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

Monday October 20 2014

I sympathise with whoever wrote this:

West Brom can hardly believe their luck. Being denied a win at the death by Manchester United is one thing, but having teased a previously woeful Marouane Fellaini back to life must really does takes the biscuit.

“Must really does takes the biscuit.” I reckon he was choosing between, not two, but three different ways of saying what he was saying, but managed to combine all three.

This is the kind of mistake that can only happen with a computer.  If you were merely writing, or typing with an old school typewriter, there is no way you would have put that.

When I perpetrate something like that, and I frequently do, and if I later spot the mistake, I then allow myself to correct it, no matter how long ago I made the mistake.  Is this wrong?  My blog, my rules.

A subsection of Sod’s Law states that whenever you mention someone else’s mistake in something you say on the www, you will make a similar sort of error yourself.  If I do this in this posting, I will not correct my error, but will add something “LATER”, in which I identify my error.

Computers.  New ways to screw things up.

I attended a talk this evening at Christian Michel’s about robots.  The point was made the robot cars probably will be safer, but every once in a Blue Moon, there will be a truly spectacular disaster, of a sort impossible to perpetrate with old school cars.

Sunday October 19 2014

Here is another way I might get those high up views of London that I am always searching for:

image

DPReview review here:

In my own experiences, aerial shoots have proven difficult to pull off. The window of shooting time was limited, the cabin was cramped, and the first time I ever stuck my camera out the window, the lens flew off and I miraculously caught it in mid-air. It was also roughly $250 for an hour.

But within the past couple of years, aerial photographers have been introduced to a burgeoning market rife with little flying machines that don’t require passengers, don’t need fuel to operate, and can fit inside a cubic foot. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the era of user-operated photography drones is upon us, and it’s already kicking into warp speed.

I’m guessing that the technology of it would be beyond me, and the legality of it a minefield.

Friday October 17 2014

Spent this evening (a) continuing to be ill (thanks for the kind comments), (b) reading a book, because (c) Godot was being built, again, in my kitchen.

This is being posted with Dawkins, because Godot is now not working.  For the last fortnight Godot has been working, but not properly.

As for Godot working, properly, up to speed, all bells ringing, all whistles whistling, well, you know the answer to that.

I am still waiting.

LATER, The Guru photos progress:

image

Digital photography has, I believe, made a huge contribution not only to fun, but to the economy.  So much of work is keeping track of what work you have done, and digital photography makes this far easier.

Tuesday October 14 2014

A few days ago I purchased a small loaf of sliced bread of my favourite sort, namely Hovis Original Wheatgerm.  And I found something rather strange about it:

image

Not all the slices were like this, but most of them were.

I’m guessing that what happened here was that part of the previous loaf inside whatever space this loaf was cooked in got left inside, and hence incorporated into the next loaf, my loaf.  And, it would appear, it got cooked twice, or at least rather more than the rest of the loaf, and before the rest of the loaf was inserted.  And then everything sliced and sold to a supermarket, and bought by me, just as if nothing odd had happened at all.

I happily ate the resulting hybrid loaf, which seemed fine, even if the darker bits were a bit drier.  This is not a complaint.  If Hovis want to send me more sliced bread, they are welcome, but that is not my purpose with this posting.  I’m just trying to entertain, with an oddity.  Because, odd, don’t you think?  Never seen that before.

On a slight tangent, I believe that I am becoming a better photographer with the passing of the years.  By this I do not mean that I am getting technically any cleverer, although mercifully my cameras are.  What I mean is that now, I realise that this is the kind of thing that needs to be photographed, before it is merely consumed.  A few years ago, I might have eaten this, and then only later realised that I would have liked a photo of it.

Just to emphasise that my improvement as a photographer still has some way to go, I vaguely recall trying not to get any shadows in this photo.  But, if I was so trying, I failed.  You can make out the shadow of my photoing finger, towards the right.  Apologies for that.  You get what you pay for here.

Sunday October 12 2014

I have already quoted a couple of interesting bits from Bill Bryson’s excellent book, At Home.  I have now finished reading this, but just before I did, I encountered some interesting stuff about paint (pp. 453-5):

When paints became popular, people wanted them to be as vivid as they could possibly be made. The restrained colours that we associate with the Georgian period in Britain, or Colonial period in America, are a consequence of fading, not decorative restraint. In 1979, when Mount Vernon began a programme of repainting the interiors in faithful colours, ‘people came and just yelled at us’, Dennis Pogue, the curator, told me with a grin when I visited. ‘They told us we were making Mount Vernon garish. They were right - we were. But that’s just because that’s the way it was. It was hard for a lot of people to accept that what we were doing was faithful restoration.

‘Even now paint charts for Colonial-style paints virtually always show the colours from the period as muted. In fact, colours were actually nearly always quite deep and sometimes even startling. The richer a colour you could get, the more you tended to be admired. For one thing, rich colours generally denoted expense, since you needed a lot of pigment to make them. Also, you need to remember that often these colours were seen by candlelight, so they needed to be more forceful to have any kind of impact in muted light.’

The effect is now repeated at Monticello, where several of the rooms are of the most vivid yellows and greens.  Suddenly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come across as having the decorative instincts of hippies. In fact, however, compared with what followed they were exceedingly restrained.

When the first ready-mixed paints came on to the market in the second half of the nineteenth century, people slapped them on with something like wild abandon. It became fashionable not just to have powerfully bright colours in the home, but to have as many as seven or eight colours in a single room.

If we looked closely, however, we would be surprised to note that two very basic colours didn’t exist at all in Mr Marsham’s day: a good white and a good black. The brightest white available was a rather dull off-white, and although whites improved through the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1940s, with the addition of titanium dioxide to paints, that really strong, lasting whites became available. The absence of a good white paint would have been doubly noticeable in early New England, for the Puritans not only had no white paint but didn’t believe in painting anyway. (They thought it was showy.) So all those gleaming white churches we associate with New England towns are in fact a comparatively recent phenomenon.

Also missing from the painter’s palette was a strong black. Permanent black paint, distilled from tar and pitch, wasn’t popularly available until the late nineteenth century. So all the glossy black front doors, railings, gates, lampposts, gutters, downpipes and other fittings that are such an elemental feature of London’s streets today are actually quite recent. If we were to be thrust back intime to Dickens’s London, one of the most startling differences to greet us would be the absence of black painted surfaces. In the time of Dickens, almost all ironwork was green, light blue or dull grey.

Famously, the rise of the Modern Movement in Architecture was triggered by, among many other things, a revulsion against the excesses of Victorian-era decoration, especially architectural decoration.  Decoration became mechanised, and thus both much more common and much less meaningful.  What did all this mechanised decoration prove, what did it mean, when you could thrash it out with no more difficulty than you could erect a plain wall?

What the above Bryson quote strongly suggests, at any rate to me, is that something rather similar happened with colour.

Why is the overwhelming atmosphere of Modernist architecture and architectural propaganda so very monochrome, still.  Part of the answer is that it was only recently learned how to do monochrome.  Monochrome looked modern, from about 1900-ish onwards, because it was modern.  Monochrome was the latest thing.  Colour, meanwhile, had become much cheaper and had been used with garish nouveau riche excess, and there was a reaction to that also, just as there was to excessive decoration.

Thursday October 09 2014

Dezeen has pretend-photos today of London’s soon-to-be-unleashed new driverless tube trains.  As I write this, they’re all over the TV news.

Their pictures are spooky, being mostly of the black and mysterious fronts of the trains:

image image

The BBC reports that the Train Driving Union is angry.  I’m sure it is.  I guess it will refuse to drive these driverless trains.

Seriously, they’re on a hiding to nothing.  The D(ocklands) L(ight) R(ailway) already has driverless trains and having them on the tube is the obvious next step.  It’s like they said when the atom bomb was first used in anger.  The only important secret, said somebody clever and famous, is now public knowledge.  It works.

The picture that interested me rather more was this one (which I found earlier today at the Evening Standard):

image

This is a trend that has been growing and growing.  Instead of each carriage being a separate room, the whole train is now one huge elongated room.  The Tube already has trains like this, but they are just a bit clunky at the joins.  These new trains, judging by that picture, will accomplish this effect with unprecedented elegance and panache, or so it looks to me.  You almost can’t seen the join.

I guess one good consequence of this is that if one part of this single room is extremely crowded, such a crowd is able to spread itself out, towards the not so crowded parts of the room.

That might be the good news.  But the other day, I found myself doing something really rather annoying to my fellow passengers, on one of these new, single room trains.  I was in a big hurry, and had just managed to catch the train I found myself on.  But, I happened to know that, in order to minimise the time of my journey, I needed to be at the other end of the train.  So, crowded though the train was, I barged my way through it, as politely as I could but still rather disruptively, thereby getting a lot nearer to where I knew the exit was at my destination station.

Is this a Thing now, I wonder?

I also wonder what other effects there will be of these new and improved connections between tube carriages.  What effect, for instance, will this have on busking?

Tuesday October 07 2014

Busy day.  Quota photo time:

image

Red crane tower.  Yellow staircase made of scaffolding

There is lots of building going on in the Victoria area right now.  That photo was taken in Victoria Street, on the same day that I photoed yesterday’s bag ladies.

And this other photo was taken of the same construction job.  It isn’t really raining.  But something watery was being done up at the top of the building (washing something maybe?), and water was descending from there, down through the bright sunshine:

image

Rain is, I find, hard to photo (although sometimes I get semi-lucky – see photo 2 in this posting).  The best way is usually to photo it at the place where it lands.  Photoing it in the air as it descends seldom works for me.

This is usually because when it is raining there is no bright light in action to pick out the descending drops.  It is amazing how much difference sunshine makes to photography.  The eye adjusts, and doesn’t see that huge difference.  But the camera gets everything exactly so on a sunny day, but dulls everything down on a dull day.  If you are photoing rain, bright sunshine blasting through that rain is what you want.  The above wasn’t really rain, but it was like rain - although descending more slowly, which also helped, and the sunshine was, as you can see, at full throttle.

However, you probably need to click on it and make it bigger to register the effect at all clearly.

Friday October 03 2014

Yes, dezeen (Dezeen?) continues to be a favourite wwwspot for me.  Here are some recent dezeen postings that got my attention, for this or that reason.

First, news that there will be a viewing platform on top of the Walkie Talkie:

The Walkie Talkie Skygarden has yet to open and will, I’m sure, come with a catchier name. But already it is in obvious competition with the Shard – pricey versus free, ascetic steel and glass versus sylvan repose, supreme height versus not being able to see the Walkie Talkie. ...

Very droll.  The original was about how you couldn’t see the National Theatre from the National Theatre.  But me, I am warming to the Walkie Talkie, and I don’t just mean I’m standing under it and being fried.  I especially like how it looks from a distance.  The point being: it looks like the Walkie Talkie.  Not just some anonymous rectangular London lump, no, that particular Big Thing.  Yes it is not properly beautiful.  But neither is London.  Besides which, anything that just might compete down the price of going to the top of the Shard has my vote.  I’ll definitely make my way up there, as soon as they’ll let me

Next up, isn’t fun when someone hitherto impeccably cool suddenly turns into Grumpy Old Man:

Speaking to Dezeen, the 85-year-old English designer said tech products like the iPhone and Apple Watch were turning people into zombies, adding: “I’ve got a certain cynicism of Apple and their motives. It’s a bit of a monster.”

“It’s a game they’re playing and it’s an absolutely straightforward, commercial, ruthless game, and it’s dressed up nicely because they’ve got some talented people in their employ,” he said.

Grange, who was knighted in 2013 for services to design, believes that the tech giant has successfully turned Modernism into “good commerce”, using aesthetics to dress up a self-perpetuating product cycle.

“There are probably few companies around now that absolutely answer the prospect that Modernism is good commerce,” he said. ...

Modernism is good commerce?  Can’t have that.

… “They’ve been so bloody ruthless that you almost get no choice in the matter.”

“Almost” there means “not”.  (See also: essentially, basically, fundamentally, etc. etc. etc.) Because actually, you get plenty of choice about whether to buy Apple stuff or not.  Apart from one rather nice keyboard, I never have.

People always talk about the behemoths of capitalism like this, just as they are starting their long slide down into moderate size and moderate success, into business as usual.  How do I know Apple is now at the top of that slide?  Easy, they are building a custom-designed headquarters.  It absolutely yells: from now on, all Apple-persons will talk to each other and keep everyone else out.  And what they will be talking about, to an appalling degree, will be their own living arrangements inside this huge circular corporate burial chamber.  They’re doomed, I tell you, doomed.  Someone tell Sir Grumpy (above) that he can relax.

Next: what a driverless car might look like.  Not.  But, it looks very pretty.  The basic point, that driverless cars will in the longer run utterly transform the look of the outdoors is, I think, a very good one.  Maybe that is how some of them will look.

I really do not like the way this floating bikeway along the River Thames looks, in the pictures there.  At the very least, I say, find a way to avoid having those obtrusive shapes above the level of the track, which makes it look like an infinitely extended item of tasteless garden furniture.  I get it, that crap is there to enable it to float up and down on the tide.  Well, find another way to do that.

Next, some excellent photos of the High Line, in New York.  I especially like the distant aerial view of it curving its way over the Rail Yards, with the spontaneous architectural order of Manhattan’s towers in the background.

I do like this rectangular block of a house, but with one end lifted up.  Usually the rectangular block houses featured at dezeen are impeccably, terminally tedious.  But this one, I like.  Apart from the fact that whenever the damn architect called round, you’d have to tidy up all your domestic crap all over everywhere, and turn the place back into the dreary corporate office it resembles in the photos.  What is it with architects not wanting homes to look, inside, like homes, but instead like some kind of dystopian hell with nothing in it besides a wooden floor?

Here are some impeccably, terminally tedious rectangular type houses, in Japan.  To me, by far, by several hundred miles, the most interesting thing about these photos of them is the amazing amount of electrical crap in the sky over the street outside.  If I was photoing in Japan, I would be all over that.  More Japanese sky clutter here, in photos of another impeccably, terminally tedious block house with an interior that also looked like a corporate office reception area when the photos were taken.

Google drones.  Spooky.

A weird footbridge in Paddington.

Parisian blocks become wavey.

Finally what with this being Friday, some black cats with bronze bollocks.  I kid you not.

Monday September 29 2014

As revealed in this earlier posting, I recently visited Tate Ancient, which is only a walk away from where I live.  I should go there more often.

One of the big reasons being that it is a wonderful place, not just to learn about Art and all that kind of stuff, but to photograph photographers.  All who frequent this blog know that photographing photographers is an obsession of mine.

Photographers like these two:

image image

The blue-haired lady on the right was photoing the sculpture that can be seen more clearly, behind the man on the left.

Note that neither of the cameras seen in action here are of the old school and conventional sort.  No, they are iCameras.  There was a lot of this going on, not just picture making, but note taking.

Saturday September 27 2014

Earlier I showed you a old facade being carefully preserved.  Here is another:

image

But where exactly is this facade.  The photo was taken in May 2012, and I didn’t take any note-taking shots of where this was.  And I cannot now find any mention of it on the www, only a website of the enterprise that constructed it.  (This I learned by taking a closer look at the stuff at the bottom of the picture than I am according to you.  My original pictures are really very large.)

I like to think that I am becoming a better photographer as the years go by.  What I mean by this is not so much that the photos are getting technically better.  They are, but that is largely down to the cameras I use getting better.  What I mean is that I am, I hope, getting better at deciding what to photo, and better at recording what I photoed.

Maybe that is an idle boast.  But maybe what is now only a boast will, because I have here written it down, will become an influence on actual practice in the future.

Wednesday September 24 2014

Here comes another flying car ...:

image

… which I found out about at dezeen.  They put this above their report:

Creators of the AeroMobil flying car propose moving road traffic to the skies

I don’t see this solving any obvious existing traffic problems.  And I see regulators regarding it as a whole new bunch of problems, rather than any sort of solution to anything.

My prejudice is that something which is basically fun is instead being sold as environmentally positive, a solution to traffic problems, blah blah blah.  A few will want flying cars, because they do, money and economic irrationality no object.  Most people, and especially most regulators, will regard flying cars, in any but trivial numbers, as accidents waiting to happen.

I get regular google emails about robot cars.  A point that comes up from time to time in the stuff these emails link to is the idea that flying cars may eventually materialise, but only after robot cars are in regular use.  The point being that machines like the one above will only ever be accepted in the numbers envisaged by the makers of flying cars if these flying cars are driven and flown by robots.  Cars will eventually take to the air, but only when cars have become robot cars, because only robot driven flying cars will be safe enough for flying cars to be allowed to fly in significant numbers.  (If regular cars were being proposed only now, they too would have to be driven by robots to be allowed.) Flying cars driven by humans will just unleash a whole new world of fear and grief, and they won’t be allowed other than as ludicrously expensive curiosities.

If such curiosities as this one ever do fly, driven by mere people, they will be fun, to those to whom such things are fun, but very little else.

Sunday September 21 2014

Photoed by me in Oxford Street late this afternoon:

image

What this tells you is that architectural modernism has utterly conquered indoors, but that out of doors, modernism is only popular because its totalitarian impulses have been held at bay, by what you might call ancientism.

The Modern Movement founders would have been disgusted by the process portrayed in this picture.

Friday September 19 2014

My current camera, a Panasonic Lumix FZ150, has been my best ever bar none, and it has resulted in my longest ever period of not looking at new digital cameras since I first started looking at new digital cameras.  Oh, the FZ200 did cause me a twinge of annoyance.  But the FZ150 was basically the answer to all my prayers.

But now, this Canon SX60 HS has well and truly got my attention:

image

What that has is 65x zoom.  (My FZ150 has 25x.) 65x zoom!  65x!!!

I already know, because I have seen pictures like the one above, that this Canon SX60 HS has a twiddly screen This for me is a deal breaker, if a camera doesn’t have it I mean.  I’ll be reading the reviews to see if it seems any better in a general kind of way, and in particular at picture quality (which, after all, is what it is all about), and if they say it is better, generally and particularly, then I will be very tempted.

I’ve been reading Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and very entertaining and informative it is too.  Strangely, one of the best things about it for me was that he explained, briefly and persuasively, both the rise to global stardom and the fall from global stardom of British agriculture.  The rise was a lot to do with the idea of crop rotation.  I remember vaguely being told about this in a prep school history class, but although I did remember the phrase “crop rotation”, I didn’t care about it or about what it made possible.

Here is Bryson’s description of this key discovery:

The discovery was merely this: land didn’t have to be rested regularly to retain its fertility.  It was not the most scinitillatingof insights, but it changed the world.

Traditionally, most English farmland was divided into long strips called furlongs and each furlong was left fallow for one season in every three - sometimes one season in two - to recover its ability to produce healthy crops.  This meant that in any year at least one-third of farmland stood idle. In consequence, there wasn’t sufficient feed to keep large numbers of animals alive through the winter, so landowners had no choice but to slaughter most of their stock each autumn and face a long, lean period till spring.

Then English farmers discovered something that Dutch farmers had known for a long time: if turnips, clover or one or two other suitable crops were sown on the idle fields, they miraculously refreshed the soil and produced a bounty of winter fodder into the bargain. It was the infusion of nitrogen that did it, though no one would understand that for nearly two hundred years.  What was understood, and very much appreciated, was that it transformed agricultural fortunes dramatically.  Moreover, because more animals lived through the winter, they produced heaps of additional manure, and these glorious, gratis ploppings enriched the soil even further.

It is hard to exaggerate what a miracle all this seemed.  Before the eighteenth century, agriculture in Britain lurched from crisis to crisis. An academic named W. G. Hoskins calculated (in 1964) that between 1480 and 1700, one harvest in four was bad, and almost one in five was catastrophically bad. Now, thanks to the simple expedient of crop rotation, agriculture was able to settle into a continuous, more or less reliable prosperity. It was this long golden age that gave so much of the countryside the air of prosperous comeliness it enjoys still today, ...

The fall of British agriculture was all mixed up with refrigeration, which enabled the wide open spaces of the late nineteenth century world to make masses of food and to transport it to hungry urban mouths everywhere before it went bad.  Prices fell below what the farmers of Britain (where there were no wide open spaces by global standards) could match.

Wednesday September 17 2014

This morning, I finally finished a big old piece for Samizdata about the benefits to the old of superpowerful computers, at the end of which I linked to these two pieces here.  (There is already a comment up, from Paul Marks, saying that computers have been bad for him, by keeping him indoors, and also confused.)

This piece has not only ended a long Samizdata silence by me; it also explained it.  I can’t quite explain why this makes it feel so much easier to put lots of stuff up there again, like I used to until this last month or more.  But, it does.

LATER: Quotulated, even if it’s only the preamble.