Brian Micklethwait's Blog

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

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Category archive: Technology

Saturday March 25 2017

Before we entered the Royal Opera House to endure and eventually to enjoy Die Meistersinger my friend and I wandered around Covent Garden, and chanced upon a shop selling artfully decorated skateboards, in other words looking like this:

image

As soon as I was inside this shop I asked if I could take some photos, and they said: snap away.  So I did.  I took the above photo first, which gives an idea of what it was that got my attention.  And then I took a lot more, of which the following were the least worst:

imageimageimageimageimage
imageimageimageimageimage
imageimageimageimageimage

I know.  Lots of reflections in the shiny surfaces of the skateboards.  But, you get the pictures.

A cat is involved (1.3 in the above clutch).  A rather rude cat, but a cat.  At first, I thought I ought to hurry the posting up and have this ready for last Friday.  Then I thought, no, wait until next Friday.  And then I thought to hell with that, I’ve nearly done it, I will post it when it’s done.

These artistically enhanced boards have all the relaxed and unpretentious exuberance of graffiti, of the sort I most regularly observe in Leake Street under Waterloo Station.  You don’t have to read some idiot art-speak essay to find out what the hell this or that skateboard is “about”, even though it is sometimes obscure.  “SHAKEJUNT”.  “HAND IN GLOVE”.  “FIVE BORE”.  “FLIP”.  You probably have to be a skateboarder to get what words like those mean.  Which probably explains why I like the giant TV remote the best.  That I definitely understand.

However, a magic ingredient that separates these skateboards from graffiti is that the skateboards come with added property rights.  Once you’ve painted your own particular skateboard, that’s how it stays painted.  Which means you can really go to town on it, make it really great, confident that some other artist won’t paint over what you’ve just done.

There is also the fact that a skateboard, unlike graffiti, can be moved hither and thither, which means it can be bought and sold.  This means that politically sane people will gravitate towards decorating skateboards and political ignorami will prefer graffiti, property rights and civilisation being things that go hand in hand, as do attacking property rights and barbarism.  Sadly, this does not necessarily mean that the skateboard art will be better, because mad artists are often better than sane artists.  Plus, you can now add the magic of digital photography to graffiti, thereby preserving it.  But as art objects, these skateboards will, unlike graffiti, be profitable and permanent.

Here’s the final photo I took, complete with the guy who said I could take all the other photos, despite knowing I wasn’t in the market for a decorated skateboard, but was merely interested in an art gallery-ish way:

image

I asked this guy for a card or something, so I could put a link to the place here, as I have done, see above.  He didn’t have anything on paper.  But then he thought: have a bag:

image

And that’s how I knew what the shop was called and where to find its website.

I hope this posting doesn’t do any harm to this enterprise, for example by diminishing its street credibility.  Do things still have street credibility?  Or, to put it in more recent parlance, is street credibility still a thing? 

Friday March 24 2017

A few days back, probably because it has long been aware of my fascination with cat fascination, the Great Machine in the Sky presented me with this advertisement:

image

Click on it to get to what was being advertised.

What it is, of course, is a system for a machine to become aware of other machines in its vicinity and thereby to communicate with these other machines, and this system is the work of CAT.  But the idea that a machine might somehow learn to realise if there is a cat in its vicinity, and would then, if there is, feel compelled to alert other machines to this menace, is rather clearly suggested.

If you do click on the above piece of horizontality, you will be greeted by the following claim:

WHEN MACHINES TALK, EVERYONE’S SAFER.

In a week’s time, there will be a Brian’s Last Friday meeting at which the speaker, Chris Cooper, will be contesting this claim.

Wednesday March 22 2017

Incoming from Michael Jennings, who encountered this sign at (a?) (the?) Jodhpur Fort in Rajasthan:

image

Hm, what to do?

Easy.  Use a drone instead.

LATER: See first comment.  It’s this:

image

There can only be one fort like that.

Categories updated to include Architecture, History, Sport, and War.

Blog and learn.

Friday March 10 2017

Whenever I encounter interesting vehicles, of which London possesses a great many, I try to photo them.  Taxis with fun adverts.  Diverting white vans.  Crane lorries.  That kind of thing.

In particular I like to photo ancient cars.  And, I also like to photo modern cars which are styled to look like ancient cars, like this one:

image

This is the Mitsubishi Pajero Jr. Flying Pug.  How do I know that?  Because I also went round the back and took this photo:

image

Is a pug a non-feline creature?  Sounds like a non-feline creature to me.

More about this eccentric vehicle here:

On sale for just three years between 1995 and 1998, it sold reasonably well and has been popular as a grey import. None of which explains what on Earth Mitsubishi was thinking when it devised this horror show, the special edition Flying Pug.

The Japanese have always loved old, British cars. Through the Nineties it was one of the biggest markets for the original Mini, but retro pastiches had become popular as well, led by the Nissan Micra-based Mitsuoka Viewt, which looked a bit like a miniature Jaguar Mark II.

Mitsubishi thought it would jump on the bandwagon. Out of all the cars it made, Mitsubishi decided the Pajero Jr would be the best platform. Ambitiously, the brochure said it had “the classic looks a London taxi.” In fact, it looked more like the absolutely gopping Triumph Mayflower.

The press thought it was ugly and the buying public agreed. Mitsubishi planned to build 1,000 Flying Pugs, but just 139 found homes. The deeply weird name can’t have helped, but Japanese-market cars are notorious for it; another special edition Pajero Jr was christened McTwist.

I agree that “Flying Pug” is a strange name.  And I agree that the Flying Pug doesn’t look much like a London taxi.  But it resembles the Triumph Mayflower even less.

I also do not agree that either the Flying Pug or the Triumph Mayflower are ugly.  And they are definitely not, to my eye, “absolutely gopping”, or a “horrow show”.  Each to his own.

But I do like the fact that I photoed a car of which there are only one hundred and thirty nine copies in existence.

Wednesday March 08 2017

Yesterday I did a Dezeen based posting here, and now I just did another.  But when two thirds through doing it, I realised it would do just as well for Samizdata.  All that needed adding was a bit of cringeing at the end to the effect that it could all be bollocks.  (Everything here could be bollocks.  That’s assumed.) So, Samizdata is where it went.

Title: A flying car that makes sense.  Dezeen posting I was reacting to, very favourably: here.

Are you one of my London libertarian friends.  Don’t forget the talk I will be hosting at the end of this month (March 31) given by Chris Cooper, about our new robot overlords.

Tuesday March 07 2017

So I had a look around Dezeen to see what’s there that’s interesting, and their most popular posting right now is about IKEA.  All I saw, for several days, was: IKEA.  So I ignored it.  But on close inspection, the posting is actually rather interesting.  Its title is: IKEA switches to furniture that snaps together in minutes without requiring tools.

Quote:

The fiddly ritual of assembling IKEA furniture is set to become a thing of the past as the furniture giant introduces products that snap together “like a jigsaw puzzle”.

The brand has developed a new type of joint, called a wedge dowel, that makes it much quicker and simpler to assemble wooden products. This does away with the need for screws, bolts, screwdrivers and allen keys.

My chosen destinations for furniture are charity shops, mostly.  That or basic second hand places.  Partly that’s an aesthetic preference.  I take pride in the cheapness of my living arrangements, that being my preferred look.  But part of that is because I have always assumed that flatpack furniture is indeed too fiddly and complicated to be relying on.  Also, frankly, I basically just don’t like IKEA’s furniture.

But for those who do like IKEA furniture, it looks like it is about to get a bit simpler to assemble.

Thought.  Does Lego make furniture?  I just googled that question, and google answer number one was this:

A company is making furniture that is like giant Lego for your home:

This furniture is designed to be taken apart over and over again.

It is called Mojuhler and is flatpack, modular furniture that can be changed from a chair to a table in minutes.

You can fund the project on Kickstarter from about £80.

Nice basic idea, but scroll down and you get to pictures of brackets and screws!  Screw all that, and not with a screwdriver.  It looks more like Meccano than Lego, I’d say.  It says on the right at that place that it failed to get its funding.  If that’s right, I’m not surprised.

This is more what I was thinking.

One of the basic drivers of design is the desire to own bigger versions of the stuff you played with as a little kid.  A lot of Art is like this, I believe.  So, why not furniture too?

Sunday March 05 2017

Via this posting at the Scott Adams blog, I first learned, just now, about Robots Read News.

All the pictures in this cartoon series are identical.  Only the words change.  Yet, the words on their own would probably not be so effective.

I especially enjoyed the first two comments on the above posting:

AtlantaDude:

If the Robot knows he is superior, I would expect him to be more condescending, and less angry - insulting humans in more subtle and clever ways than simply calling us stupid meat sacks, etc.

Scott Adams:

I am going for insensitive not angry. Part of the joke is that objectivity is indistinguishable from hate.

My next Brian’s Last Friday speaker (March 31) will be my Libertarian Friend from way back, Chris Cooper, talking about the rise of the robots.  They will rule us, he says, if I understand him correctly.  But maybe I don’t because he and I are both meat sacks.  Maybe he is expressing himself badly.  Or maybe I am misunderstanding him.  Or maybe both.  That I am understanding him correctly suddenly seems like a one in four chance.

Wednesday March 01 2017

As many times threatened here, this blog is going, more and more, to be about the process of (me) getting old.  As you (I) get older, your (my) grasp of the everyday mechanisms of early twenty first century life becomes ever more stuck in the late twentieth century.

One of the best known symptoms of advancing years is short-term memory loss.  In plain language, you do something or see something, and then you immediately forget all about it.  You put a remote control down, and seconds later, a portal into the seventh dimension opens up, swallows the remote, and closes again, and you spend the next ten minutes looking for the damn thing.  If I write with feeling, it is because exactly this just happened to me, when first-drafting this.  But at least when it came to this remote, I managed to persuade the portal into the seventh dimension to open and disgorge its prey, after only a few minutes of searching and brain-wracking.

Altogether more tiresome was when the same thing happened to this, about a fortnight ago:

image

As you can guess from the fact of the above photo, I eventually found this Thing again, but only after about a week of futile searching, through all the stuff in my small, one-bedroom home.

In the end, I had to give up, because I had instead to be preparing for the meeting I held at my home last Friday.  And then, in the midst of those preparations and much to my amazement, the above Thing revealed itself to me again.  It was in a place I should have looked in at once but failed to, but at least I found it.

What the Thing is is the electrical lead for my ancient laptop.  Time has not yet rendered this laptop useless, by which I mean not useless to me for my primitive late twentieth century purposes, but losing this lead might have this laptop useless even to me, if Maplin‘s had been unable to supply a replacement.  At the very least, I had started to expect a hefty bill, because people selling leads for such purposes know that they are dealing with desperate buyers, for whom a vital piece of kit will either resume working, or be forever useless.  Twenty quid?  Arrrrgh!  Hmmmm.  Okay, so be it.  (Bastards.)

I have a couple of bags entirely full of leads like the one above, In Case They Come In Handy, which of course they never will.  This is yet another category of stuff that you have to get used to chucking out, but being old, you find it hard to do.  Because, Sod’s Law decrees that as soon as you chuck one of these wires out, you will realise you do need it.

But, like I say, I found this particular bit of wire.  It wasn’t the best thing that happened to me last Friday.  (That was the meeting.) But it was pretty good.

Monday February 27 2017

I find sunset hard to photo interestingly.  Towers, I find easier to photo interestingly.  (Or maybe I just find sunsets uninteresting and towers interesting.) So, when I photo a sunset, I try to include a tower.

Here are two sunset-with-tower photos.  On the left, the most famous tower of London, the Tower of London, is seen (with a sunset behind it), reflected in a a more recent building.  And on the right, we see the top of the London Hilton Hotel (with a sunset behind it), with my camera pointing along Oxford Street towards the west.  Well, it would have to be the west, wouldn’t it?:

imageimage

Photoed in January and February of this year.  Click to make these photos bigger, if you want to.  But I think sunset photos often look better when smaller.  Certainly the Tower of London looks much clearly like the Tower of London, when small.  I also like how the two sky colours look right next to each other.

Also, and not changing the subject at all: what he said.

Sunday February 26 2017

It has taken me quite a while to learn how to photo my meetings.  The problem is that the room is so small that whichever way you point the camera, you are going to miss two thirds of what is going on.

The best place to photo from is above, standing on a stool:

image

That shot was taken at last Friday’s meeting, the one addressed by Marc Sidwell, Marc being the one sitting, in a white shirt, on the brown sofa with the big arms, next to Real Photographer Rob with his real camera.  The formalities have ended and informality has begun.  It was an excellent talk and an excellent evening, and I hope to be saying more about it, maybe here, but more probably there.

In a perfect world, I could attach my camera to a stick, and take the shot from the middle of the ceiling, rather than from its edge.  Even in this picture, there are people missing who were present.

This would be a good use for a selfie stick, of the sort that those who moan about selfie sticks don’t pause to think about.

Thursday February 23 2017

Another drone application hovers into view:

image

Yes, it’s UPS:

“This is really a vision for the future for us,” UPS senior vice president for engineering and sustainability, Mark Wallace, said in an interview with Business Insider.

The drone will work as a mechanized helper for the driver, reducing the number of miles a driver will need to drive. According to Wallace, UPS can save $50 million a year if everyone of its drivers reduces the length of their delivery routes by one mile.

UPS sees several potential usage cases for its autonomous drones. This ranges from inventory control at warehouses to the delivery of urgent packages such as medical supplies. However, this latest test is geared towards the company’s  operations in rural areas where drivers have to cover vast distances between delivery points.

But all this is still some way off:

Currently, the technology [is] still in the testing phase and UPS doesn’t have an exact timeline for its introduction into service, Wallace said.

Timeline being the twenty first century way of saying: time.  See also learning curve (learning); learning experience (fuck-up); etc.

I once had a job delivering number plates, in a white van, all over Britain.  Much of it was lots of unassembled number plate components in big heavy boxes, to big suppliers, which we delivered direct.  And the rest of the job was one-off finished number plates to motorbike shops, which the other drivers often used to deliver by posting them.  I always went there direct, because I enjoyed the drive, but either way the economics of those one-off number plates was ridiculous.  A drone to do the final thirty miles or so would have been most handy, if it could have been organised.  (A digital camera would have been very nice also.  But alas, I had to wait a quarter of a century for that.)

The serious point: drones are useful tools for running big and visible and trustable (because so easily embarrassable and controlable) businesses, for example the big and very visible enterprise that provided this.  Drones are, basically, tools for workers rather that toys for funsters.  They may supply fun, but they will mostly be operated by workers.

In London anyway.  Things may be different out in the wilds of the countryside.  But even taking photos out in the wilds of Yorkshire involves – I bet – getting some kind of permit.  If not, it soon will.  Because there will be complaints, and drones are highly visible.

Also audible, yes?  Anyone know how noisy drones tend to be?  6K?  How noisy is your drone?

Wednesday February 22 2017

The chapter of Tim Marshall’s book Prisoners of Geography (see also these earlier excerpts: Africa is (still) big. And Africa’s rivers don’t help, Tim Marshall on the illiberal and undemocratic Middle East) that I found the most informative was the one on The Arctic, because this is the part of the world that he writes about concerning which I know the least.  How catastrophic - if catastrophic at all - global warming will eventually become, and whose fault it will be if it ever does become catastrophic and what to do about it , are all matters of fierce dispute.  But the fact of global warming is not in doubt, as Marshall explains (pp. 267-271):

That the ice is receding is not in question - satellite imaging over the past decade clearly shows that the ice has shrunk - only the cause is in doubt. Most scientists are convinced that man is responsible, not merely natural climate cycles, and that the coming exploitation of what is unveiled will quicken the pace.

Already villages along the Bering and Chukchi coasts have been relocated as coastlines are eroded and hunting grounds lost. A biological reshuffle is under way. Polar bears and Arctic foxes are on the move, walruses find themselves competing for space, and fish, unaware of territorial boundaries, are moving northward, depleting stocks for some countries but populating others. Mackerel and Atlantic cod are now being found in Arctic trawler nets.

The effects of the melting ice won’t just be felt in the Arctic: countries as far away as the Maldives, Bangladesh and the Netherlands are at risk of increased flooding as the ice melts and sea levels rise. These knock-on effects are why the Arctic is a global, not just a regional, issue.

As the ice melts and the tundra is exposed, two things are likely to happen to accelerate the process of the greying of the ice cap. Residue from the industrial work destined to take place will land on the snow and ice, further reducing the amount of heat-reflecting territory. The darker-coloured land and open water will then absorb more heat than the ice and snow they replace, thus increasing the size of the darker territory. This is known as the Albedo effect, and although there are negative aspects to it there are also positive ones: the warming tundra will allow significantly more natural plant growth and agricultural crops to flourish, helping local populations as they seek new food sources.

There is, though, no getting away from the prospect that one of the world’s last great unspoiled regions is about to change. Some climate-prediction models say the Arctic will be ice-free in summer by the end of the century; there are a few which predict it could happen much sooner. What is certain is that, however quickly it happens and dramatic the reduction will be, it has begun.

The melting of the ice cap already allows cargo ships to make the journey through the Northwest Passage in the Canadian archipelago for several summer weeks a year, thus cutting at least a week from the transit time from Europe to China. The first cargo ship not to be escorted by an icebreaker went through in 2014. The Nunavik carried 23,000 tons of nickel ore from Canada to China. The polar route was 40 per cent shorter and used deeper waters than if it had gone through the Panama Canal. This allowed the ship to carry more cargo, saved tens of thousands of dollars in fuel costs and reduced the ship’s greenhouse emissions by 1,300 metric tons. By 2040 the route is expected to be open for up to two months each year, transforming trade links across the ‘High North’ and causing knock -on effects as far away as Egypt and Panama in terms of the revenues they enjoy from the Suez and Panama canals.

The north-east route, or Northern Sea Route as the Russians call it, which hugs the Siberian coastline, is also now open for several months a year and is becoming an increasingly popular sea highway.

The melting ice reveals other potential riches. It is thought that vast quantities of undiscovered natural gas and oil reserves may lie in the Arctic region in areas which can now be accessed. In 2008 the United States Geological Survey estimated that 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids and 90 billion barrels of oil are in the Arctic, with the vast majority of it offshore. As more territory becomes accessible, extra reserves of the gold, zinc, nickel and iron already found in part of the Arctic may be discovered.

ExxonMobil, Shell and Rosneft are among the energy giants that are applying for licences and beginning exploratory drilling. Countries and companies prepared to make the effort to get at the riches will have to brave a climate where for much of the year the days are endless night, where for the majority of the year the sea freezes to a depth of more than six feet and where, in open water, the waves can reach forty feet high.

It is going to be dirty, hard and dangerous work, especially for anyone hoping to run an all-year-round operation. It will also require massive investment. Running gas pipelines will not be possible in many places, and building a complex liquefaction infrastructure at sea, especially in tough conditions, is very expensive. However, the financial and strategic gains to be made mean that the big players will try to stake a claim to the territories and begin drilling, and that the potential environmental consequences are unlikely to stop them.

Monday February 20 2017

Last night I sent out the email concerning the Brian’s Last Friday meeting this coming Friday, at the end of which email I found myself blurting out this:

Whenever I concoct these promotional emails I end up feeling very excited about the forthcoming talk.  This time, this effect was especially pronounced.

This was what got me “very excited”:

Marc Sidwell will give a talk entitled: Promoting Freedom in a Post-Expert World.

He will be speaking about “the ongoing erosion of power and technocratic authority (most recently visible in the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump) and proposing some ways libertarians can respond to this shift.”

Other talk titles that were considered: “Twilight of the Wonks” and “The Revenge of Common Sense”.

Marc Sidwell is an journalist, editor, publisher, and writer, most recently of a How To Win Like Trump, now riding high in the Kindle best-seller List.  More about Marc, his career and his publications, here.

For further information about the kinds of ideas Marc will be presenting, I strongly recommend a visit to: marcsidwell.com/.

It was there that I gleaned this quote, from Brexit campaigner Dominic Cummings:

“All those amazed at why so little attention was paid to ‘the experts’ did not, and still do not, appreciate that these ‘experts’ are seen by most people of all political views as having botched financial regulation, made a load of rubbish predictions, then forced everybody else outside London to pay for the mess while they got richer and dodged responsibility. They are right. This is exactly what happened.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if that quote gets a mention at some stage during Marc’s talk.

I would add that there are some kinds of expertise that continue to be held in very high esteem.  Nobody doubts the expertise of the people who make all the machines and devices, mechanical and electrical, that keep our world ticking over efficiently and entertainingly.  Not all expertise is now held in low regard, only the kinds of expertise that Cummings itemises.

The room is already starting to fill up.

Email me (see top left of this blog) if you want to know more about these monthly speaker meetings at my home.

Sunday February 19 2017

This Dezeen story about robots doing construction work includes this very tasty image:

image

This is when google image searching does work.  You type in “robot bridge” or some such word combo, click on images, and find the story immediately.

MX3D’s CTO Tim Geurtjens explains:

“We start with a piece of metal attached to the canal bank. The robots start from one side of the canal, they print their own support structure, so essentially it prints its own bridge. It stands on the floor of the bridge, 3D prints out more and keeps moving,” ...

There are many more pictures, including, which is how I found this linkage, this:

image

That second photo being, I’m pretty sure, the original unphotoshopped version of the photo in the first photo, above.

Very pretty.  It would seem that the big difference between a regular structure and a 3D structure is that, with 3D printing, joining bits of metal to bits of metal is not a problem, because it’s all one bit, which means you can have as many joins as you like.  And the other thing is that you can make everything the exact size it needs to be, and make it like a sculpture, rather than what we are used to in a structure, where all the bits tend to have unvarying shapes in section, if you get my meaning.  Once they finally get their hands on this kit, the architects will go mad with it.

This story dates from a couple of years ago.  But never mind, these things always take a long time to go from something that is about to explode, to actually exploding.  And then when they do explode, it all happens in a completely different way to what had been envisaged.

Friday February 10 2017

As regulars here will know, I am interested by the phenomenon of colour.  I don’t mean people of colour, and all the arguments around that.  I mean the colours of things like paint, walls, modern architecture.  Red, blue, green, yellow.  Actual colours.  (Plus also: black and white.)

So, I was greatly intrigued by a piece that I recently encountered, about how blue tarantula spiders are inspiring techies to make 3D printed blue.

image

Quote:

Tarantulas aren’t usually known for having a striking blue color, but the ones that do recently inspired new technology that can produce vibrant, 3D-printed color that will never fade.

Back in 2015, a team of researchers led by the University of Akron marveled at the spiders’ blue hue and concluded that it was created not from pigment but from nanostructures in their hairs. In other words, these tarantulas are blue because of structural color, which is produced through light scattering caused by structures of sub-micrometer size features made by translucent materials.

I love grand histories of everything, which look at the past, present and future of mankind through just the one lens.  Weapons.  Communications.  Spices.  Potatoes.  That kind of thing.  I recently purchased a book called The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World.  Well, one of the next books I am going to purchase is likely to be a history of the world seen entirely in terms of mankind’s quest for colour - natural and artificial, or, as above, and I suspect very typically, a combination of the two.