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 April 30 2016

Indeed.  Photoed by me yesterday afternoon:

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Learn more about the service at one of the places featured on the van door, such as this one.

The early version of this posting had a title with the word “verbose” in it, but that was inaccurate.  This is more words that you’d see on a van twenty years ago, but it’s all good stuff.

Wednesday April 27 2016

I spent a lot of my blogging time today writing about a talk I attended last night, given by Tim Evans.  I did not finish what I wanted to say, but the attempt left me little time to do anything here.  So, a photo, taken by me on the way to Tim’s talk, as I emerged from Euston Station:

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That’s part of the roof of St Pancras Station.  I like how my snap makes you see this building, if not with fresh eyes, then at least from a rather fresh angle, instead of the usual one you get, from in front.

St Pancras Station was first opened in 1868, and the contrast between how they did the tops of big buildings in those times and how the tops of similar sized buildings are done nowadays could not be more extreme.  Now, buildings of that size tend to have flat tops, and to be covered with telecommunications equipment.

Like this:

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This being New Scotland Yard.  And a statue of a man scratching his back outside Westminster Abbey.  Well, no, but that’s what it always looks like to me.  The column of that statue can also be seen in yesterday’s numerical traffic lights snap.

London’s famed Metropolitan Police are moving out of New Scotland Yard, back to old Scotland Yard.  It will be interesting to see what happens to all that roof clutter.  Maybe nothing.

Tuesday April 26 2016

I took this picture in lots of different versions.  Same picture.  Lots of different numbers.  So which number to choose, to show here?  I chose 5, because behind where it says “05”, Big Ben reveals the time to have been 5 past 5:

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So that’s 5 ticked.  2 is already done. 8 more to go.  Or maybe 7. Because, I rather think that these devices never get to say “01”

Saturday April 23 2016

Indeed.  Photoed by me next to Centre Point, this afternoon:

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Another London facade which is nice but not totally wondrous is being carefully preserved, so that modernity can in due course be erected behind it.  This time I photoed it from behind.

I have been assuming that this is a purely aesthetic thing.  Done like this to get planning permission.  But someone (I do not recall who) recently told me that if you preserve a facade you don’t have to get planning permission for whatever you put behind it.  But, if you allow the facade to disappear, then you do have to get planning permission, even if what you subsequently do is re-erect the original facade.

Can anyone confirm or deny this?

Note that dash of Renzo Pianistic colour there.

Friday April 22 2016

The Londonist is telling me that I should Visit This Incredible Model Of Central London, Newly Open:

For many years, a wonderful secret has resided in a basement beneath the Guildhall. This highly detailed 3D model of London, used by planners, developers and architects, has been off-limits to the public, except for rare open days. From 23 April it will be freely open every week for anyone who cares to take a look.

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And you should take a look - it’s fascinating on many levels. Stretching from Holborn to Wapping, the scale model gives a superb overview of the different styles of architecture that make up central London. It also looks ahead, including any building that has received planning permission. Many towers under construction are here shown complete. Below we snapped the ‘Can of Ham’, soon to rise next to fellow picnic-able skyscraper, the Gherkin.

My first reaction, to the photos - not to the model itself (which I have yet to see) - is how very unrealistic it looks, despite (I’m sure) everything being the exact right size and shape.  I’m not complaining, just saying.  Models are often like that.

Not that I need convincing to visit this thing.  Fridays and Saturdays, apparently.  I’ve got various things coming up, so it may be a while before I get do this, but do it I definitely will.  And when I do, expect more photos.

That the model includes everything that has received planning permission will sometimes mean temporarily including Things that are never actually built, merely permitted but then abandoned.  Like the Helter Skelter, for instance.  Which presumably had a starring role in this model, for a while.

Saturday April 16 2016

And I was deliberately retracing steps I used to do make a lot of around eight or ten years ago, to see what had changed and what had not.  A lot had changed, in the form of a few big new buildings.  The rest had not changed.

Did I say that that sunset I recently posted photos of was last Saturday?  Yes.  Actually it was the Friday.  Get ill and you lose track of time.  That evening I also took a lot of other photos, on and from the south bank of the river, between Blackfriars road bridge and Tower Bridge, and here are some of the ones I particularly liked:

imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimage

That array of small photos (click on any you like to the look of to get it a decent size) really should not now be misbehaving, on any platform.  If it is, please get in touch, by comment or by email.

As to the pictures themselves:

1.1 A Deliberately Bald Bloke standing at the bottom of 240 Blackfriars.  (You can see the top of 240 Blackfriars in 3.1 here.) That Deliberately Bald look is, I think, fair game photo-blogging-wise.  The guy is choosing to look this way.  It’s a fashion statement, not an affliction.  Blog-mocking the involuntarily bald is not right, but blog-celebrating those who embrace their baldness is fine.  Especially if the guy obligingly turns his face away.

1.2 is one of my favourite weird London sites, namely the topless columns of the Blackfriars Bridge that isn’t, in between the two Blackfriars Bridges that are, the one on the right now sporting a new station on it.  The twist is that this was high tide, and waves were rhythmically breaking against a corner in the river wall and filling the air between my camera and the bridges with bits of water.

1.3 is a building on the other side of the river. Just beyond the Blackfriars Station bridge.  I do love what light and scaffolding and scaffolding covers sometimes do.

1.4 and 2.1 illustrate the universal photography rule to the effect that if you want to photo something very familiar, like St Paul’s Cathedral, you’d better include something else not so familiar, such as some propaganda for a current Tate Modern show that I will perhaps investigate soon, or maybe four big circles that you can see at the Tate Modern end of the Millennium Bridge.

2.2 is an ancient and modern snap, both elements of which I keep meaning to investigate.  Those two buildings, the office block and the church, are like two people I frequently meet, but don’t know the names of.  Luckily, with buildings, it’s not embarrassing to ask, far too late.

I know what that Big Thing behind the Millennium Bridge in 2.3 is, under wraps, being reconditioned, improved, made worse, whatever, we’ll have to see.  That’s Centre Point.  It even says most of that on it.  I have always been fond of Centre Point, one of London’s early Big New Things.

2.4 features something I have tried and failed to photo several times previously, a Deliveroo Man.  Deliveroo Men are usually in a great hurry and are gone before I can catch them, but this one was taking a breather.  Deliveroo Men carry their plasticated corrugated boxes on their backs like rucksacks, which I presume saves valuable seconds.

3.1: Another ancient/modern snap.  The very recognisable top of the Shard, and another piece of ancientness that I am familiar with but have yet to get around to identifying, see above.  I reallyl should have photoed a sign about it.  I bet there is one.

3.2: The golden top of the Monument, now dwarfed by the Gherkin and by the Walkie Talkie.

3.3: A golden hinde, which is to be found at the front of the Golden Hinde.  I’ve seen that beast before, but never really noticed it.

3.4: Another ancient/modern snap, this time with Southwark Cathedral dominating the foreground.  The combined effect yet again vindicates Renzo Piano’s belief that the Shard would blend into London rather than just crow all over it.  Those broken fragments at the top echo the four spikes on the nearby Cathedral.  It looks that way to me, anyway.

4.1: Another delivery snap, this time of the old school sort.  A White Van.  But with lots of propaganda all over it, notably the back door, in the new school style.

4.2: Yet another ancient modern contrast, this time the Monument, again, with a machine for window cleaning.  Note that small tripoddy object on the top of the Monument.  I suspect that this is to give advance warning if the Monument starts to wobble.

4.3: Two exercises in power projection, now both lapsed into tourist traps.  Behind, the Tower of London.  In front, HMS Belfast.

4.4: Finally!  Modern/modern!  The Walkie Talkie and the Cheesegrater, and probably my favourite snap of all these.  Not a view you often see in other photos, but there it was.  Should the bottom be cropped away, to simplify it even more.  I prefer to leave photos as taken.

5.1 shows that thing when reflected light is the exact same colour when reflected as originally.  Photography is light, so photography sees this.  But eyes always try to create a 3D model of what is going on, rather than just a 2D picture.  Eyes deliberately don’t see this.

5.2 and 5.4 take me back to my beautiful-women-taking-photos phase, which was big last decade.  These two were too good to ignore. They were just so happy!  But, mobile phones, which is very this decade.  Just like my cameras, the cameras in these just get better and better.

5.3 is another view of that amazing cluster of footbridges.

Thursday April 07 2016

I am in the habit of denouncing the notion that science is a precondition for technology (and therefore needs to be paid for by the government).  The tendency is for technological gadgetry to lead science, and often to correct science, by defying it and proving with its success that the relevant science needs to be redone.

But there is another even more direct way in which technology leads science.  Here is yet another excerpt from Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air (pp. 73-77).  Click on the illustration, which I found here and which is the illustration in the book at that point in the text, to get it properly visible:

The study of air itself had only begun to blossom as a science in the past century, with Robert Boyle’s work on the compression and expansion of air in the late 1600s, and Black’s more recent work on carbon dioxide. Before Boyle and Black, there was little reason to think there was anything to investigate: the world was filled with stuff – people, animals, planets, sprigs of mint – and then there was the nothingness between all the stuff. Why would you study nothingness when there was such a vast supply of stuff to explain? There wasn’t a problem in the nothingness that needed explaining.  A cycle of negative reinforcement arose: the lack of a clear problem kept the questions at bay, and the lack of questions left the problems as invisible as the air itself. As Priestley once wrote of Newton, “[he] had very little knowledge of air, so he had few doubts concerning it.”

So the question is: Where did the doubts come from? Why did the problem of air become visible at that specific point in time?  Why were Priestley, Boyle, and Black able to see the question clearly enough to begin trying to answer it?  There were 800 million human beings on the planet in 1770, every single one of them utterly dependent on air.  Why Priestley, Boyle, and Black over everyone else?

One way to answer that question is through the lens of technological history. They were able to explore the problem because they had new tools.  The air pumps designed by Otto von Guericke and Boyle (the latter in collaboration with his assistant, Robert Hooke, in the mid-1600s) were as essential to Priestley’s lab in Leeds as the electrical machines had been to his Warrington investigations. It was almost impossible to do experiments without being able to move air around in a controlled manner, just as it was impossible to explore electricity without a reliable means of generating it.

In a way, the air pump had enabled the entire field of pneumatic chemistry in the seventeenth century by showing, indirectly, that there was something to study in the first place. If air was simply the empty space between things, what was there to investigate? But the air pump allowed you to remove all the air from a confined space, and thus create a vacuum, which behaved markedly differently from common air, even though air and absence of air were visually indistinguishable. Bells wouldn’t ring in a vacuum, and candles were extinguished. Von Guericke discovered that a metal sphere composed of two parts would seal tightly shut if you evacuated the air between them. Thus the air pump not only helped justify the study of air itself, but also enabled one of the great spectacles of early Enlightenment science.

The following engraving shows the legendary demonstration of the Magdeburg Sphere, which von Guericke presented before Ferdinand III to much amazement: two eight-horse teams attempt – and, spectacularly, fail – to separate the two hemispheres that have been sealed together by the force of a vacuum.

image

When we think of technological advances powering scientific discovery, the image that conventionally comes to mind is a specifically visual one: tools that expand the range of our vision, that let us literally see the object of study with new clarity, or peer into new levels of the very distant, the very small. Think of the impact that the telescope had on early physics, or the microscope on bacteriology. But new ways of seeing are not always crucial to discovery. The air pump didn’t allow you to see the vacuum, because of course there was nothing to see; but it did allow you to see it indirectly in the force that held the Magdeburg Sphere together despite all that horsepower. Priestley was two centuries too early to see the molecules bouncing off one another in his beer glasses. But he had another, equally important, technological breakthrough at his disposal: he could measure those molecules, or at least the gas they collectively formed. He had thermometers that could register changes in temperature (plus, crucially, a standard unit for describing those changes). And he had scales for measuring changes in weight that were a thousand times more accurate than the scales da Vinci built three centuries earlier.

This is a standard pattern in the history of science: when tools for measuring increase their precision by orders of magnitude, new paradigms often emerge, because the newfound accuracy reveals anomalies that had gone undetected. One of the crucial benefits of increasing the accuracy of scales is that it suddenly became possible to measure things that had almost no weight. Black’s discovery of fixed air, and its perplexing mixture with common air, would have been impossible without the state-of-the-art scales he employed in his experiments. The whole inquiry had begun when Black heated a quantity of “magnesia alba,” and discovered that it lost a minuscule amount of weight in the process - a difference that would have been imperceptible using older scales. The shift in weight suggested that something was escaping from the magnesia into the air. By then running comparable experiments, heating a wide array of substances, Black was able to accurately determine the weight of carbon dioxide, and consequently prove the existence of the gas. It weighs, therefore it is.

Tuesday March 29 2016

Last night I dined at the new and rather temporary home of Samizdata, where I took this photo:

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Click on this to get it larger.

These really are very tasty crisps, and I strongly recommend them.  I immediately decided that I would try to serve some of these at future iterations of my last-Friday-of-the-month meetings.  So, I took a note of these chips, with my camera.

When I pondered the impact of digital photography, way back when that was, this ability to photo not only mere prettiness, but also information, loomed large.

I mentioned how my friend Simon Gibbs and his workmates all use their smartphones to photo the mass scribblings on a whiteboard after a brainstorming session.  The man making the thumbs-up sign in the above photo told me about a new app that he now uses at work which takes a picture like the ones Simon and his pals take, and smartens it up, so to speak.  It translates handwriting, that is to say, into proper computer text (presumably computer text you can scan), and arranges everything more neatly and more readably.  Impressive.  And I’m guessing that the existence both of smartphones taking photos, and of apps like this that can make even more sense of such photos, changes what gets written on the whiteboard, now that more coherent text will be better recorded and processed.  I’m guessing that handwriting improves somewhat.  But does this app, I wonder, subtract somewhat from the informality of the process?  And might that undermine creativity?

I wonder what this app would have done with my Tyrrell’s veg crisps photo.

I photoed Mr Thumbs-Up’s smartphone, where the logo for this app was to be seen, but alas, the smart-focussing in my camera was not smart enough to focus on this image.  It was all a blur:

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There’s no point in me showing you a larger version of that, is there?  How sad that my photo-note of an app for processing photo-notes should be so useless.

I should have included more stuff off screen for my camera to focus on.  As I later discovered when I took some other photos off of his smarphone, of how my blog looked on his smartphone.  Those photos came out better.  But that’s for another posting.

Thursday March 24 2016

There is, as I write, deep joy, a crane in operation, right outside my kitchen window.  I can see it now, lifting steel girders onto the roof of a building that is being revamped, from an office into flats, across the yard from me.

Yesterday, I did something I haven’t done for a while, which is I attempted to get onto the roof of my block of flats.  I succeeded.  More deep joy.  The door was unlocked.

Here is a picture I took of the crane, yesterday afternoon, just as it was folding itself up after its day’s work.  The men in yellow had finished their work also, and the crane was about to descend back into the street whence it came:

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I have not seen this process before, which is so central to how these things operate.  It is not enough that they must be able to do their job, of lifting up things like girders and depositing them accurately into the midst of a building.  At least some of them have to be able to hoist themselves up, and unhoist themselves down again afterwards.  I mean, if you could only ever erect a crane with the help of another crane, where would it end?

A crane like the one in the last of these pictures that I showed here last Sunday, is another crane of the sort that can raise itself up off a lorry and immediately start work, and it is pretty clear just from looking at it approximately how it does this, even if its internal workings are slightly mysterious.  But the manner in which the above crane operates isn’t quite so obvious.  You need to see it to really appreciate it.  And now I have.

I’m not exactly sure which it was of the cranes here that I saw in action, but that is definitely the website of the crane hire enterprise concerned.

Kudos to the Real Photographer who contrived to photo an airship in a way that has surely gone viral already:

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Indeed.

More seriously:

The applications for the plane are broad, such as transporting cargo, performing surveillance operations, or simply to carrying super-rich tourists through the skies over London.  The Guardian reports that two potential uses are monitoring refugees crossing the Mediterranean and acting as a mobile communications network at large sporting events.

A blimp.  Can someone tell me how it differs from the blimps that we see already?

First customers, according to the Guardian, will be people like oil sheikhs.  I suppose the dream is that the a sector of the more-money-than-sense super-rich will each want one, the way they now want a yacht.

Wednesday March 23 2016

I did an earlier posting about some birds I had spied on a walk with GD1, and 6k identified them:

I can help with bird identification!

Your ducks are red-crested pochards (a female and a male), ...

Pochards?  You made that up mate.  Well, no.  But, first I’d heard of it.

… while your ibises are African Sacred Ibis, which are regular visitors to our local dumps and beaches, scavenging what they can, where they can.

Sacred Ibis?  More like profane.

I actually came across some on my walk this this weekend.  While they may be ugly on the ground, they can be beautiful in flight.

I can confirm that these Ibis, Ibises, Ibes, Ibix, whatever, look good in the air, because on that same trip, moments after taking the shot I showed in that earlier posting, of two Ibi squatting on a horizontal tube, I got a shot of one of them flying.  Inside their cage, yes, but still flying.  And suddenly, a squat little pre-war propeller driven failure of an aircraft turned into a post-war jet bomber:

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Let’s have a closer look at that:

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Profane on the ground, but sacred in the air.

Monday March 21 2016

Amazing:

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One of the very best The Wires! photos that Dezeen has ever published.

Seoul-based ThePlus Architects was tasked with accommodating all of these activities within a heavily restricted site in Seogyo-dong, measuring six metres across and 10 metres deep, and flanked by taller buildings on three sides.

Here is another picture of the same building, from the same report:

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The Wires! are, as is usual, not mentioned in the text of the report.  But the photographer is, I think, intensely aware of The Wires!  In the first picture he searches out a rare shot in which The Wires! don’t interrupt the starkly white modernity of the building’s exterior.  And in this second shot, where there are far fewer of The Wires!, he deliberately lines up the roof of the building with some of The Wires! that remain.

But that alignment is not merely something he saw.  It is almost as if it is part of the design.  It’s almost as if the building has been designed, not just to stay out of the way of The Wires!, but to include The Wires! in the overall composition.

But, as I say, no mention of any of that in the text of the piece.

Question: Once The Wires! are installed in this or that particular place, are they likely subsequently to change very much?  For my surmise to make sense, it would need to be that once The Wires! are in place, there tend to remain in the same place.

Tuesday March 15 2016

One of the best things to have happened for the Old Gits of London tendency lately has been the arrival of those count-down signs which tell you how many more seconds you have to cross the road before the traffic lights change.  I love these.  (More about them here.)

So anyway, this was almost the last photo I took last night, after visiting Victoria Park:

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As so often with my photos, I did not know at the time what I was photoing.  What I thought I was photoing was a rather cheesy sunset outside Mile End Tube Station.  But it turns out that I was photoing a cheesy sunset outside Mile End Tube Station, and one of these count-down signs.  That “02” came out brilliantly, did it not?  No cropping, to make the 02 more central.  There it was, right in the middle, in a pleasing yellow that contrasts nicely with the cheesy pink.  Yeah, yeah, cheese is yellow not pink, so it’s the 02 that’s cheesy.  Whatever.  You get the picture.

Anyway, the plan is to post, once I have acquired them, a set of ten photos, featuring each number, of ten different signs, with entertainingly varied London backgrounds.  I promise nothing, you understand, but I have found that these memo-to-self postings can work rather well.

Sunday March 13 2016

The weather over the weekend has been excellent, but I have been stuck indoors watching the Six Nations, which England have just won, even though there’s a still another weekend to go, thanks to Scotland beating France today.

I nearly went out today, despite the rugby, which I could have watched the recording of instead of watching it live.  But this ...:

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... which is the London weather forecast for tomorrow, persuaded me to postpone going out until tomorrow, since the weather tomorrow is also going to be good.  Weather forecasts this near to the actual time they forecast are always accurate.

But, where to go.  I am fast running out of new places in London to visit.  I know that this is not true, but - rather bizarrely - that is how it now feels to me.  And in order to make a proper early start, I need a predetermined destination to get me going.  But, which destination?  Memo to self: before bed tonight, I need to have fixed on something enticing.

What I am already thinking about is to go south, on foot.  Across Vauxhall Bridge, maybe, but then, instead of going somewhere from Vauxhall Station, or walking along beside the river, I have in mind to go onwards, inland, in a south-westerly direction.  What is Kennington Park?  Can Big Things be seen from that?  Time to find out.  Then maybe wander in the general direction of the City, towards the Big Things.

Important.  The mobile phone needs to be powered up, because I will need to know where I am at all times.

Tuesday March 08 2016

My photos of London contain may oddities, which I sometimes only notice later, and often only much later.

Take this photo, for instance, which was one of the first I took from the top of One New Change, on the second of two visits I made in the early summer of 2012, on May 22nd:

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I like it.  Big Ben, seen through the Wheel, the Wheel presumably being what I thought I was photoing at the time.  Outstanding roof clutter, right next to the Wheel.  The pleasingly eccentric Oxo House, slightly nearer to us.  Good stuff, albeit rather dimly lit.

But what about that big photo-within-the-photo, of what looks like the late Lord Mountbatten, standing next to a young man who looks vaguely like a young Prince Andrew, underneath where it says “Sea Containers House”?  What on earth is that about?

Image google “Mountbatten Sea Containters House”, and all quickly becomes clear.

The largest ever photograph of the Royal Family has been unveiled on a prominent South Bank building in the heart of the capital to celebrate the Queen’s upcoming Diamond Jubilee.

When finished, a day or two afte4r I took my photo, the complete photo on Sea Containers House looked like this:

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I caught the process of this photo being contrived at its very earliest stage.  And yes, that is a young Prince Andrew.

The only thing I remember about all that Jubilee fuss in 2012 is that, for some reason or other, I pretty much ignored it.  I think I may have watch the boats on the telly.  Had I paid more attention, it would have been obvious to me soon after I took my photo of that photo what had been going on.

Google is wonderful.  Also very sinister.  Very sinister because so wonderful.