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: Design

Friday May 22 2015

And this one has a camera!:

image

Drone details.

It’s like the internet can read my mind.

Am I happy about that?  Are you?

More to the point, what are the rules about flying one of these things around in London?

Wednesday May 20 2015

A few months back my computer got a going over from The Guru, and I immediately started receiving more internet advertising than hitherto.  At first this continued because I merely didn’t know how to stop it.  But now, I find myself interested by this advertising.

I like old-school advertising, the sort that has no idea who you are or what you like, not even a bad idea.  I learn from old-school advertising how the world in general is feeling about things, which is interesting and amusing information.  (This is, for me, one of the pleasures of walking about in London.  (Soon this pleasure may also vanish, because of embedded spy cameras.  Soon, I may find myself looking at adverts for classical CDs and history books (and drones – see the rest of this), whenever I walk past a billboard).)

But I am now starting to enjoy new-school, internet advertising, where your most trifling internetted thought results in adverts appearing a little while later, for related (or so the internet thinks) products.  Sometimes, it’s just crass, like a salesman barging into a conversation at a party and changing it.  Fuck off jerk.  But I am starting to enjoy this sort of advertising, sometimes.

So, for instance, all my droning on here about drones - arf arf - has resulted in adverts for this miniature contraption appearing on my computer screen:

image

As you can see from this picture, this drone is very small.  It is also very cheap.  But does it have a camera on it?  Could you even attach a camera to it, or would that make it too heavy and crash it?

The last drone posting here was about a drone noticed by 6k that costs $529 dollars.  But the above drone costs a mere £13.78.  It is as cheap as that partly because you get it in the form of a kit rather than completed.  But there must surely be a factory in China where people are paid 10p a go to assemble such things.  I could surely buy a completed Eachine Q200 40g Carbon Fiber FPV Quadcopter Multicopter if I wanted to, rather than have to make do with an Eachine Q200 40g Carbon Fiber FPV Quadcopter Multicopter Frame Kit.

Kit or completely, I have no intention whatsoever of buying such a thing any time soon.

I can’t help thinking what gadgets like this, so small, so cheap, will do to photography, in a place like London.

A lot of what this blog is about is the texture of everyday life, and how that is changing.  (I mean things like down-market computer stuff and smartphones and CDs.  And advertising, see above.) Well, these drones are not yet a Big Thing about which old-school moany newspaper articles are being written about how the twentieth century was better, blah blah.  But, they soon will be.

If I ever do get a drone to take photos, you may be sure that I will make a point of photoing the other drones.  Although that’s assuming I’d be able to make something like a drone actually work, and I now assume the opposite.  Maybe I will compromise, and photo all the drones I see from the ground.  So far, I have only seen drones for real in shop windows.  But give it a couple of years …

And oh look, the mere fact of me working on this posting, embedding links into it, caused another advert to present itself to me (for this only slightly more expensive drone (and this one you don’t have to assemble yourself (it’s like it read my mind!))), when I switched to reading something Instapundit had linked to.  The advert has vanished now and been replaced by something for Walt Disney (?), but I screen-captured it before it went:

image

Adverts at blogs are a rich source of horizontality, I find.

Here is a cropped detail of a photo I took on Monday, of a rather strange hair style:

image

The internet knows everything, but my image-googling skills are not good enough for me to learn what is going on here.  I have seen this kind of style before, so this is no mere individual eccentricity.  There is a group of guys who all style their hair like this.  But who are they?  What else, if anything, to they believe in, besides believing in having their hair done in this strange way?  Anyone?

Monday May 18 2015

Photographer on the upstream Hungerford Footbridge, me not on any Hungerford Footbridge:

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Photographer on the downstream Hungerford Footbridge, me on the same Hungerford Footbridge:

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Me on the downstream Hungerford Footbridge, photographer not on any Hungerford Footbridge:

image

The first picture is the most visually dramatic, but the third is the most mysterious.

Deck chairs on a deck makes sense, but why is there a pretend lawn on the deck?  And why did the man need to be in the middle of the pretend lawn to take his photos?

I do not know.

Friday May 15 2015

Once again 6k provokes a BrianMicklethwaitDotCom posting, this time about a drone, and by the look of it maybe the best and cheapest drone yet.

The video at the other end of that link sells the drone as being fun for tourists.  But I now surmise that the first great impact of drones on economic life is now already happening, in agriculture, in the bit of it where a tiny number of people manage vast acreages of agricultural land, and where a tiny increase in productivity is worth millions.  These people already have an entire industry of small airplanes doing things like crop dusting, which is a very ungainly process but still already well worth doing.  Imagine the benefits of being able to do that and much more, at virtually zero cost.  You could plant the crop.  Spray the crop.  Keep and eye on the crop.  Only the actual digging up of the crop, or whatever it is you have to do to crops, would still involve a bit of old school work.

I just googled “drones in agriculture”, and then clicked on Images.  Wow.

Drones are a bit like 3-D printing, as a technology.  There is much talk of mere humans doing it for fun, in their homes (3-D printing) or while out and about having fun (drones) but the real impact of poth these technologies is in niche markets, where specialists are doing things that have long been done, but quicker, better, cheaper, and by-and-by doing things in their line of business that were never before doable.  Drones, for instance, will make a lot of land farmable that was not farmable before.

I have always believed that the core skill of my generation, watching television, would end up having huge economic impacts.

Wednesday May 06 2015

I am working on a quite big and unwieldy architecture posting just now, but this probably won’t be ready to go any time today, or even soon, so I’ll instead write a little essay on a related matter.  Which is: Why I feel more comfortable writing about architecture, of the contemporary and hence controversial sort, than I do about contemporary interior design.  The contrast between how fascinated I am by the architectural stuff (this is the posting that got me going with the architectural posting that I am now working on) at one of my favourite internet sites, Dezeen, and the indifference I feel concerning Dezeenery about interior matters, is becoming ever more extreme.  I mean, designer X has designed a chair.  And what does it look like?  It looks like a chair.  Hoo ray.

It’s not that I dislike or oppose interior design.  It’s just that I feel that what I feel about it, or for that matter what anybody else feels about it, is of no public significance.  We can all just pick whatever interior designs and objects appeal to us, and let others do the same.  Interior design is not a political problem.  There is therefore nothing vitally important to be said about it.  Why argue, when there is no need to argue?

If you are one of those people who likes to tease out why you feel the way you do, about everything in general and interior design in particular, fine.  Blog away about wallpaper, tea kettles, tables, chairs, standard lamps, stoves and suchlike, all you like.  You’ll surely find plenty of readers, probably a great many more than I have.  You certainly will if you specialise, as I do not.  I write about such things myself, from time to time, when the mood takes me. 

But on the whole, it tends not to.  When the answer the question is: each to his own, and when that answer basically takes care of it, I generally don’t feel like adding very much.

You could say that this mood, of insignificant self-scrutiny, is upon me right now.  After all, who cares what I put on my blog?  If you don’t like it, don’t read it, problem solved.  Choosing a blog to read is like choosing a chair.  Nobody else need be consulted, or imposed upon.

But architecture is different.  We can’t each step outside into a city like London and each have exactly the London that we want.  If I am to have those new Big Things that I like so much, you also have to put up with them, even if you hate them.  It therefore feels right to me to be explaining, to the entire world (even if most of the world pays no attention), just what it is about these Big Things that I like so much.  It makes sense for me to say (even if I haven’t done much of this lately) why I came to hate most modernistical architecture when I was in my twenties, and why I think that modernistical architecture has improved so very, very much since that time, at any rate in the places I mostly walk about in and see in photos.

For the same reason, it also makes sense, to me, for me to be celebrating roof clutter, cranes, this or that piece of public or semi-public sculpture, these or those public signs.  It is because these are public issues.  Political issues, even.  Definitely political, in the case of those signs I just linked to.  Things like these have positive (mostly, in my case) or negative (perhaps in yours) externalities attached to them.

Actually, it is most unlikely that you hate all the publicly obtrusive things that I love, because you wouldn’t want to be reading such opinions, day after day.  But, you get my point.

Wednesday April 29 2015

Yesterday morning from first thing to about midday, I had a nosebleed, caused by my lurgy, a lurgy which is lasting for ever.  During this lurgy, I have had several nosebleeds (having never had a nosebleed in my life before), yesterday’s being by far the worst, and it cannot be coincidence.

Since then, I have been recovering my wits, such as they are, and am accordingly now in quota photo mode.  And here are today’s quota photos, all of them of the Big Olympic Thing, designed by the man who also did the Chicago Bean, Anish Kapoor:

imageimage

The photo on the left was taken in March 2012, from the Victoria Docks area, looking north, and the one of the right was taken looking south from Walthamstow.  The one on the right (with all its excellent roof clutter in the foreground) being an example of a common thing at this blog, namely a good photograph, taken badly.  (The one on the left, though I say it myself, is a really quite good photograph, taken really quite well.)

Trouble is, whenever I do one of these postings about some Thing, which I have a nice photo of to show you, I then go trawling through the archives looking for more photos of the same Thing.  Here are two more pictures of this Big Olympic Thing, this time with foliage in the foreground:

imageimage

The one on the left of those two, behind the trees was taken from Stave Hill, looking east (guess).  And the one on the right was taken from the big road just this side of the Victoria Docks.  These two photos were (left) taken in August of last year, and (right) in 2012 (about week after the sunset photo above).

The most recent of these four photos, the only one taken with my latest and undoubtedly my best camera, is by far the worst, technically.  This is because, for that photo to work, the light had to be very good, but it was not.  A less good camera with perfect light trumps a better camera with poor light, for me, usually, given the sort of outdoorsy, long-distancy photos that I generally like to take.  I’m hoping my lurgy goes away soon enough for me to take advantage of this summer, and all its light.

As you can surely tell, I consider the Big Olympic Thing to be a fine contribution to London.  It is not beautiful, exactly, but it is extremely recognisable.  Every time I happen to see it in the distance, I immediately know what it is, and it lifts my spirits.

Tuesday April 21 2015

Yesterday, while walking along the sharp right kink at the top end of Horseferry Road, which I do a lot, I looked up into the bright blue sky and beheld things of colourful beauty.  What do you suppose it is?:

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Does this make it any clearer?:

image

Clear for those to whom it is now clear, but still not very clear for most, is my guess.

Try this:

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Yes, it’s a Big 4.  And if you still don’t know what it is, apart from it being a Big 4, it is the Big 4 outside the fantastically over-the-top front door of Channel 4 TV HQ.

This Big 4 has changed a lot over the years.  (You can see a few of those changes in among all this google-search-imagery.) Different artists and designers have taken it in turns to adorn its metal skeleton in a succession of different colours and costumes.  The above is merely the latest iteration of this process.  And definitely one of the better ones, I think.

I like how the colours all vanish once you get straight in front of the 4, and all you get is a relatively bland white 4.  The effect is calculated to resemble the fleeting glimpse of the 4 that you get in the various intros you see just before Channel 4 shows on the telly.  Note also how the sun at that particular later afternoon time of day picked out the white bits of the Big 4, while leaving the stuff behind it in relative darkness.  I still don’t really understand how this happened, but I definitely like it.

The bad news, however, is that to get that particular Big 4 picture from the exact right place, you need to be standing in the middle of the road that turns south off Horseferry Road, past the left hand side of C4HQ, as we look at it, and at exactly the spot where the pavement would have been, right next to Horseferry Road itself.

So, finally, what we now see is the exact moment when a car came up right behind me and honked loudly, anxious to get past me and out of Horseferry Road instead of being stuck right in it, and honked at in its turn by angry cars behind it. 

image

I immediately jumped out of the car’s way, and it politely waved thankyou as soon as it had made its slightly relieved way past me.

A lot of cars deliver and collect a lot of people to and from that exact spot, and they must get this a lot.

Sunday April 12 2015

Here is a piece I did here about how Modernism got associated with whiteness.  And for most would-be Modernists, Modernism still is white.  But, here is another piece I did about coloured Modernism, in the form of Renzo Piano’s very colourful buildings near Centre Point.  (Renzo Piano also designed the Shard.)

Here is another photo I took of these, I think, delightful edifices:

image

And here is a faked-up picture I came across not long ago, which suggests that Piano’s colourfulness may have struck a chord with other architects:

image

That picture adorns a report about the footbridge that you can see on the right of the picture, the very same one that I saw being installed last August.  But I think you will agree that the towers on the Island there are a definite echo of that Pianistic colour.

The great thing about coloured architecture is that you can build the most severely functional lumps, and only worry about brightening them up afterwards.  Form can colour function, and then colour can cover up the form and make it fun.

But it need not stop at just having one plain colour.  Soon the artists will join in, and there will be giant murals.

If I had to place a bet about how different London will look from now in thirty year’s time, this would be the change I would bet on.  Both new buildings and dull old ones will be much more brightly coloured.

I’m guessing that outdoor paint is a technology that has had a lot of work done on it in recent years, and that such work continues.

I will be interested to see if those Piano office blocks become faded, or if the colour stays bright for a decent time.

Interestingly Le Corbusier was a great one for colour being slapped on Modern buildings, but the notion never really caught on.  Or rather, it is only now catching on.

As is illustrated in this posting at Material Girls.  Where the point is also made that another huge influence on the monochrome association with Modernism was early and black-and-white photography.  Even colourfully painted buildings didn’t look coloured in the photos.  (One might add that newspapers and magazines only burst into colour after WW2, in the case of newspapers only in the 1960s.  Until then, all newspaper and magazine photos were printed in black and white.  So even if Modernism was done in colour, its influence spread in black and white.)

Now, colourful buildings tend to look colourful, both for real, and in the photos.

Saturday April 11 2015

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (hence the second exclamation mark in the title), now.

Yes it’s another Immaculately Modernistical Japanese House Posting at Dezeen, where the pictures are full of The Wires …:

image

… but where the text never mentions The Wires.

They don’t see the anarchy.  They see only the Order.

Friday April 10 2015

After photoing the old London Model, which was the original reason (excuse?) I had visited the Building Centre, I took a look around the place to see what else was on view.

Look what I found:

image

Yes, it’s a CATableHere (at Deezen) are some prettier pictures of it, less chaotically lit.

Nut I took another picture of the Building Centre CATable which included a rather cool looking chair.  All I was thinking about when I took it was including the chair.  I liked the chair.  (I also liked how it was lit.) But this snap, quite fortuitously, turned out to make the CATable look particularly like a cat:

image

It looks like it’s got eyes, because of the accidental aignment of two of the holes, and because of the way that there is light behind.  We humans are programmed to find faces where we can, and if they can’t be human faces, maybe they can be cat faces.

The way that the CATable’s legs are done already shows that the cat resemblance is deliberate.

The CATable is not a one-off creation.  They are now being mass produced and you can buy one, if you want to.  A snip at $4,799.

Further evidence of highbrow types climbing aboard the catwagon in this Colossal report on Intimate Portraits of 50 Artists and Their Cats Compiled by Alison Nastasi.  Artists eh?  They’ll do anything to get noticed.

Wednesday April 08 2015

And I don’t mean Twiggy.

I love it when a bald bloke photos a London Big Thing.  So I loved it when this fashionably bare-headed gentleman photoed lots of little London Big Things:

image

He’s photoing the big old London model, at the Building Centre in Store Street, off Tottenham Court Road, last month. (It was the same day I took this White Van photo and this BT Tower photo.)

This big old London model is in the process of being refurbished.  If all goes as advertised, a big new London model will be ready to view at the end of this month.

People often say “I can’t wait”, when things like this are in the offing.  What do they mean?  That by the time it arrives, too much time will have elapsed and they will no longer be interested?

I know, it’s just what they say.  They don’t really mean it.

I can wait, and I will wait.

Tuesday April 07 2015

Ages ago now, before I was ill, I checked out that Suicide Bridge in North London, as reported in this posting.  This was a fine destination to have picked for an photo-odyssey, both because the destination itself did not disappoint, and because it was in an unfamiliar part of town, and thus was only the first of many wondrous discoveries I would make that day.

As the years go by, I accumulate more and more photo-collections of such days, and get further and further behind in mentioning them here.  Which is fine, because there will soon come a time when I won’t want to be going out at all, just sitting here reminiscing.  Then I can catch up.  Then I can die.

So, March 8th of this year.  I hoover up snaps of the view from Suicide Bridge and then walk away from the top of it in a westerly direction, along Hornsey Lane.  I am in Highgate.  Then I go north (actually more like west north west) along the B519, past the Ghana High Commission, until I get to a turning that looks like fun again, turning west, again (actually more like south west).  I am climbing, still, getting higher and higher above central London.  And I take another turn, south, and come upon a miniature version of the Alexandra Palace Tower (that being a bit further out of London, to the north east), beside a lane called Swains Lane.

Here is a web entry that says what this tower is.

And here are some of the photos I took of it and of various decorative effects that it had on its surroundings, on a day that, although getting very dark in parts, is still topped off with a bright blue blue sky, worthy of Hartley himself:

image image imageimage image imageimage image image

And here is another web entry, which explains what an excellent war this contraption had:

The British immediately realised that the powerful Alexandra Palace TV transmitter was capable of transmitting on the transponder frequencies and instigated ‘Operation Domino’. Using the receiving station at Swains Lane, Highgate, the return signal from the aircraft’s transponder was retransmitted back to the aircraft on its receiving frequency by the Alexandra Palace TV transmitter and hence back to the aircraft’s home station. This extra loop producing a false distance reading.

The Swains Lane receiver station was connected by Post Office landline to the Alexandra Palace transmitter. By using a low-voltage motor, this line controlled any drifting in the lock-on carrier beam, thus eliminating any give-away heterodyning beat-notes.

Which you obviously wouldn’t want, would you?

I love the way things like this look.  Totally functional, but … sculptors eat your hearts out.  It beats most of what you guys do without even giving it a thought.

Actually, slight correction provoked by actually reading some of what I linked to above. The current structure at Swains Lane is the metal successor structure to its wooden predecessor structure, and it was the wooden predecessor structure which had a good war, but was then blown down by a gale in October 1945.

Had it not been for this extreme weather story, pride of place there would have gone to the report about Quisling getting shot.

I love the internet.

Saturday March 28 2015

It started in Quimper, where I particularly wanted to photo the cathedral without all those summer tree leaves in the way.  And I did.

But I am now realising, about a decade and a half later than I should have but better late than never, that the exact same principle applies to London.  London is full of trees, which you either can see through or can’t see through, depending on the season:

image

That photo was taken by me yesterday afternoon, looking across Vincent Square towards … well, you can see what it was towards, because there were no leaves in the way.

See also this example of the same genre.

Tuesday March 24 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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