to rite somewhat like dis. The big story here is that modern electronic communication has finally created a world in which The Goddaughter and her millions of contemporaries are writing Txt rather than Standard English because they can. Who can stop them?

Email, and text messaging, and – I'm sure – lots and lots of blogs, have made a world in which Grammarians no longer rule the language. So what if Most People disapprove? Most People aren't reading your Txt messages. In the case of the Goddaughter emailing The Godfather, Most People aren't The Godfather, and if The Godfather is willing to read decypher this stuff (I am), then where's the problem?

This style of writing used to be confined to isolated school subcultures. A billion notes handed around at the back of the class have no doubt been written in a million local variants ofTxt, although even school subcultures were surely heavily infected with Standard English. But Modern Electronics has joined all these subcultures together, and turned them into a vast linguistic arena which is no longer divided and soon if not already conquered by Standard English, but rather one that is an imperial linguistic force in its own right.

Old Guys like me write producer prose about what we want to write. In my case that means doing it in educated English, with the odd spelling error or grammatical carelessness but with no major language games. True, I like the occasional sentence without a verb, and I quite often resort to Not Strictly Correct capital letters, but mostly, I play no games with the language code itself. My games are all in what I write about. But the same freedom I have to put what I want here, in my educated prose, enables The Goddaughter to tell her story her way, in her particular version of Txt. And if Txt doesn't include much in the way of Standard English spelling or punctuation, then that's just 2 bad 4 Standard English.

I can already hear the grumbles when the Fogey tendency over at my education blog comes here and reads the thoughts of The Goddaughter, if they do come here and can stomach the stuff. "Tell your Goddaughter she'll have to spell correctly if she wants to get a Decent Job." Well, no worries. The Goddaughter is tri-lingual in English, French and Roumanian. And she is, to my certain knowledge, bilingual also in Standard English and Txt-ing, or whatever we call it. She'll get a Decent Job.

But more to the point, such Fogeys are missing the point here. The Txt sub-culture is rapidly becoming simply a culture. Who says that people won't ever be able to get jobs if all they can write is Txt? What happens when the Txt-ers are the ones doing the hiring? My guess this process is already well under way, in computer games emporia, pop group management companies, and the like. For many jobs, I should guess that an inability or unwillingness to converse in Txt rules you out of consideration.

The printing press standardised spelling and grammar. (Remember all those jokes about there being fifteen different ways to spell Shakespeare.) It looks to me as if Electronics could be un-standardising it. That's a huge event in the history of language.

Or maybe, the spellcheckers will still function, but with greatly expanded vocabularies L8 will be included by the software writers just after Late. Y, u, 2 and 4 – for why, you, too and for – are already there of course. But, I suspect that a sprinkling of red and green underlinings will be considered de rigeur for your real Txt-er, in other words that for all practical purposes the spellcheckers and grammar hecklers will be switched off.

And yes, you're right if you seem to remember me having written about this Txt thing before. It was in connection with this Samizdata piece.

But this is the first time I've had a real Txter feeding Txt into the postings herself, and what's more she's one I know well. That, for me anyway, gives the whole issue an extra punch.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:58 AM
September 26, 2003
Every planet on earth

I just love this. I got it from Capitalist Magazine, but I'm sure I could have got it from 12,482 different places. Now here it is at number 12,483:

"My vision is to make the most diverse state on earth, and we have people from every planet on the earth in this state. We have the sons and daughters of every, of people from every planet, of every country on earth ..." (September 18, 2003, Gray Davis, talking about why he should remain as Governor of California, San Franciso Chronicle)

On the strength of this, I think he should remain Governor of California.

This is my favourite internet meme just by now.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:52 PM
September 12, 2003
Libeskind at Ground Zero

Here's a useful piece of computer graphics to show what Libeskind wants to do with the WTC site. Probably lots of you have seen this or something very like it before, but I hadn't until yesterday.

There was a TV show about the WTC competition here a few days back. I must say that the Libeskind design is now starting to make more sense to me. The sunken garden is a very good idea, I think. The office blocks look broken and half finished to me, but maybe that will be effective.

Anyway, Micklethwait's law on the matter says that you can never really tell how good it will look until it's built. Although, there's a long way to go before this one is even started.

More generally, I continue to be intrigued at how the internet makes it so much easier for the public to haggle about mere architectural plans. That TV show made it very clear how much public involvement there had been in the WTC process. I didn't follow it at the time, but the original plans for a bunch of boring, "undesigned" lumps were just shouted down by the populus, apparently. Libeskind got it because he at least attempted a little … how can I put this? … spiritual showmanship? And the skyscraper 1776 feet high. A shameless play to the gallery, and isn't that just New York, New York, all over?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 AM
September 08, 2003
Getting back the art that the Nazis stole

There's an interesting culture story in today's New York Times:

WASHINGTON, Sept. 7 — An organization for American museums is initiating a central registry of art objects on Monday, created to help speed the return to their rightful owners of paintings, drawings and sculpture seized during the Nazi era.

The Internet registry, which lists information on nearly 6,000 artworks in 66 of the largest American art museums, opens a new chapter in a controversy that erupted in the mid-1990's over the restitution of assets the Nazis plundered from Holocaust victims and others.

Recovering artworks, thousands of them seized by the Nazis from public museums and private collectors in Europe during the 1930's and 40's, has been a lingering goal, partly because of the difficulties in tracking the provenance, or trail of ownership, of many pieces.

Here is the website. Unsurprisingly, it is being said that this effort is not as much of an effort as it might be, and about that I have no informed comment to offer.

I wonder how long it will be before the world of art resounds to cries that it needs this stuff as well, i.e. little tiny hidden chippy thingies attached to everything that enables the Art World Government to track them wherever they go. Well, I don't really, because I don't know what I'm talking about. They've probably been using this sort of technology for years. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they were among the earliest customers for it and that they helped pioneer it.

The Nazis haven't been the only art criminals.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:08 PM
August 19, 2003
When people ask Brian's Culture Blog: "Brian's Culture Blog, where can we get cut-your-own snowflakes on the Internet?", I tell them …

Some culture from Dave Barry.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:58 PM
August 18, 2003
The economics of CDs and DVDs

This Guardian has a story today about how the Internet, instead of wrecking the music industry, is reviving it, by forcing it to lower its CD prices.

But the economics of the Guardian piece is all over the place. Success is defined as total money spent, which, now that people are spending the same amounts of money on more and cheaper products, is holding up. Profits are falling, says the story, but that doesn't matter.

Oh yes it does. The record companies may be shifting their existing product at fire-sale prices, but these numbers won't encourage them to record new stuff.

For the time being, they can still make some money with their biggest selling pop artists. But the future of the music industry remains uncertain.

I've been noting the fall in classical CD prices for some time. I can't help noticing that sellers of CDs are now aware that one of my alternatives is to get hold of a copy of the CD in question by borrowing and copying it. The morals of this may be as wobbly as the Guardian's economics, but wobbly morals, unlike the grim certainties of economics, don't stop things happening. The basic, low-as-it-gets price for a quite decent but long available classical CD is just £. This compares very favourably with the bother of copying. That's what I paid, for example, for a very decent recording by Maria-Joao (sprinkle Spanish squiggles to taste) Pires, of Mozart's piano concertos 13, 14 and 23. Before ubiquitous CD burners, this would have set me back £3. at least.

It's the same with books. The price of books very exactly reflects the bother of photocopying from a legitimate copy, both in terms of how easy it is to get hold of a copy, and how easy it is to actually photocopy it. Not very, which is why remaindered books can still fetch several quid, despite their low tech nature – in fact because of it.

What's holding CD prices up, still, is that there are still plenty of listeners out there who can't be doing with this internet malarkey and still want to have an entirely separate system for music to the system they have for internet surfing or emailing or doing their homework. I'm one of these neanderthals. Soon we will all be dead. As we die, the Internet will gradually mutate into one vast, free, jukebox. For many it's that already. But not me. I like CDs. I like the idea of owning music, in the form of an object for each clutch of pieces. I feel about CDs what an earlier generation felt about LPs and what an even earlier one than that felt about 78s.

But I'm noticing that with movies my psychology is different. The knowledge that truly high definition movies for the home are yet to arrive, and the fact that a favourite movie does not immediately demand to be watched four more times (while a treasurable new CD demands exactly that), all make me less bothered about owning movies on DVD. If their purchase price resembles the cost of hiring, I'll buy. Over about twelve quid, forget it.

It doesn't help that DVDs come in ludicrously space-consuming boxes. At some point, I might seriously consider switching all the movies I do own on DVD into CD-type jewel cases. I mean, what nincompoop thought, after the electronics industry had sweated blood to get the info boiled down into a beer mat, that the way to package DVDs was to make them take up as much space as possible. I guess, what with VHS tapes, they were just addicted to big fat rectangles.

Plus, I suppose when they introduced DVDs they reckoned they'd charge forty quid for each one and that the average punter would own about twenty of them in his entire life.

But we punters are smarter than that. We know that the marginal cost of copying a movie is zero, near enough, no matter how many gazillions they may spend making the damn movies in the first place. We always knew, having watched the price of CDs drift downwards over the last two decades, that DVDs would soon move downwards too, and if they are still asking twenty quid for a favourite movie, to hell with them. We only buy a quarter as many of the damn thing. Ergo, DVD movie prices have plunged a lot more quickly than CD prices.

Soon there will be DVDs in the charity shops, just as there have long been quite decent CDs there.

The longer term future of both music making and movie making will become much more dispersed, and diverse. More will be done by people who just want to make music or make movies. Money will still be just as important, but in a different way. The typical customer of the new age will not be a passive listener or watcher, but an active creator.

A bit like blogging. We don't make money with our blogging. We are the customers – for bandwidth, for blogging software, for cameras and flash cards so we can decorate our blogs, for designers who can tart up the look of our blogs, for nicer screens, for nicer speakers to play each others' tunes.

The new age, in other words, will not be an age in which canned music and canned movies make the money. What will make the money will be the cans and the canning equipment. The instruments.

That's enough. Probably already too much. Sorry if it was all too boring and obvious.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:12 PM
August 04, 2003
Who is Santiago Calatrava? – on being a bright fifteen-year-old again

The New York Times comments approvingly on the fact that the man who designed this beautiful footbridge in Bilbao will also be doing some stuff at Ground Zero.

Perhaps the most important of these is the bold choice of Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect, to design a new PATH terminal on the site of the World Trade Center. Mr. Calatrava is a master of transportation architecture, and his selection provides just the kind of commitment to serious architecture that this page has often hoped for. His open, organic structures are startlingly beautiful, often evoking the kind of uplifting spirituality that this site will need. The fact that Mr. Calatrava was chosen by the Port Authority suggests that even the most matter-of-fact participants in rebuilding ground zero can see the wonder of its possibilities.

This man would appear to be what David Sucher calls a starchitect. Clever word. Did you think of it David?

Personally I tend to like starchitecture these days, although not in the earlier decades of my life, but I'll leave that argument until later.

For now I just want to give the Internet a pat on the back. The Internet, I think, is very good, which I did not think of first, but which I am now thinking with particular thoughtfulness.

I was once a failing architecture student, and as regulars here now know, I remain a (st)architecture fan. But until recently, I despaired at the cost of keeping up with it all. Keeping up means you had to have pictures, and pictures on paper are just too expensive, and too bulky to share a flat with if you get at all serious.

Until today, I had no idea who Santiago Calatrava was, or about that beautiful footbridge in Bilbao. I am, in short, thanks to the Internet, catching up.

I dined with Michael Jennings last night, and he was likewise raving about how much sheer stuff the average bright fifteen-year-old now has at his finger tips, compared to the time when he was a bright fifteen-year-old, searching through inadequate libraries for dumbed down books about whatever it was, that as likely as not weren't there at all.

I am now going to do a posting on my Education Blog, linking to this one, because the real point of this posting here is not Hurrah For Calatrava. It is hurrah that I was able to learn about the guy, and so amazingly quickly.

About fifteen minutes ago, I knew nothing of him. Then, the daily New York Times email, and I'm straight to the op-ed piece linked to above. Google search: "Santiago Calatrava". Bingo. Now I've done about half an essay on him. Education or what? I am myself back to being a bright fifteen-year-old.

Next question: what is a "PATH terminal"?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:00 PM
June 30, 2003
Fireworks over the Statue of Liberty

Pretty cool, says Dave Barry. As do I.

Although to be literal, fireworks are more pretty than cool. Interesting the double meanings of both those words. " She's pretty ugly." "That fire was way cool." Odd.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 AM
June 09, 2003
Cool cat

Nothing profound today. But something wondrously superficial, courtesy b3ta.com, a major fountain of internet weirdness and fun.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:27 AM
March 27, 2003
Registering the impact of the Internet from an unfamiliar angle

The Internet, or at any rate my corner of it, is misbehaving just now. I assume that it's the war, and the huge surge of Internet traffic that the war has triggered, and the various rearrangements that have been made in response to this surge.

My long term faith in the Internet as one of the most important things now happening in the world is unshaken, but let's just say that, from where I sit, the thing still has some way to go. Computers are always frustrating when they don't work. This is because when they do work, which let's face it is most of the time, they do miracles.

I spent last weekend in Poland, at a Libertarian Conference in Krakow, and I've already put up three postings (this about Auschwitz, and this and this about Polish education) concerning and deriving from my stay there, in Krakow. And what a lovely city Krakow is by the way, untouched at its jewel of a centre by the Second World War. What happened was that the Russians, smarting from their bad press in connection with how they handled Warsaw, went round, but left a gap for the Germans to escape through. Which the Germans did escape through, despite Hitler's stand-and-die orders. Thus was Krakow saved.

But back to the Internet. Why all of a sudden am I taking it upon myself to expound the obvious, namely that the Internet is very important? Well, having been at that conference, I can now add something.

You know how you spot changes in a place by not living there, but just visiting from time to time. I live in London, but if I want to know what the big changes in the appearance of London are, I ask people who only drop by occasionally, like me visiting Paris (because it's Paris) or Bratislava (where I have friends). Has London got any cleaner lately, or busier, or noisier, or prettier? I ask visiting friends to tell me. I don't know.

I've spoken at plenty of other conferences at various times over the years, but not at an exactly similar one. Well, it's over a decade since I have actually spoken at one of these Libertarian International conferences, apart from the one last autumn in London, which is a different experience and thus doesn't quite count for these purposes. Going to Tallin, or Norway, or Brussels, is not like staying in London and attending one of these conferences, but it is like going to Krakow for one.

And in Krakow it hit me. There I was, talking away about how I wanted libertarians to think, and in particular to think about "culture". And there was this little clutch of young Polish faces staring intently at me, like baby rodents surprised by a nature documentary camera team. And it felt important. It felt like it mattered what I said, and that what I said might count for something, and maybe quite soon. Why? Because the Internet has now empowered people like this. I was no longer placing a long-odds bet that what I was trying to persuade these young people to think about might eventually count for something, when one of them became a professor or a cabinet minister. People like this could immediately, if what I said had any effect, go to their rooms or their internet cafés and register this effect by typing it into their computers, just as I'm typing now.

It was the huge time gap between going to Krakow and going to the previous foreign part that I went to to participate in one of these things that caused me to register this transformation so strongly. Thinking about it, the last of these conferences I journeyed to was in Tallin, in 1991, over a decade ago. The Internet was then but a gleam in the eye of a few Americans, who in any case regarded it as a substitute for good writing rather than a vehicle for it and whom I therefore ignored. As far as I was concerned, the thing did not exist, and thus people like me and like those who typically attend Libertarian International conferences had no direct means of telling the world how we felt and thought about things. Bothering to even talk at such an event was an act of faith, that eventually something would come of it. Now, no such faith is needed.

That sense that any half-intelligent libertarian hack had to have circa 1990, namely that he could well be wasting his time, has gone. I dealt with this fear by simply shutting it out. Others dealt with it by doing something else that made more immediate sense. Now, mouthing off like this does make sense. Just as with that talk I gave in Krakow, you never know who might be listening or what they might make of it, and make of it immediately.

We still might lose, but at least we can go down fighting. The people who show up at those conferences may still be fairly lowly folks, but I no longer fear that any of them are merely people into whom ideas go, there to die. Even the lowliest of them can say things around a dinner table which could show up the next morning in some Internet pronouncement, such as this one. The Internet has blown away the stink of defeat.

I'm not saying that having the run of the New York Times op-ed columns is no better than writing Brian's Culture Blog or Brian's Education Blog, or writing for Samizdata. I know my place in the pecking order and it is a lowly one. But it exists. I have my little attic room in the city, and the key to my own front door. I can enter, sit down, and say what I like. And so can all my friends. We don't have to beg any more.

My team is no more likely to win than ever it was. I and my lowly libertarian friends are empowered, but so are hundreds of millions of others. But thanks to the Internet, I am now part of the conversation. I'm no longer just yelling incoherent noises from the touchline, and hoping against hope that occasionally my voice will be heard above the din. The chasm, to pursue this sporting metaphor, that is fixed between the player and the fan, no longer applies to what I do. I'm kicking things around too.

I've known all this for years, of course. Why else would I have become a blogger? But in Krakow last Sunday I saw these same old facts from an unfamiliar angle and in an unfamiliar place, and they jumped out and bit me. This stuff really is as big as printing. You knew that anyway, I know, but I'm telling you again.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:21 PM