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

Sunday July 27 2014

I just heard someone say in an American TV sitcom (I love American TV sitcoms) that they’re not going to answer the phone without knowing who it is, “like it’s 1994”.

I still do this, with my old 1994 style phone, which I greatly prefer to mobiles, because when I am out and about, I don’t have to answer it, and because phones connected to your house with wire cannot be lost, and because I know exactly where it is when it rings, and because that ring never changes.

Quite often, when I do answer, it’s a junk phone call, offering to extricate me from a financial error that I personally have not made by urging me to commit another financial error, and as soon as I realise it’s junk, I put the phone down.  Does this constitute some sort of “success” for the junk phoning enterprise?  Look, they answered!  Because obviously they knew who we were, this not being 1994, and yet still they picked up the phone!  Hey, we’re getting through!

Much of life these days seems to consist of doing many futile things, but contriving for these things the appearance of non-futility.  These days?  I suspect all days that have ever been, with humans involved, and no doubt many other species also, both before and now during the human epoch.  Only the futile things and the means of contriving a non-futile appearance for them change from time to time.

I don’t mind junk phone calls.  If they were more frequent, they would annoy me.  As it is, if there is a pause in incoming phone calls lasting a few hours, it is soothing to be informed, even if only by a robot actor voice spouting nonsense, that my phone is still working.  The pause was because nobody wanted to talk to me.

When answering junk phone calls, I pause any music that may be playing.  I do not mind this.  There is a part of my brain (yours too?) where you remember the musical phrase you were listening to when you last paused the music, and when you unpause it you carry on listening just as you would have done normally.  I even suspect that pausing deepens my response to particular pieces of music, by fixing particular moments of them in my brain more firmly than might have happened otherwise.

Since I am now rambling like the really old person that I am rapidly becoming, let me ramble some more.  In connection with none of the above, here are the wheels of a big mobile crane that I photoed in Victoria Street a while back.  Click on it to get the crane:

image

I like cranes.  That one is, I think, the Spierings SK599-AT5.  I love how you can find out about things like this, these days.  And this time it really is these days, rather than all days. 

Here is a link to a toy version of this crane.  Do contractors use toys like this to plan their jobs, I wonder?  As well as just to decorate their offices or amuse their spoilt children?

It is now late morning on Sunday.  Are sermons like this, when the priest is getting old, but is too well liked for anyone to want to sack him?  With a blog you can ramble anyway, because nobody can sack you.

Saturday July 19 2014

You don’t see many of these these days:

image

I’m talking about round headlights on cars.  About ten years ago, and I have photos that notice the moment, car headlights, having been round for about three quarters of a century, went absolutely mental, with silver moldings and weird shapes of all kinds.  It’s been like that ever since.  Now, a car with round headlights is an old car.

Like this one, the car with the above headlight:

image

It appears to be one of these, or if not then something very like it.  I photoed this car this afternoon.

A while ago, I started photo-collecting round headlights, and the cars that sport them.  There may accordingly, although I promise nothing, be a huge spread of them here, any month, or year, or decade, now.

Some new cars these days have pretend round headlights, such as the new German Mini.  But they are only pretend round.  Look carefully, and they are not properly round, like the one above.

Friday July 18 2014

Here is a London picture, with the River Thames turned into a floor, very badly carpeted with very bad carpet tiles:

image

It’s Google Maps’s 3D-isation of London.

Despite the bad river carpeting, I would like to explore this Virtual London.  But none of the reports I read of this exciting new virtuality tell me how can do this.  Can I?  And if I can, will I have to pay?

Thursday July 17 2014

The are two photos which I took last Monday.  The one with the bright blue sky, me looking up, was taken in Wigmore Street.  The one looking down, was taken from the ME Hotel Radio Rooftop Bar.

They are photos not so much of roof clutter, as of roofs, roof in all their elaborately designed glory.  But, you can spot the late twentieth century incursions:

image image

The aesthetic impact of radio and television aerials does not seem to be much discussed in the architectural world.  It could be that it has, and I merely haven’t noticed, but I don’t think that’s it.

Here is what I think is going on inside the heads of architectural aestheticians, on this subject.  The deal we will make with you mindless philistines is: you can have your damn aerials, because we know that if you are not allowed, by us, to have your damn aerials, you will hut us down and burn us at the stake.  But, we refuse to talk about them.  We will not incorporate them into our aesthetic theories of how things look, and should look.  We will not see them.

Which is how we got from the above scenario, where everything on the roof is elaborately designed, but the first few aerials have crept into the pictures, but have not been seen by the architects and their aesethetic guides, to this:

image

Yet still, they don’t see it and they don’t talk about.

Really, really weird.

I’ve been pondering roof clutter for a while now, but the more I ponder it, the more weird the phenomenon is.

What this reminds me of is a distinction that my sociology teachers at Essex University all those years ago made much of, that between the sacred and the profane.  The sacred stuff here is the regular “architecture”, the walls, the windows, the roofs, the interiors, and so on.  All of that is sacred, and is accordingly obsessed over, every tiny square inch of it, every subtle colour change, just as priests obsess about every word in a prayer.

But those aerials are profane.  They don’t register.  They aren’t architecture, any more than a tracksuit worn by a impoverished member of the congregation in a church is a sacred vestment, the details of which must be argued about by bishops and theologians, or the sales pitch being done over the phone on Monday morning (by someone who had been devoutly praying on Sunday) is itself a prayer.  That sales pitch is profane.  Forget about it.  Don’t even think about it.

Those aerials, in among the sacredness of all those designed chimneys and roofs and little towers, are profane.  And hence invisible.  Aerials are designed, by aerial designers, to make sense of radio waves.  But they are not designed to be looked at.  They are a pure case of form following function.  Architects ought to love them, if they believed their prayers.  But they don’t because what is there for architects to add?  Nothing.  The job has all been done, by profane aerial designers.

Well, I don’t know.  I’m thinking as I go along here, but writing it anyway.  Which is all part of why I have this blog.  At this blog, I am allowed to be wrong.  This is a thinking allowed zone, you might say, a place where the thinking does not have to be done before the blogging begins.  This is, you might say, a profane blog.

Wednesday July 16 2014

From Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik (pp. 80-81):

Given that literally half of the world’s structures are made from concrete, the upkeep of concrete structures represents a huge and growing effort.  To make matters more difficult, many of these structures are in environments that we don’t want to have to revisit on a regular basis, such as the Oresund bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark, or the inner core of a nuclear power station. In these situations it would be ideal to find a way to allow concrete to look after itself, to engineer concrete to be self-healing.  Such a concrete does now exist, and although it is in its infancy it has already been shown to work.

The story of these self-healing concretes started when scientists began to investigate the types of life forms that can survive extreme conditions.  They found a type of bacterium that lives in the bottom of highly alkaline lakes formed by volcanic activity.  These lakes have pH values of 9-11, which will cause burns to human skin.  Previously it had been thought, not unreasonably, that no life could exist in these sulphurous ponds. But careful study revealed life to be much more tenacious than we thought.  Alkaliphilic bacteria were found to be able to survive in these conditions.  And it was discovered that one particular type called B. Pasteurii could excrete the mineral calcite, a constituent of concrete.  These bacteria were also found to be extremely tough and able to survive dormant, encased in rock, for decades.

Self-healing concrete has these bacteria embedded inside it along with a form of starch, which acts as food for the bacteria.  Under normal circumstances these bacteria remain dormant, encased by the calcium silicate hydrate fibrils. But if a crack forms, the bacteria are released from their bonds, and in the presence of water they wake up and start to look around for food. They find the starch that has been added to the concrete, and this allows them to grow and replicate.  In the process they excrete the mineral calcite, a form of calcium carbonate.  This calcite bonds to the concrete and starts to build up a mineral structure that spans the crack, stopping further growth of the crack and sealing it up.

It’s the sort of idea that might sound good in theory but never work in practice.  But it does work. Research now shows that cracked concrete that has been prepared in this way can recover 90 per cent of its strength thanks to these bacteria.  This self-healing concrete is now being developed for use in real engineering structures.

Maybe Miodownik is very good at explaining things, or maybe I am just ready to be learning this stuff.  Probably both.  I chose that excerpt because my average reader may not know about such things as bacteria which automatically repair concrete.  But the truth is that I am almost embarrassed by how much I am reading that is new to me, or only vaguely known, as a sort of historical rumour.

I had no idea, to take just one example, who invented/discovered stainless steel, or where, or how.  Now, I have a much better idea.  The story is told on page 29 of this book, which I heartily recommend to all technological illiterates who would like not to be technological illiterates.

Monday July 14 2014

Today, by some means or another that I forget (other than it was the internet) I learned that the new trains for Crossrail will supplied by Bombardier.  Oh yes, I learned it here.

And then, and again I forget how exactly, I learned about this bizarre vehicle, the Bombardier Embrio:

image

Oh yes, how I got to this was I googled for Bombardier pictures, and in among lots of airplanes and some trains, I saw this weird one wheeled thing, and investigated.

It looks like something Sylvester Stallone would ride in a movie.

It isn’t real.  It is only a “concept” vehicle, and concept vehicles never happen.  They just become part of the past history of the future, along with flying cars, robots to do your vacuuming and serve you tea, and elaborate space travel by the end of the last century.  Still, weird.

I think what made me dig this up was that I have a soft spot for Bombardier, having done a few days, over the past few years, of planespotting at London City Airport, my favourite airport in the world.  Lots of the planes that fly in and out of there are made by Bombardier.  The world’s famous planes are made by Boeing and Airbus.  But the quirky ones, the ones with propellers, the ones you don’t recognise, are made by companies like Bombardier.

I also like the way that railway carriages have changed during my lifetime.  They have got better and better, with their automatic doors and spacious interiors.

Friday July 11 2014

City A.M. has a report about another possible bridge across the Thames, this one being one that will connect Chelsea to Battersea.  There is another map here, also showing all the various options for where exactly to put this bridge.  And I see that I already mentioned this Chelsea to Battersea bridge idea in this earlier posting.

This makes three new London bridges that are now being talked up, planned, hustled, whatever.  There is also the Joanna Lumley bridge, which will go from Temple tube station to across the river from Temple Tube station, or then again maybe not.  Both this and the Chelsea to Battersea bridge are footbridges and bikebridges, but they are also forever talking about a big road bridge just down river from City Airport.

If this Chelsea to Battersea bridge gets built, it will be only a dozen minutes (two to three dozen minutes if I want to get close) from my front door, so you can bet that (although I promise nothing) I will be photographing its progress relentlessly.

I hope they make it look good.  Bridges can look so great that it is a serious shame when they don’t look great.  It’s good that they’re going to have a competition for this one.  This, I think, will unleash a contemporary force that is starting to interest me a lot, which is internet informed public opinion.  Now, all the various contending pictures of what they might or might not do can get published and talked about beforehand, far more easily than in the years B(efore the) I(nternet).  The people who rule the world basically don’t care exactly where, or even if, this bridge gets built, so they are perfectly willing to let its final design be settled by Vox Pop.  And Vox Pop, when it comes to bridges, is a force for good, I think. If you are going to spend 8X million quid on a bridge, you might as well spend 9X million quid and make it look really good and distinctive.  That’s what I think Vox Pop will say, and for once I agree.

LATER ON FRIDAY (i.e. not the small hours of Friday morning): More bridgery today from City A.M., this time in the form of a plug for that East London road bridge, already mentioned above.

Tuesday July 08 2014

Yesterday, London was bent totally out of shape by the Tour de France.  It became a French provincial city for the day, as I suppose some French people think it is always.

It rained.  I was otherwise engaged, and in any case did not fancy fighting my way through crowds for the mere chance of snapping a herd of cyclists racing past me for about twenty seconds, especially after I had watched a Lance Armstrong documentary on my television.  What a shit.  And what a shitty sport.  Besides which there would, I reasoned, soon be plenty of photos on the www of the drugged up veloherd pouring past the Docklands Towers, the City and its Big Things, Parliament, Buckingham Palace and so on.

Most of the pictures I found today involved Parliament and Buckingham Palace rather than more modern Big Things, and the veloherd (all with hats designed by Zaha Hadid) of course, and the best Tour de France in London snap by far that I found today was taken three months before the big day, when they were still telling everyone about it:

image

Classic.  Seriously, what better background could there be to a sport that is all about wheels?

Original and slightly bigger picture, with the story, here.

Saturday July 05 2014
Tuesday June 24 2014

Here’s a piece entitled Google Glass:10 reasons Brits won’t buy it.  The basic argument is: it’s creepy, it’s uncool, it has various other more specific disadvantages.

I think that the writer of this piece, Robyn Vinter, makes the very common error of saying that a piece of kit won’t catch on because, in her opinion it is, in a general sort of way, not nice or not good.  I know it’s only a jokey piece, pandering to ignorant prejudice and general technophobia, but it contains a serious and wrong idea about how technology gets established in the wider world.

Technology doesn’t catch on because people like Robyn Vinter think that it’s cool.

Technology or software, or whatever, catches on because it solves a particular problem for a particular group of people, and they start using it.  People like Robyn Vinter then say: ooh, how very uncool you are.  And the people using the thing say: guess what Robyn Vinter, we don’t care what you think, we are finding it extremely useful, to do what we want to do.  If you don’t think we look cool, this is entirely your problem and absolutely not our problem at all.  Gradually other uses for the thing in question accumulate, and quite a few people use it for several different things and get really excited and try to use it for everything, because they now like it so much.  If enough uses are found, then the alleged uncoolness of the thing just gets overwhelmed by people using it, in public, in full view, and to hell with the coolists.  If the coolists still want to write articles about how uncool this thing is, even though thousands of their potential readers are now using it, then they are pushed aside and other writers willing to say that it’s cool after all are told to write that instead.

So the question is: will Google Glass be useful enough?  Basically, it would appear to be a screen that you can use while you are doing something else, to do computer stuff and regular stuff at the same time.  Sounds extremely useful to me, for ... various things that I now know not of.  But I am sure things will turn up that it is very useful for, even essential for.  Work, basically.  Not strutting about in the street.  No.  Getting worthwhile things done, more efficiently, faster.  That kind of thing.  We’ll soon see, anyway.

This guy is much more optimistic.  Better, he understands how Google Glass will or will not catch on.  What can it do?  Not enough, yet, seems to be his answer.  But that may change.  My guess is it will change.

See also, this piece by me from way back, about another sort of coolist with delusions of grandeur.

And see also these pictures of another useful thing being used in an allegedly very uncool way, namely people taking photos with tablets.  This tendency has in no way abated since I took those snaps.  Quite the opposite.

There is also a definite whiff, in Robyn Vinter’s piece, of the status anxiety I wrote about in this recent piece here, if not in Vinter herself then in the readers she is appealing to.  What if this gizmo makes us look and feel stupid?  What if it demotes us in the pecking order?  The answer is: if it does, it does.  That won’t stop it being used.

Sunday June 15 2014

Mick Hartley writes about England’s loss to Italy last night in their opening World Cup game:

Much football punditry has always seemed to me to be an effort to provide a plausible post-hoc storyline for what was to a considerable extent a matter of chance.  … as though the whole enterprise must be made sense of by virtue of the winning team being the team that deserved to win.

Very true.  (I’m guessing that, with luck (ho ho), this book will have a lot more to say about this tendency.) Actually, much of the appeal of football (to those to whom it appeals) is that the “best” team on the day often doesn’t win.  This means that the supporters of bad teams can live in constant hope of upsets.

This also explains why, at the early stages of a season, surprising teams are often at the top of the table.  Later, the law of averages asserts itself inexorably, and the best teams arrange themselves in logical order at the top, and the surprise early leaders sink back into the pack where they belong.

All of which makes something like the World Cup quite good fun.  All you have to do to win it is win five or six of your first six games.  All the best teams have to do not to win is lose one or two of their first six games.  One of the great moments of all World Cups is the one when a Much Fancied Team gets on its Early Plane Home.

What the pundits seem to have been saying about England is that, because the “expectation level” is low, they might do quite well.  The expectation level is low so it’s high, in other words.  My take on England is that they are a fairly bad team, who played fairly well against Italy, and lost, and that they will probably do fairly badly, but you never know, because there are only half a dozen games for each team to play.  I will video-record all of England’s games, such as they are, just in case.  I live in hope of a small series of upsets.

I also video-recorded the Spain Netherlands game, by far the most remarkable one so far.  Will Spain be this time around’s Much Fancied Team early departure home?

And I also videoed the first game, between Brazil and Croatia, with its truly dire opening ceremony.  This was a real collector’s item of awfulness.  What is it about these terrible opening ceremonies, with their meaningless costumes and absurd dance moves?  Witnessing them is like listening to someone talking in a language has only recently been invented - for aliens to speak in a movie, for instance - which consists of no actual words, only meaningless sounds.

The opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London contained many things I disagreed with, and I continue to disagree with the entire principle of me and all other anti-Olympickers having to pay for the damn thing for the next thousand years.  But at least that ceremony contained stuff that meant something.  Although come to think of it, maybe the only people who understood it was us Brits, and for countless mllions elsewhere, that was also the gibbering of aliens.

Saturday June 14 2014

I go to Lower Marsh because second hand CD shop Gramex is there.  (Gramex now has a new website.) But Lower Marsh also seems to be a place where I regularly espy interesting vehicles.

There was recently this superbly stylish car.  There was this tricycle a few days ago (that’s the big orange tricycle), which is still there by the way.

And then, the day before yesterday, there was this “Vespa GS” (I have another less nice photo which shows that clearly written on the front):

image

Even I could tell it was some kind of classic, and so it proved.

It’s the white bits on the tires that really makes my nostalgia kick in.  All the coolest cars and bikes had white walled tires when I was a kid.

Friday June 13 2014

I went on a photo-expedition to Erith, last Tuesday.  Well, strictly speaking, from Erith.  What I did was go to Erith by train, and then walk back along the south side of the river, to Woolwich.

I took about a thousand photos, truly about a thousand, of which the one below was one of the first.  My journey to Erith by train started at London Bridge Station, and this photo was taken at that station, while I awaited my train to Erith.

image

This guy has the full story of this strange circumstance.

First off, he notes, it’s not a V2.  It’s a sixties vintage Atlas booster.  So, what gives?  Someone, he pointed out, is looking after this object, so it must be there for a reason.  But, what reason?

A commenter explains:

It’s advertising the Britain at War experience below London Bridge Station.

And all is explained.  That link no longer works, on account of the Britain at War Experience having now been closed down, on account of the redevelopment around London Bridge Station.  But advertising the Britain at War Experience is how it got to be there.

Maybe the Not-V2 will soon start to look at bit tatty.  It may even vanish altogether.  All the more reason to photo it now.

Wednesday June 11 2014

This kind of thing is why I keep going to dezeen:

image

Engineering firm Arup has produced prototype 3D-printed steel construction joints that could be used to create more efficient structures.

Arup says it has produced a new design method for creating “critical structural steel elements” for tensile structures – a development it believes signals “a whole new direction for the use of additive manufacturing in the field of construction and engineering”.

A glimpse of much architecture to come, I think.

Also, featured in the very next posting at dezeen, this looks like it would be worth a visit.  It’s a Gormley, in the form of a Lego man doubling up as a hotel room:

image

First impression: don’t much like it.  Gormley is very hit or miss, and this looks to me like a miss.  But, it’s only a tube ride away, so what’s for me to lose if I go and check it out?  I might like it more in, so to speak, the flesh.  Not that it looks very fleshy.

What strikes me, when I look at these two pictures, is how much more sculpturally interesting the purely functional artifact is, compared to the “sculpture”.

Friday June 06 2014

Incoming from 6k, alerting me to a New Statesman piece by Ed Smith, about how, after a small digger has dug out a deep hole under a posh London house to make the house bigger, it makes more sense to leave the digger in the hole than go to the bother of extricating it.  Makes sense. What a great story.

So, many of the squares of the capital’s super-prime real estate, from Belgravia and Chelsea to Mayfair and Notting Hill, have been reconfigured house by house. Given that London’s strict planning rules restrict building upwards, digging downwards has been the solution for owners who want to expand their property’s square-footage.

So, enter the digger, and dig dig dig.  But then:

The difficulty is in getting the digger out again. To construct a no-expense-spared new basement, the digger has to go so deep into the London earth that it is unable to drive out again. What could be done?
Initially, the developers would often use a large crane to scoop up the digger, which was by now nestled almost out of sight at the bottom of a deep hole. Then they began to calculate the cost-benefit equation of this procedure. First, a crane would have to be hired; second, the entire street would need to be closed for a day while the crane was manoeuvred into place. Both of these stages were very expensive, not to mention unpopular among the distinguished local residents.

A new solution emerged: simply bury the digger in its own hole. Given the exceptional profits of London property development, why bother with the expense and hassle of retrieving a used digger – worth only £5,000 or £6,000 – from the back of a house that would soon be sold for several million? The time and money expended on rescuing a digger were better spent moving on to the next big deal.

Today being a Friday, I was delighted to learn that there is a feline aspect to this, in the form of Ed Smith’s final speculations.  This man is clearly learning fast how to get noticed on the Internet!

In centuries to come, says Smith:

… they will surely decipher a correlation between London’s richest corners and the presence of these buried diggers. The atrium of the British Museum, around 5000AD, will feature a digger prominently as the central icon of elite, 21st-century living.

What will the explanatory caption say? “Situated immediately adjacent to the heated underground swimming pool and cinema at the back of the house, no superior London address was complete without one of these highly desirable icons, sometimes nicknamed ‘the Compact Cat’. This metallic icon was a special sacrificial gesture, a symbol of deep thanks to the most discussed, revered and pre-eminent god of the age, worshipped around the world: London Property.”

Ed Smith is a former first class (and occasional test) cricketer, and now occasional cricket commentator.  As well as a writer of books.  Writing this posting also got me ordering a copy of his latest.