Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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- Wheel behind trees
- Big cat scan
- From a cat cushion to Bill Murray and a nude to a demon horse sculpture that killed its creator
- My favourie partial eclipse photos
- Bean drops snow on tourist
- Paul Kennedy on centimetric radar
- More White Vans
- Quota scaffolding and quota roof clutter
- Not squash
- A weird view of the Wheel - and cats in Tiger
- White Vin Van
- White Van
- BT Tower behind trees
- You don’t see this any more
- Photoing the photoers on Westminster Bridge
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Category archive: Technology
It started with this picture, which I took at the home of some friends a while back. I know exactly how you probably feel about this cushion, but on the other hand, I don’t care:
I love how the TV remote is there next to it. I had no idea at the time, or I would have made a point of including all of it.
But now the www-journey begins. At the bottom right hand corner of the cusion are the words “Susan Herbert”.
Obviously, I click where it says “visit page”, and arrive here. I scroll down, looking for the picture of Bill Murray and the artistic nude girl. I don’t ever find the picture of Bill Murray and the artistic nude girl, but I do encounter this, which is a posting about a big blue horse at Denver Airport. Clicking on “Denver Public Art Program” merely gets me to useless crap about Denver, but googling “luis jimenez mustang” gets me to pictures like this ...:
… and to an article in the Wall Street Journal from February 2009, which says things like this about the Blue Denver Horse:
Anatomically correct - eye-poppingly so - the 32-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture makes quite a statement at the gateway to Denver International Airport.
But that begs the question: What kind of statement, exactly?
“It looks like it’s possessed,” says Denver resident Samantha Horoschak. “I have a huge fear of flying anyway, and to be greeted at the airport by a demon horse - it’s not a soothing experience.”
Many people here agree, calling the muscular steed a terrifying welcome to the Mile High City.
Samantha Horoschak was not wrong. Because, it gets better:
Mr. Jimenez was killed working on the sculpture. In 2006, while he was hoisting pieces of the mustang for final assembly in his New Mexico studio, the horse’s massive torso swung out of control and crushed the 65-year-old artist.
Ah, that magic moment in the creative process when a work of art escapes from the control of its creator and carves out a life of its own, independent of its creator. And kills him.
Is it still there? How many more victims has it claimed? Has it caused any crashes?
I love the internet. And not just because I am quickly able to look up the proper spelling of such words as “posthumous” (which was in the original version of the title of this) and “kitsch”. It’s the mad journeys it takes you on. Who needs stupid holidays when you can go on a crazy trip like this without getting out of your kitchen chair?
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
Dezeen reports, here.
Hey, maybe a drone could have a 3D printer attached to it, to 3D print in the sky!
As Andy said in his comment on this:
I think the answer is micro-controllers ...
Yes, once you have clever computers piloting these things, rather than clumsy old humans, they can do almost anything.
I just googled “3D printing” and clicked on “images”. One of the more interesting images I encountered was this one ...:
… which I found here. The point being that this is one of those technologies which lots of people are getting excited about, perhaps as something they might be able to do themselves, for fun but also for profit. But most of the significant early applications of 3D printing seem now to be by businesses which were already making stuff, and now have another way to make it. Regular thing makers (for those not inclined to follow links that’s a link to pieces about the use of 3D printing by the aerospace industry) have a huge advantage over “home” 3D printers, which is that they already know what would be worth making.
And making in quite large quantities, which means that they can acquire or construct highly specialised 3D printers for those particular items, which use their own very particular material inputs. 3D printers, if they are to pay their way, must surely specialise. Which means they’ll be applied first by businessmen, rather than by mere people in their homes.
I have yet to hear about any 3D printing killer app which will kick off the much talked-of but yet-to-occur home 3D printing revolution. It will come, I’m sure. But it hasn’t come yet.
For all his joie de vivre, Jardine is a master drone builder and pilot whose skills have produced remarkable footage for shows like Australian Top Gear, the BBC’s Into the Volcano, and a range of music videos. His company Aerobot sells camera-outfitted drones, including custom jobs that require unique specifications like, say, the capacity to lift an IMAX camera. From a sprawling patch of coastline real estate in Queensland, Australia, Jardine builds, tests, and tweaks his creations; the rural tranquility is conducive to a process that may occasionally lead to unidentified falling objects.
Simply put, if you’ve got a drone flying challenge, Jardine is your first call.
So, Mr Jardine is now flying his flying robots over volcanoes. There are going to be lots of calls to have these things entirely banned, but they are just too useful for that to happen.
When I was a kid and making airplanes out of balsa wood and paper, powered with rubber band propellers, I remember thinking that such toys were potentially a lot more than mere toys. I’m actually surprised at how long it has taken for this to be proved right.
What were the recent developments that made useful drones like Jardine’s possible? It is down to the power-to-weight ratio of the latest mini-engines? I tried googling “why drones work”, but all I got was arguments saying that it’s good to use drones to kill America’s enemies, not why they are now usable for such missions.
It often happens with me that, while rootling around in the archives for one picture, I stumble across another which strikes me as worth showing to the massed ranks of BrianMicklethwaitDotCom’s readers.
Pictures like this, for instance, which I took at the top of the Monument, in November 2012:
Small, blurry, totally recognisable. Definitely a Big Thing.
As for all that wire netting (which I believe dramatically lowers the cheese content of the above shot), well, here is another shot, of how matters at the top of the Monument used to be not so long ago:
I took that in July 2007. (Note the pleasingly dated camera.) The change from prison bars to wire netting, which happened soon after that, was presumably because of different versions of health and safety. Originally there was neither, just some waste high railings. See this hand-done photo “by Canalleto (after)”, whatever that means. (His production line, but not him, maybe?) And see also this picture.
Today was the first first day of spring, so to speak. By this I mean that it was the first day of 2015 which made in clear that winter would eventually end and that summer would eventually arrive. Cool, but blue sky and sunshine. Meanwhile, winter may soon resume but spring at least is now officially on its way, and will happen.
As a technically rather incompetent photographer, heavily dependent on good light, I rejoice. The season of rootling through the archives is nearly over. The season of adding to the archives is getting started.
And, also today, I went to a funeral, in Salisbury, which is about an hour and half out of London by train, in a south westerly direction. The last time I ventured out of London into that part of England that is not-London for a ceremony, the weather was similarly excellent.
As soon as we stepped out of Salisbury station, strange and exotic sights presented themselves, such as this Stonehenge Tour Bus:
But there was something odd about it. It appeared to be leaning over somewhat, away from us. When I got round to the front of it, I saw that appearances had not deceived. It was leaning over:
How can a bus do that? Was the suspension malfunctioning? Was the Stonehenge Bus leaning over on purpose, in order to help a wheelchair bound passenger to embark? Was it partly parked on the pavement, and was a suspension computer overcompensating? Was there a kink in the road, downwards, next to the pavement?
I couldn’t hang about to investigate or to ask. We had a funeral to get to. But, odd.
First, the BMdotcom headline of the day:
These drones are being used to “monitor”, not for bombing or shooting. Nevertheless, interesting.
In other drone photography news, have a look at the new Apple Headquarters, as it takes shape. This particular movie seems to be friendly, so to speak. Apple would appear to have agreed to it. But what of drone photos and drone movies that are not so friendly?
I first realised that drones would be a big deal when I saw one (with a camera attached) in a London shop window.
I just came across this Economist piece from last November (I think that link will keep on working), saying that there may soon be ultra-cheap trans-Atlantic flights. I did not know this.
Norwegian Air Shuttle, a low-cost carrier that has been expanding rapidly across Europe, has begun flying across the Atlantic and to Thailand. Next March Wow Air, an Icelandic carrier, will start flights on routes such as Boston to London, via Reykjavik, with introductory prices as low as $99 one way.
Time was when …:
… the fuel burned by long-haul planes made up a large proportion of the cost of operating the flights. That made it hard for budget carriers to find enough cost savings elsewhere to cut prices sufficiently to tempt flyers to switch from carriers offering more comforts.
This is now changing, with the launches of some new and far more fuel-efficient planes: Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, already in the air, Airbus’s A350, which will start flying within weeks, and a revamped version of Airbus’s A330, coming in 2019. Ryanair’s boss, Michael O’Leary, recently reiterated a promise that he would eventually sell transatlantic flights from as little as €10 ($13) one-way and with average return fares of around €200-300. The full-service airlines will also be ordering these new planes, but their cost disadvantage compared with the nimble budget carriers (because of such things as their legacy pension schemes and labour agreements) will become more stark.
Perhaps I will one day set foot in the USA after all.
As for that Economist link above, no, unless you subscribe. You have to google “making laker’s dream come true”. Then you can read it.
Or: this link seems to get you straight to a recycled version of the piece.