Brian Micklethwait's Blog

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

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Thursday March 26 2015

Is it a bird?

Yes:

image

Is it a plane?

Yes:

image

And it’s also a partial eclipse of the sun.

We had this in London, earlier in the week.  All I remember is that I, one of the seemingly small minority of people who realise that Britain’s next day weather forecasts are accurate, ignored it, knowing that it would be clouded out of view.

Which it was.

A routinely good way to photo something which is only quite interesting is to line it up with something else that is similarly quite interesting.  The result can be very interesting.

Wednesday March 25 2015

As usual, there’s lots of fun stuff at Colossal, of which a piece about the Chicago Bean attacking a tourist by dumping a lump of snow on them, is my recent favourite.

image

Go here to see the whole wonderful thing.

I like how people in Chicago call The Bean The Bean, rather than “Cloud Gate”.  I feel the same way about how The Wheel in London is The Wheel, rather than the “London Eye”.

Tuesday March 24 2015

I’ve been reading Paul Kennedy’s Engineers of Victory, which is about how WW2 was won, by us good guys.  Kennedy, like many others, identifies the Battle of the Atlantic as the allied victory which made all the other victories over Germany by the Anglo-American alliance possible.  I agree with the Amazon reviewers who say things like “good overview, not much engineering”.  But this actually suited me quite well.  At least I now know what I want to know more about the engineering of.  And thanks to Kennedy, I certainly want to know more about how centimetric radar was engineered.

Centimetric radar was even more of a breakthrough, arguably the greatest. HF-DF might have identified a U-boat’s radio emissions 20 miles from the convoy, but the corvette or plane dispatched in that direction still needed to locate a small target such as a conning tower, perhaps in the dark or in fog.  The giant radar towers erected along the coast of southeast England to alert Fighter Command of Luftwaffe attacks during the Battle of Britain could never be replicated in the mid-Atlantic, simply because the structures were far too large.  What was needed was a miniaturized version, but creating one had defied all British and American efforts for basic physical and technical reasons: there seemed to be no device that could hold the power necessary to generate the microwave pulses needed to locate objects much smaller than, say, a squadron of Junkers bombers coming across the English Channel, yet still made small enough to be put on a small escort vessel or in the nose of a long-range aircraft.  There had been early air-to-surface vessel (ASV) sets in Allied aircraft, but by 1942 the German Metox detectors provided the U-boats with early warning of them.  Another breakthrough was needed, and by late spring of 1943 that problem had been solved with the steady introduction of 10-centimeter (later 9.1-centimeter) radar into Allied reconnaissance aircraft and even humble Flower-class corvettes; equipped with this facility, they could spot a U-boat’s conning tower miles away, day or night.  In calm waters, the radar set could even pick up a periscope. From the Allies’ viewpoint, the additional beauty of it was that none of the German systems could detect centimetric radar working against them.

Where did this centimetric radar come from?  In many accounts of the war, it simply “pops up”; Liddell Hart is no worse than many others in noting, “But radar, on the new 10cm wavelength that the U-boats could not intercept, was certainly a very important factor.” Hitherto, all scientists’ efforts to create miniaturized radar with sufficient power had failed, and Doenitz’s advisors believed it was impossible, which is why German warships were limited to a primitive gunnery-direction radar, not a proper detection system.  The breakthrough came in spring 1940 at Birmingham University, in the labs of Mark Oliphant (himself a student of the great physicist Ernest Rutherford), when the junior scientists John Randall and Harry Boot, working in a modest wooden building, finally put together the cavity magnetron.

This saucer-sized object possessed an amazing capacity to detect small metal objects, such as a U-boat’s conning tower, and it needed a much smaller antenna for such detection.  Most important of all, the device’s case did not crack or melt because of the extreme energy exuded.  Later in the year important tests took place at the Telecommunications Research Establishment on the Dorset coast.  In midsummer the radar picked up an echo from a man cycling in the distance along the cliff, and in November it tracked the conning tower of a Royal Navy submarine steaming along the shore. Ironically, Oliphant’s team had found their first clue in papers published sixty years earlier by the great German physicist and engineer Adolf Herz, who had set out the original theory for a metal casement sturdy enough to hold a machine sending out very large energy pulses.  Randall had studied radio physics in Germany during the 1930s and had read Herz’s articles during that time.  Back in Birmingham, he and another young scholar simply picked up the raw parts from a scrap metal dealer and assembled the device.

Almost inevitably, development of this novel gadget ran into a few problems: low budgets, inadequate research facilities, and an understandable concentration of most of Britain’s scientific efforts at finding better ways of detecting German air attacks on the home islands. But in September 1940 (at the height of the Battle of Britain, and well before the United States formally entered the war) the Tizard Mission arrived in the United States to discuss scientific cooperation.  This mission brought with it a prototype cavity magnetron, among many other devices, and handed it to the astonished Americans, who quickly recognized that this far surpassed all their own approaches to the miniature-radar problem.  Production and test improvements went into full gear, both at Bell Labs and at the newly created Radiation Laboratory (Rad Lab) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Even so, there were all sorts of delays - where could they fit the equipment and operator in a Liberator?  Where could they install the antennae? - so it was not until the crisis months of March and April 1943 that squadrons of fully equipped aircraft began to join the Allied forces in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Soon everyone was clamoring for centimetric radar - for the escorts, for the carrier aircraft, for gunnery control on the battleships.  The destruction of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst off the North Cape on Boxing Day 1943, when the vessel was first shadowed by the centimetric radar of British cruisers and then crushed by the radar-controlled gunnery of the battleship HMS Duke of York, was an apt demonstration of the value of a machine that initially had been put together in a Birmingham shed.  By the close of the war, American industry had produced more than a million cavity magnetrons, and in his Scientists Against Time (1946) James Baxter called them “the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores” and “the single most important item in reverse lease-lend.” As a small though nice bonus, the ships using it could pick out life rafts and lifeboats in the darkest night and foggiest day.  Many Allied and Axis sailors were to be rescued this way.

Monday March 23 2015

First, an outstanding White Van photo snapped from what looks like the inside of a cafe, by Simon Gibbs, to whom profuse thanks:

image

I’ve been photoing White Vans for a month and more, but have never got three of them in one go like that.  That arrived chez moi first thing this morning.

And then, to my amazement, this was this at Guido, also today:

image

That’s right.  Labour have launched there very own White Van!  You wouldn’t dare make that up.  I knew I was onto something with all this White Vannery.

The problem for the Labour Party here is that Essex White Van Man, the original beast, doesn’t work as an employee driver for Wellocks, or for Office Revival or for Yate Supplies (these being the enterprises who own and whose glory is proclaimed by Simon’s three White Vans above), and certainly not for the Labour Party.  He has his own White Van, which is entirely white, as you can see when you peruse that original tweet that got all this fuss started:

image

That snap being a recent one of mine.  And, as Guido points out, a proper Essex White Van is not a Merc, as the Labour White Van is.  He doesn’t go on to say that it should be a Ford Transit, as above, but it should.  The White Van in the original tweet is a Transit.

This new Labour White Van is supposed to separate Labour from the la-di-da world of London and to assert its connection to the common (i.e. non-rich-London) man.  But it fails to do this, because, as these recent White Van postings of mine have been explaining, White Vans covered in poncey graphics are now quintessentially London.  I assume that they have also become quintessentially Wigan and quintessentially Rotherham and for that matter quintessential Dagenham.  But I further assume that when true-blue Wiganians and Rotherhamians and Dagenhamians look at them, they see, not their local culture, but cultural imperialism by bloody London.

(Damn.  I did everything to this posting put actually post it “today”, so I’m leaving the date I originally attached to it.  Cheating I know but it talks about Monday as today, so Monday it is.)

Sunday March 22 2015

Indeed.  Note to self: get well soon.

This really is a case of oh dear I’ve put nothing on the blog today, and I have a rule:

image

That’s looking along Lower Marsh, last September.  The scaffolding is just scaffolding.  But the roof clutter is special, being on the top of Millbank Tower.  I like that I could just see the only truly interesting bit of that building from where I was.  I particularly like that burst of roof clutter, because I can see it from my front door.

I also like the colour of the sky.  You only get that kind of colour with a camera.  The sky is never that colour for real.

Saturday March 21 2015

Yes, they aren’t playing any squash today.  It’s been rugby rugby rugby all the way.

First Wales knocked up a cricket score against Italy in Rome, and took the lead in the three-way race for the Six Nations.  Then Ireland thrashed Scotland and took pole position.  Now England and France are playing a mad game at Twickenham.  At the moment it’s England 48 France 35.  How mad is that?  It probably won’t be enough, but England are giving it a right old go.  England need about two more tries, I think, and since France are also scoring tries every so often, even that might not be enough.  But.  Five minutes to go, and England have just scored another try.  53-35.  Bloody hell.  This conversion has to go over.  Then they have to score another try and convert that.  Conversion over.  55-35.  It’s on.  It all has the air of been too frantic and unreal to work.  But, maybe.

Trouble is, I’ve got a terrible headache and bunged-up face, and am in almost no state at all to enjoy it all.  Maybe too much Parma ham at Christian Michel’s last night?  That or the cheap white wine.  But, I have most of it on video.

Game nearly over.  England need one more try off, basically, the last play of the match.

No.  England attacking but France hold out.  Whistle.  55-35.  Epic fail.  But epic in a good way.

Wales were favourites after their big win in Rome, but they now have to make do with the bronze.  Ireland win it.  England second.  A great day.

Friday March 20 2015

Yesterday I visited a shop called Tiger in Tottenham Court Road.  Here is the sign about it that sticks out into the road, even though what I thought I was photoing at the time was the Wheel:

image

That’s actually one of my favourite views of the Wheel, because it is so weird and unexpected.  We’re looking south along Tottenham Court Road, with Centre Point on the left as we look.  You hear people seeing this, and saying: Oh look, the Wheel.  Wow.

Tiger has lots of stuff in it, which I haven’t time to tell you about now but will hope to do Real Soon Now.  But what I will say (today) is that, after a bit of searching, I found cats, in the shapes of: a cat mat, some cat suitcases, and some tigers:

image image image

Too knackered to say more now.  Suffice it to say that Tiger is a veritable cornucopia of cheap and cheerful stuff.

Thursday March 19 2015

Following on from yesterday’s White Van, here is another White Van, which marks the moment when I first started really noticing these things.  It was parked outside an office just round the corner from my front door:

image

Let’s take a closer look at the driver’s door of this White Van.  Because the exact moment when the whole White Van thing clicked inside my head was when I saw, and photoed, this:

image

There you go.  They’re having a laugh about White Van Man.  I told you it was a thing.

This happened on December 17th of last year, which was about a month after the Shadow Ministress did her tweet that cost her her shadow job.  But they’ve been driving around in that joke since well before all that, as this blog posting from April of last year proves.

And I know this got me thinking about White Vans, because the very next photos I took were of this:

image

I had been noticing this other White Van hanging around near my home, but until that moment I had not considered it something worth photoing.  Then, I did.  And, off an on, I’ve been photoing such vans ever since, although few of them as lavishly decorated as that one.

Wednesday March 18 2015

Ever since that ruckus when a Labour Shadow Cabinet Ministress got into hot water with a tweet which involved a White Van, I’ve been photoing White Vans.  And, in fact, I think I have been doing this since before that little drama.  This White Van, photoed by me today in the Covent Garden area, is one of my favourites so far:

image

The point is, White Vans have rather gone up in the world.  Lots of them now come with much carefully designed décor and info.  London now abounds with fleets of White Vans thus decorated, white being the preferred colour by far.  It’s like an automotive uniform.

It’s as if White Vans have a sort of macho-stroke-ironic appeal to those who drive them, and to the rest of us.  The drivers, when asked what they do for a living, can say: I drive a White Van.  Oh, ha ha ha!  But no, not one of those White Vans, the sort they have in Essex.  Oh no.

Or alternatively, if the driver is a genuine White Van Man, with no irony involved, of the sort that lady politician was having a go at, he’s happy too, even if he would probably prefer plain white, rather than all that poncey verbiage.  And he’d rather have sacks of cement or tubs of plaster in the back there, rather than nerdy SF stuff.

Well, not sure about that.  But White Vans are definitely, as they say nowadays, a thing.

Tuesday March 17 2015

I was in Tottenham Court Road this afternoon, searching out a toner cartridge for what I discovered is now an antique laser printer.  I had no idea until now how much less toner cartridges cost if you get them on line.  Stupid me. 

Anyway, it was a chance to photo the BT Tower, the first and still one of the greatest of London’s new Big Things (Big Thing being what BT stands for).  Most things in London look better in bright sunshine, or at least I can photo them better.  But for some reason, this rule does not apply to the BT Tower.  Today’s decidedly muggy weather suited it very well.  Because it is quite a way behind those empty trees, it looks dim and grey, instead of bright, and this seems to suit it.  Maybe this is because muggy weather makes it look further away, and consequently bigger.  Here is my favourite shot that I took of it:

image

Summer is very nice and well lit and warm and everything, but all those damn leaves get in the way horribly, and ruin all manner of what could be great shots.

Monday March 16 2015

Do you get bored with my obsession with photographing photographers?  Well, such photos are easily skipped.  It’s not like you have to read a whole chunk of stuff before you realised that the posting was of no interest to you.

Meanwhile, here is a cropped-out chunk of a photo I took on August 18th 2007, which tells me that, quite aside from photoing photoers being enormous fun at the time, photoing photoers will continue to be enormous fun far into the future, for as long as I have a future:

image

That’s right.  The lady is taking a picture with a small, cheap digital camera.  And she is, it would appear, on the phone, with her phone (one of the old-school folding sort) jammed between her raised-up shoulder and her ear.  You would never see such a thing now, because the two gadgets would now be one and the same gadget.

You get a similar thing when you see people simultaneously photoing with and wired up to and listening to the same phone, a “phone” that would have been two separate pieces of kit a while back.

Things that will change, like cameras and phones and music machines, are more interesting to photo than things that will not change any time soon, like Big Ben.

Sunday March 15 2015

Last Friday was another of those first days of Spring, which are coming thick and fast now.  Spring has very nearly sprung, in other words.  So, I was out on Westminster Bridge photoing the tourists and their cameras like it was 2006.  Here are my favourites:

image imageimage image

I’ve always been fond of the baglady look, and we see two more examples of the genre there.

For some reason, I feel that a photo of someone holding up a Cool Britannia bag is a lot cooler than a Cool Britannia bag.  And the other baglady, dressed as David Hockney, looks really good in front of all that appetising verbiage, on the food kiosk next to Westminster Bridge at the Parliament end, right near where this photo was also taken.  A favourite spot.

As for the lady in black, I’m not sure whether was actually photoing.  Maybe she was just checking text messages.  I hope she is having a good life.  Here is a recent reminder that burqas can be bad news for those who wear them.

As for the group self-photoing themselves with a selfie stick, it really is time that I gathered up all the selfie-stick photos I’ve taken lately, and posted a group of them here.  (But, I promise nothing.)

The selfie-stick is the latest photoing device to incur the wrath of all of those people who divert themselves by getting wrathful about the newly acquired habits of others, especially when those habits involve photography, and especially when they involve self-photography.  The last such fuss involved using tablets to take photos.

Although, it seems that selfie sticks have been around for a bit longer than you might think.

Saturday March 14 2015

Squash?  And what the hell is squash?  Exactly.  It’s a potentially great game, in which a couple of guys with slimmed down tennis rackets bash a black rubber ball around in a small courtyard.  The trouble is that the courtyard is too small.  As a result, the better the players, the harder it is to hit a winning shot.  Watch a top squash game, and you are watching two of the people least likely ever to make a mistake, waiting for one of them to make a mistake.  Watching paint dry is Shakespearian drama by comparison.

Well, rugby union is becoming like this.  Two teams now consisting entirely of men-mountains knock seven bells out of each other for an hour.  (Backs now look like forwards used to look, and forwards now look like laboratory accidents. The teams who are most depressing to watch are France and Wales, because they used to have diminutive attackers who did things like smoke, and dodge tackles instead of driving into them like human tanks the way everyone does now.) If either team gets tired, the other team might then score some tries, but if neither does, the contest is settled by the referee making incomprehensible penalty decisions, and by the two opposing penalty kickers.

Watching Ireland and Wales, two of the best teams in the Six Nations, is what is making me say this.  It’s deep into the second half already, and for the first time in the entire game so far, one of the teams (Ireland) looks like it might score a try. But no.  The ref has just blown his whistle, again, and Ireland fail to score.  So Wales stay in the lead by four penalties and a drop goal, to three penalties.

Now Wales have just failed to score a try.  The commentators are saying that this has been “a fantastic ten minutes of rugby”.  No.  Fantastic would have been if someone had actually scored.

The trouble is, the pitch is just not wide enough.  I remember Bruce the Real Photographer saying this to me about a decade ago.  He may have been right then, and I reckon he’s definitely right now.

And the Welsh have now scored, a really good try.  Typical.

And now Ireland have scored, a penalty try, which is rather unsatisfactory but at least it’s a try.  A penalty try is the one where the two scrums go at each other, and the defending scrum does something mysteriously illegal to stop the other scrum tanking themselves over the line.  Wales 20 Ireland 16.  It’s livening up.

Commentator:  “It’s a thrilling encounter.  It’s a shame there’s only about eleven minutes left.”

So.  Squash for an hour.  (One of the commentators called it “muscular chess”.) Then a quarter of an hour of rugby.  This is what counts as “a fantastic game of rugby”.

Later: Wales 23 Ireland 16.

Friday March 13 2015

Indeed. What on earth was I thinking, posting - on a Thursday, rather than today, Friday, the traditional BMdotcom day for cat-related items - a piece that starts with how computers are rather bad at recognising cats? I only even realised that the cat category should be attached to the posting just now.  Oh well.

imageAnyway, more cat news, which I did deliberately hold back until today, is that the mega-behemothic-super-industry that is Hello Kitty is making a deliberate play for more male customers, with T-shirts decorated with such things as the picture you see to your right.  But, will such images repel human females?  You can imagine the high level debates that the Hello Kitty high ups (I somehow imagine them to be mostly men) must have been having about this issue, of such fundamental importance to their brand.

More cat news?  I need a bit more to be sure that the picture there doesn’t bash its way into the posting below (even though that would be rather appropriate).  Well, I am sad to report that for some people, the most interesting thing about the death of Terry Pratchett (good quote that – that’s the sort of thing he will be really missed for) was that he had a cat sleeping on his bed at the time.

Thursday March 12 2015

I have been reading Peter Thiel‘s book Zero to One.  It abounds with pithily and strongly expressed wisdoms.

Here (pp. 143-5) is how Thiel explains the difference between humans and computers, and how they complement one another in doing business together:

To understand the scale of this variance, consider another of Google’s computer-for-human substitution projects.  In 2012, one of their supercomputers made headlines when, after scanning 10 million thumbnails of YouTube videos, it learned to identify a cat with 75% accuracy.  That seems impressive-until you remember that an average four-year-old can do it flawlessly.  When a cheap laptop beats the smartest mathematicians at some tasks but even a supercomputer with 16,000 CPUs can’t beat a child at others, you can tell that humans and computers are not just more or less powerful than each other - they’re categorically different.

The stark differences between man and machine mean that gains from working with computers are much higher than gains from trade with other people. We don’t trade with computers any more than we trade with livestock or lamps.  And that’s the point: computers are tools, not rivals.

Thiel then writes about how he learned about the above truths when he and his pals at Paypal solved one of their biggest problems:

In mid-2000 we had survived the dot-com crash and we were growing fast, but we faced one huge problem: we were losing upwards of $10 million to credit card fraud every month.  Since we were processing hundreds or even thousands of transactions per minute, we couldn’t possibly review each one - no human quality control team could work that fast.

So we did what any group of engineers would do: we tried to automate a solution.  First, Max Levchin assembled an elite team of mathematicians to study the fraudulent transfers in detail.  Then we took what we learned and wrote software to automatically identify and cancel bogus transactions in real time. But it quickly became clear that this approach wouldn’t work either: after an hour or two, the thieves would catch on and change their tactics. We were dealing with an adaptive enemy, and our software couldn’t adapt in response.

The fraudsters’ adaptive evasions fooled our automatic detection algorithms, but we found that they didn’t fool our human analysts as easily.  So Max and his engineers rewrote the software to take a hybrid approach: the computer would flag the most suspicious transactions on a well-designed user interface, and human operators would make the final judgment as to their legitimacy.  Thanks to this hybrid system - we named it “Igor,” after the Russian fraudster who bragged that we’d never be able to stop him - we turned our first quarterly profit in the first quarter of 2002 (as opposed to a quarterly loss of $29.3 million one year before).

There then follow these sentences.

The FBI asked us if we’d let them use Igor to help detect financial crime. And Max was able to boast, grandiosely but truthfully, that he was “the Sherlock Holmes of the Internet Underground.”

The answer was yes.

Thus did the self-declared libertarian Peter Thiel, who had founded Paypal in order to replace the dollar with a free market currency, switch to another career, as a servant of the state, using government-collected data to chase criminals.  But that’s another story.