Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Michael Jennings on Christmas tree with scaffolding
michael fallon on Russia unleashes tiger on China
Alastair on Santa's tired helpers
dodgy geezer on Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
michael fallon on Halloween buckets
Michael Hiteshew on Sign blocked by surveillance camera
Michael on Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
Simon Gibbs on My digital photos on his TV
Most recent entries
- I’m an adjective!
- Home advantage and hoping for the best in the World Cup
- Hirst’s Hymn outside the Tate Gallery
- To Covent Garden (3): Cat that looks a bit like a dog
- To Covent Garden (2): Rough roofs – smooth roof
- Christmas tree with scaffolding
- Santa’s tired helpers
- To Covent Garden (1): The twisty footbridge
- Trousers keyboard
- Cameras photoing the Wheel (in 2007)
- Was Guy’s Tower a key building in the architectural history of London?
- Photo-drone wars to come
- A link and a photo of a photographer
- Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
- Sign blocked by surveillance camera
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6000 Miles from Civilisation
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Category archive: Design
This morning I had reason to be in the vicinity of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, at about 10 a.m. Later you will learn why, but in the meantime, just to say that this uncharacteristically early-in-the-day expedition enabled me to reacquaint myself with an old friend, in the form of the delightful footbridge that allows the ballerinas of the Royal Ballet School to make their way to the Royal Opera House, without having to risk being damaged by traffic or by the public:
The ROH is on the right there. I like how the squares in the bridge echo the strong right angles of the building and its roof details.
I also like the blue sky. But, you think that’s a blue sky? That’s not a blue sky.
This is a blue sky.
A moment ago I had a twenty first century moment. I thought: Wouldn’t it be great to have a keyboard on the top of your thighs, embedded in the front of the top of the legs of your trousers. You could then type wherever, perhaps combined with a pair of those google glasses that you also wear perpetually. And it could all add up to a mega-computer if combined with a big cycle helmet full of electro-magic.
The point being that typing is never going to go away. The QWERTY keyboard is permanently with us, I think.
So, what about that top-of-your-trousers keyboard? Time was when a thought is all that such a thought could ever be. But now, no sooner is the thought thought than it is googled:
Brilliant. It’s not market-ready yet, but they’re working on it.
Gotta love that Golden Age.
Although, great though the basic idea is, I can’t help feeling that (a) washing and/or cleaning might be an issue, and (b) the keyboard needs to be separable from the trousers by some means. Maybe just strapped on, or something. What if the keyboard malfunctions? Do you then have to chuck away the jeans? What if the jeans catch on fire? Is the mere keyboard then any use? Problems problems. This, after all, is why keyboards originally separated themselves from personal computers.
But like I say, the basic idea is a very good start.
Maybe in the longer run, the future of the mobile keyboard is that your Goggle Spex will project a keyboard onto a nearby surface (and then keep that keyboard still even when you move your head around), which it will then observe your fingers typing on.
But basically we are talking about the next iteration of the personal computer. First, big old box in the office. Second, big old luggable/portable “laptop”. Third, little toy in your pocket that you can peck at. And now fourth, this. A real computer than you can wear all the time and type into whenever, wherever, within less than a second of whatever you want to type occurring to you. Had I been on a train when I had this notion, I could not then have done this blog posting. That is what needs to change, much more conveniently than it has so far changed.
In October, I posted this, provoked by seeing a drone in a London shop window. I said stuff like this:
Something tells me that this gadget is going to generate some contentious news stories about nightmare neighbours, privacy violations, and who knows what other fights and furores.
What might the paps do with such toys? And how soon before two of these things crash into each other?
I should also then have read and linked to this piece, published by Wired in February. Oh well. I’m linking to it now.
Sooner or later there will inevitably be a case when the privacy of a celebrity is invaded, a drone crashes and kills someone, or a householder takes the law into their own hands and shoots a drone down.
Quite aside from privacy issues, what sort of noise do these things make? That alone could be really annoying. (Although that link is also very good as a discussion of privacy issues. Noise is only the start of their discussion.)
My guess? These things will catch on, but at first only for niche markets, like photoing sports events, or, in general, photoing inside large privately owned places where the owner can make his own rules and others then just have to take them or leave them. Pop concerts. If they’re not too noisy, they might be good for that.
This is always how new technology first arrives. Ever since personal computers the assumption has tended to be that the latest gizmo will immediately go personal, so to speak. (Consider 3D printing.) But actually, personal use is, at any rate to begin with, rather a problem. At first, the new gizmo finds little niche markets. Only later, if at all, do things get personal.
Which is why, I think, the first two sightings I have made of photo drones have each been in shop windows, the first in the window of Maplins in the Strand (see the link above), and the most recent, shown below, in the window of Maplins in Tottenham Court Road:
And a creepy Christmas to you. I guess this is the gadget of choice of “Secret Santa”.
Which reminds me. Now is the time I start taking photos of signs saying “Merry Christmas” to stick up here instead of sending out Christmas cards. Will I find a weirder “Merry Christmas” than that? Quite possibly not.
I am looking forward to photoing one of these things out in the wild.
Here is a picture I took earlier this evening, at Warren Street tube station, the Victoria Line, at the time specified in the picture …:
… and here is another picture, of the same things, but from closer up and from below, which, as you can see, I took six minutes and one second later:
The first picture, taken from a random spot quite a long way off and from within a crowd (hence the blurriness) is the problem, and the second picture, taken from much nearer and when I was seated, shows you (without blurriness) what is causing the problem. There is a sign, and there is a damn great horizontal slab of WTFness, attached to a surveillance camera, right next to the sign, blocking the view of the sign, from everywhere except very near to it. This arrangement was not calculated to render the sign two thirds useless (see the first picture above), because it is quite clear that no calculation was involved. The installers of the surveillance camera and its WTFness clearly gave no thought to the sign or its legibility on most of the platform. But, if a malevolent calculation had been done with the above malevolent purpose in mind, that is exactly where the surveillance camera and its big WTFness attachment would have been placed. They could not have blotted out the sign better if they had tried.
You see this combination of circumstances quite a lot in tube stations. Finally, I got around to photoing it, when I saw it, so I can have a bitch about it on my blog.
Knowing how long you must wait for your next train is very soothing, I find. One of the best things about railway (and bus) services in recent years is that signs such as this one have become ever more abundant. But, such signs only sooth if it is possible to read them. They do not sooth if it is necessary to walk half the length of the platform in order to read them.
I am not impressed.
Busy day, so another from the I Just Like It directory (the last one having been this):
The things roofs turn into when no one cares what they look like.
This was taken in September of this year, in the vicinity of Holburn tube.
Today I went walkabout in the City of London with my friend Gus, father of Goddaughter 1. This evening I found, for the first time, this short video interview at the Arup (his long time employer) website, done with Gus in 2010.
Here are four vertical favourite-photos I took:
On the left, Gus shows me a magazine picture of the Cheesegrater, taken on a much nicer day than the day, cold and windy, that we were having to put up with today. Next in line is one of those Big Things seen through a gap in the foreground shots, but with a difference. This time, there are two Big Things involved. There is a sliver of Walkie-Talkie on the right, and then way beyond it, you can see the Shard. Then, we see Gus joke-propping-up the miniature Lego Gherkin that is to be seen next to the regular Gherkin. On the right, Gus looks up at something or other, this being the best snap I did of him.
Now for all my favourite horizontals.
I’m too tired after all that walking about in the cold to say much about these pictures, but see in particular 2.1, which is, I’m pretty sure, some of the bolts, a few of which recently disintegrated. Now they are having to check all such bolts, and there are a lot.
1.1: Mmmm, cranes. Grim day, well done my recently acquired camera, good in low light conditions.
1.2: Canon Street tube. Designed like a bridge, said Gus, ace bridge designer, because under it there are tube lines which it is built on top of, like a bridge. This is the building I asked about in an earlier posting here.
1.3: I included this because of the sign saying “all inquiries”. All? You know what they mean, but there is fun to be had on the phone with this sign.
2.2: A Gherkin detail, is there because I said, when I saw it, that looks rather plastic. And guess what, it is plastic.
2.4: Shows us the Lego Gherkin in front of the Actual Gherkin
3.2: A more fun picture of Gus, featuring also: me, in the right hand purple circle.
3.3, 3.4, 4.1: All the Walkie-Talkie.
4.4: For scaring pigeons, something you seldom see from above. I saw this particular cluster of pigeon scarers while descending a staircase at Liverpool Street station. That last was the very last photo I took.
When I emerged from Pimlico tube, near my home, I was amazed at how dark it had become, at a quarter to four in the afternoon. Like I say, my new camera really did the business today.
Sorry for all the cock-ups and mispronts in this posting. I’m knackered and am now going to bed.
Do you remember The Navy Lark? Used to be on the radio. In it, I seem to recall Leslie Phillips, playing a young (that already dates it) sub-lieutenant, who used, from time to time, following a marine mishap, to say:
But, I can find no mention of this particular catchphrase in all the various Navy Lark sites, so maybe I invented it, and am remembering only how Leslie Phillips would have said this, had he ever done so.
Anway: Oh clang. Someone just dropped a bear bottle on that glass floor they installed only a fortnight ago at the top of Tower Bridge, and shattered the glass.
I did not see that coming. I thought glass for that type of thing was now strong enough to resist a falling small car totally unscathed, let alone a mere beer bottle. I thought that expensive glass like this only now shatters in movies. In real life, I reckoned until I read this, you now bounce off it, unless it is extremely ancient, as does a beer bottle. Apparently not. (Did the bottle break, I wonder?)
It appears that this breakage was, as it were, deliberate, in the sense that the beer bottle broke only the top ("sacrificial") layer of five different layers of glass:
The stunning attraction, which offers visitors a unique, if slightly terrifying view of the road-bridge and River Thames, 138 feet below, was shattered when a member of the catering staff working at the venue dropped an empty bottle while carrying a tray.
The glass floor, which was only unveiled on Nov 10, cracked and then shattered, leaving Tower Bridge bosses with no choice but to cover and close the section of the walkway affected.
Fortunately the design of the walkway, which is made up of five layers of glass in each pane, meant engineers could repair the glass by simply replacing the top layer, rather than the entire thing.
This news first broke, ho ho, on Twitter.
Reminder to self: Must visit this visitor attraction, just to find out what my very zoomy camera makes of it, from below.
On the way back from the Royal College of Music to South Kensington tube after that magic Magic Flute, I encountered, for the first time, in Exhibition Road, the phone box that you see to the right.
It is a telephone box, but a telephone box with a difference. The windows have been replaced by sheets of reflective metal, and the telephone is now outside. Inside is whatever gubbins is needed to support a cash machine, which is also to be seen on the outside.
The reason I was only seeing this item for the first time is that I usually use the tunnel, but GD2 and her mum, with whom I was walking, prefer to stay above ground.
The classic London phone box, like the double decker bus, refuses to die. It helps that it can survive, in all its essentials, a sustained period of neglect and it is hard work actually to destroy. So, the period between the relevant bureaucrats deciding, for their own bureaucrat type reasons, to scrub these phone boxes from the face of the earth and the mere people deciding to revive them was a period that the phone box was able to survive, in numbers.
Next step, make replica phone boxes out of newer materials. Has that happened already, I wonder? Yes it has.
I further wonder: Is the the phone box in my photo one of these phoneys?
Being the Godfather of Goddaughter 2, who has just started out as a student at the Royal College of Music, is a bit costly, but it most definitely also has its privileges. Yesterday I was kindly allowed to sit in on one of GD2’s one-on-one lessons, and today I got to see (at no further cost) the first dress rehearsal for the College’s production of The Magic Flute. GD2 was not performing in The Magic Flute. She merely arranged for me and various others of her acquaintance to be there, and she watched it along with us. As did many other RCM students by the look and sound of things. GD2’s singing lesson was most encouraging, and the Magic Flute was terrific, truly terrific, reflecting huge credit on all the professionals named at the other end of the above link, who between them set the tone of it.
Michael Rosewell conducted stirringly, emphasising the menace as well as the grandeur and beauty of the music. Jean-Claude Auvray directed wonderfully, with lots of pertinent comic business. Ruari Murchison’s set was dominated by a big, black, modernistic wooden box, with big sliding hinged doors at the front, with little doors in them, and with more doors at the sides and the back. This moved the action along with minimal fuss. They could shut the big doors at the front and do a scene in front of them, while inside the closed box other cast members could then set up the next scene. Since so many of the scenes in this opera are contrivances by some of the characters within the drama, them opening the doors to reveal the next scene made perfect sense. The production reminded me, in its clarity and austerity, of the best sort of Shakespeare productions that I have seen.
The costumes were modern, in a way that illuminated the characters and the various stages their lives were going through, rather than in a way that stuffed Mozart’s story into a specifically different era and made an anachronistic nonsense of it. Mark Doubleday’s lighting emphasised the brightness and lightness of the final scenes, but in the meantime it emphasised what a dark and morally ambiguous story this is, ending up as it does with the hero and heroine joining a religious cult. Tamino and Pamina started out in jeans, then found themselves clad in pantomime hero and heroine costumes, and they ended up power-dressed, City-of-London Moonie/Mormon style, in matching grey suits with, in Pamina’s case, shoulder pads.
Mozart loved being a Freemason, but a modern audience can’t be so unreservedly happy about this particular happy ending. In many ways, this is a story about the triumph of religious fundamentalism over the forces of modernity and of female emancipation. There are numerous references to how women must subordinate themselves to men, with the only Queen involved being the Queen of the Night, the leader of the eventually defeated forces of modernity, individuality, and darkness. These anti-modern references became particularly chilling when spelt out in plain English, in the illuminated surtitles at the top of the stage.
The Three Ladies were dressed to kill at a Premier or a Charity Fundraiser, but not in uniforms, rather as three individuals. The Three Boys, on the opposite side of the conflict from the Three Ladies, were all dressed identically, like Mrs Krankie, being also ladies underneath their boy costumes. All six acted and sang splendidly, individually and as teams.
As for the singing generally, only Sarastro, the leader of the ultimately triumphant cult, needed to be granted a little slack. It was absolutely not his fault that although most of his singing was fine, his voice lacked that final ounce of basso profundity required for those fearsome low notes. This was the one time when you wanted to be hearing one of the half dozen, or however many it is, aging-giant Sarastro super-specialists who roam the earth, bestowing their show-stealing low notes upon rich opera audiences everywhere. But this Sarastro acted very convincingly, especially given that he had less help from his grey suit of a costume than I presume most other Sarastros tend to get, and not much help either from his relatively short stature. Being the one black man on view, on the other hand, meant that he was instantly recognisable. (I want to hear this guy singing other things.) As for everyone else, terrific. This was the first time I have actually seen The Magic Flute on a stage, and I can’t imagine a better introduction. GD2’s mother, who has seen other non-student productions, reckoned this one to be the best. Yes, really.
The biggest round of applause came at the end for the entire cast, and quite right too. But the Queen of the Night got the second biggest ovation for her famously spectacular and difficult aria, and thoroughly earned it. Sensational. Watch out for her. Papagena also stole every scene she was in, although I didn’t get her name. (Maybe I can later add a link for her too.) Papageno handled his various musical instruments with particular aplomb.
But better than any individual excellence on show was the general air of sincerity, enthusiasm and esprit de corps. As the lady teacher said at the end of GD2’s lesson yesterday, opera has changed from the days when all you had to do was stand there and sing. You have to be able to sing and act, and often to sing in very demanding circumstances. You may have to “sing with your legs in the air” was how GD2’s teacher put it yesterday. There was nothing like that on the stage today, but the director did demand lots of acting of a less undignified sort, and got it in abundance. The show came alive from the first minute, and stayed alive throughout. These young singers are being very well prepared for the sort of careers that most of them will surely have.
I’m looking forward to more RCM dress rehearsals, and hope one day soon to be seeing GD2 in one of them. I am reluctant to enthuse too much about her prospects. Just to say that her voice sounds like a pretty fine one to me, that her teachers and fellow students seem to agree about that, and that she seems to be working hard at learning how to make the best use of it. But, as yesterday’s teacher said, there are a lot of circumstances - some of which you can surely imagine and many of which you can hardly begin to imagine unless you also know one of these singers yourself - that can derail a classical singing career. So, fingers crossed.
Classic photo of photoers (which I found here):
It’s the new see through walkway at the top of Tower Bridge. All the reportage concentrates on what you can see looking down through it. But when I visit, I am going to check out what you can see photoing through it from below. Which will have the added benefit of being far cheaper.
Zoom lenses are rather good these days.
And guess what, I actually want other people to have the same idea, so I can photo them photoing upwards also.
On the left, an iPad case in Currys PC World inTottenham Court Road, photoed a few days ago. On the right a table in the street just outside of (and owned by) the pizza restaurant Soho Joe, photoed earlier this evening.
Okay, just these two colour-altered UJ snaps are not that much, but I have others that I have taken by mistake, so to speak, and I think I have now started to collect such UJ snaps on purpose. A large collection of such snaps, all in a big clump, would really be something, I think.
Sometimes, when browsing through my photo-archives, I see pictures that make me think (a) that looks like fun, but (b) I wonder what it is. This is because photos when small often look entirely different to the way they do when they fill the screen.
On the right there is an example. Small, it is an odd-looking abstract. Click on it to big it up, and it is revealed as the subway that leads from South Kensington tube station, north, towards the Museums and then on to such places as the Royal Albert Hall. (See the dots in this map.)
I took this photo at about 9pm last night. I am told by somebody who frequents this tunnel quite often that it is very rare for it to be so empty.
When I tried to Google this strange thoroughfare, I kept finding my way instead to information about this place. I wonder, was part of the reason the place at the end of that link closed was confusion about what “South Kensington Subway” actually was?
Here is another way I might get those high up views of London that I am always searching for:
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.
It’s that time of the year when I go into one of my local supermarkets and immediately start taking photos, like that, or like this:
Yes it’s Halloween. And the shops, in this case Sainsbury’s, are full of Halloween crap. And I photo it. I wouldn’t buy any of it. Oh no. I am far above that sort of thing. But, I photo it.
Except, how about these rather cute buckets? Just the thing for my Last Friday of the Month meetings, to put crappy food in:
Only 50p per bucket! I got two. And I just might go back for more.
Not that. I wouldn’t want one of them. That’s my picture of Sainsbury’s, having the last laugh.
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.