Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
Valent Lau on Bond car
Alan Little on ASI Boat Trip 9: The man driving the boat
Alan Little on PID at the Times
Wedding Cufflinks on God was overheating and now needs radical transplant surgery (and Dawkins now has to do my email)
Michael jennings on ASI Boat Trip 9: The man driving the boat
Brian Micklethwait on ASI Boat Trip 9: The man driving the boat
Brian Micklethwait on ASI Boat Trip 9: The man driving the boat
Michael Jennings on ASI Boat Trip 9: The man driving the boat
6000 on God was overheating and now needs radical transplant surgery (and Dawkins now has to do my email)
Michael Jennings on My week in Brittany 2: A crane holding a bridge at Canning Town!
Most recent entries
- A tumult of cranes (and the Spraycan)
- Postrel goes for Gray
- Xxxx-ie outside Xxxx-ridges
- Bond car
- BrianMicklethwaitDotCom musical quote of the day
- Parisian roof clutter gets the Real Photographer treatment
- God was overheating and now needs radical transplant surgery (and Dawkins now has to do my email)
- A swimming pool in a skyscraper
- God is dead
- PID at the Times
- My week in Brittany 2: A crane holding a bridge at Canning Town!
- ASI Boat Trip 9: The man driving the boat
- Back from France (plus cat photos)
- Big Things through a gasometer
- The view from Stave Hill
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Category archive: Books
I’ve started reading Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies, years after everyone else who has read it. I haven’t got very far yet, but I am delighted to discover that one of the Enemies that Postrel takes several cracks at is John Gray, that being a link to a crack that I took at Gray at Samizdata a while back.
And I see that Postrel, like me, does not confine herself to analysing and criticising Gray’s arguments, but notes also the cheapness of the tricks that Gray often uses to present his arguments.
What disguises the trickery, at least in the eyes of Gray and his followers, is the air of profundity that is regarded as being attached to the process of foreseeing doom and disaster. In truth, incoherent pessimism is no more profound than incoherent optimism, which is to say, not profound at all.
Says Postrel (p. 9):
Although they represent a minority position, reactionary ideas have tremendous cultural vitality. Reactionaries speak directly to the most salient aspects of contemporary life: technological change, commercial fluidity, biological transformation, changing social roles, cultural mixing, international trade, and instant communication. They see these changes as critically important, and, as the old Natinoal Review motto had it, they are determined to “stand athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop!’” Merely by acknowledging the dynamism of contemporary life, reactionaries win points for insight. And in the eyes of more conventional thinkers, denouncing change makes them seem wise.
Seem. Amen. I’m still proud of this in my piece about Gray, which makes that same point about the seeming wisdom of being a grump rather than a booster:
He trades relentlessly on that shallowest of aesthetic clichés, that misery is more artistic than happiness, that any old rubbish with a sad ending is artistically superior to anything with a happy ending no matter how brilliantly done, that music in a minor key is automatically more significant than anything in C major.
There are plenty more Gray references in Postrel’s book, if the Index is anything to go by and it surely is. My immediate future is bright.
Overheard in a TV advert for sweeties:
You can’t trust atoms. They make up everything.
Talking of which, I am now reading Lee Smolin’s book about String Theory. Basic message: It’s a cult. I haven’t yet read him using that actual word, but that’s what he is saying.
I am, of course, not qualified to judge if Smolin is right, but you don’t have to be qualified to express a judgement, and I judge that Smolin is right. And the way I like to learn about new stuff is by reading arguments about it, starting with the argument that says I am right about it. Smolin is basically telling me that my ignorant prejudice that String Theory is one of the current world’s epicentres of the Higher Bollocks is right, although he is careful not to express himself as crudely as I just did, for fear of upsetting his physicist friends, and because, unlike me, he sees some merit in String Theory.
I have known that String Theory was in trouble for some time, because Big Bang Theory’s resident String Theorist, Dr Sheldon Cooper, has been having doubts about it. He wanted to switch to something else, but they said: We hired you as a String Theorist and a String Theorist you will remain.
The above link is to a blog I had not heard of before, entitled Not Even Wrong. Not Even Wrong is the title of another book I have recently obtained with has a go at String Theory. I have not yet started reading this.
It’s true. You can’t trust atoms. And grabbing both ends of one and stretching it out into a string doesn’t change that. It makes it worse.
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.
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.”
The majority of postings at Dezeen are of very little interest to me, but occasionally something of extreme interest to me appears there.
My guess is that what the book is describing is a part of the story of how architects have for some time now been making more of an effort to please the wider public with their big set-piece buildings then was the case with the first full-scale assault upon the world by the Modern Movement in Architecture, following the evolution of the architectural modernity in America around 1900, and following all the earlier skirmishes there had been before WW2. (The Modern Movement, you might say, was evolved architectural modernity, but militarised and uglified.) Well, the conquered population fought back, and now architects are far more ready to make buildings that look cool and even beautiful, to mere punters, as opposed merely to making buildings that seem “important” to other architects. Big new Things have to look distinctive rather than anonymous, different rather than the same old same old, if people are to become fond of them. (London’s Gherkin would not have been nearly so well liked if there had already been another identical shaped building elsewhere.) Having a Big Thing shaped like a big capital letter is one way to accomplish such distinctiveness.
On the other hand, you probably wouldn’t want your own little suburban house to be shaped like a letter of the alphabet, instead of like all the other houses in the road. But that’s because houses are for living in, not to be “iconic”.
The disdain with which old school modernist architecture critics feel towards the the new Wow! style of architecture is well captured in this quote, from Charles Jencks:
“Ninety-five percent of iconic buildings are failures, because we lack an iconography and an iconology, and the artistic conviction to carry metaphors through,” says architectural theorist Charles Jencks in another of the interviews.
When Jencks says “failures”, you just know that what he means is that he doesn’t like them. I don’t think he is talking box office success here, the sort based on people generally liking whatever it is. Or, the horror the horror ... the mere clients actually getting something that they like! But, I haven’t read this book yet, and what “you just know” could be wrong.
Another point worth making is that any big building that actually gets built is a very big success right there. “Iconography” is as much about getting the Big Thing built, as it is about it looking good when it is built. Discuss.
Regulars here, or for that matter there, will know that I have for many years now been at enthusiastic fan of the French historian and social scientist Emmanuel Todd. In recent years, this enthusiasm has at last started to become a bit more widespread.
Two of the world’s most important Todd-enthusiasts are now James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus. Quite a while ago now, they sent me an email flagging up a piece they had contributed to Hungarian Review, which contains some interesting biography about Todd, and about how his own particular family history contributed towards making him into the historian of the world that he later became.
Todd developed this grand theory, about how literacy triggers particular sorts of political upheavals in particular places, depending on Family Structure, and then when the political dust has settled fuels economic development, But what got Todd thinking about all this?
According to Bennett and Lotus, the starting point was: How Come The French Communists Are Doing So Badly And Never Seem To Do Any Better No Matter What They Try?
He was the product of an extended family of French Communist Party activists and journalists, and grew up hearing his father and relatives arguing around the kitchen table. Anglo-Americans had tended to regard the French Communist Party of that era as formidable, successful, and continually on the verge of seizing power. From the inside, Todd grew up hearing his family lament the eternal failure and futility of the Party. (He left the orthodox Communist movement quite early, and in fact was one of the first scholars to predict, in 1976, the coming collapse of the Soviet system.) For some reason, the Party was well established in certain regions, and completely without support in most others. The Socialists were dominant in others, and it was noticed that the same social classes would tend to support either Socialists or Communists, depending on the region, but never split between the two, and when they failed to support the one, would not switch to the other, preferring alternative parties. In other parts of France, neither party had a foothold, and the same social classes that supported either Socialists or Communists in their stronghold regions supported entirely different, and not particularly Marxist, parties. The reason for this split was constantly debated in Todd’s family circle, but no possible explanation seemed to hold water. It was a great mystery.
Once Todd began studies at Cambridge, and encountered what we are calling the Continuity School, he began developing a social analysis that perfectly predicted the voting patterns that had been such a mystery in his family’s kitchen debates. France is far from homogenous, and in fact is a patchwork of quite different cultures and family systems. When Todd saw the distribution of the various family systems of France, as established by inheritance rules and customs, he saw at once that both the Communist and Socialist electoral strongholds corresponded to the areas dominated by two distinct family systems. Where other systems prevailed, neither the Communists nor the Socialists could gain any real foothold.
You can see how Todd was perfectly primed to generalise the principle from France, and then England, to the entire world.
In the course of my Todd readings and meanderings, I probably was told (perhaps by Todd himself in his book about French politics (which I have long possessed (and which I see you can now get second hand for £2.81 (in English)))) that Todd had been raised by baffled and frustrated Communists. But I had not really taken it in.
Incoming from Simon Rose, entitled “End of the World not happening tomorrow”.
What this means is that the End of the World CLUB MEETING is not happening tomorrow, because of a double booking mix-up of some sort. But for a moment there, I was wondering what mad prophecy Simon was taking it upon himself to contradict.
The End of the World Club is an up-market version of my Last Friday meetings. Despite its rather grumpy old man title, these meetings are very good, with excellent speakers. For instance there was that fascinating talk by someone who had lived through the Zimbabwe inflation.
And, I first came across Dominic Frisby when he addressed the EotW Club, about this book. Ever since Frisby spoke at my home, about his next book I have been hearing his voice on television, what with me being fond of TV documentaries. Here (click on that only if you want to hear noise at once) is what he sounds like. More Frisby audio info here.
Email me if you want to know more about these EotW meetings, and I’ll put you in touch with Simon Rose.
If the world ever does end, I want Frisby doing the voice overing for it.
I will, I am now sure (although I actually promise nothing), be writing more in connection with the talk that Christian Michel has just given at my home, but as of right now, I am too tired to do it anything like justice. All I will say about it now is that it was superb. (Read his sales pitch for the talk in this earlier posting here.)
But two bits of trivia about the evening occur to me to mention, both so trivial that I don’t have to have all my wits about me to mention them.
First, I made a particular resolution not just to provide satisfactory snacks to my guests but to actually open the packets of the snacks and putting the snacks in plates. In the past, I have found myself burdened, once my guests have departed, with unopened packets of party food. My surmise is that this is not because nobody wanted to eat any of these snacks. No, the problem is that people don’t like to open food packets, because that feels, and worse, may appear greedy. It’s like they want to eat all of them. Or maybe, that they are reluctant to open a new packet when they only want one of them. But, faced with a plate of biscuits or a big bowl of crisps, they will not hesitate to partake, if so inclined. It’s a little thing, but this worked well, I think.
And second, as usual, the exactly right number of people showed up. How do they know to do this? Last time around I was afraid that there would be too many. This time, for various reasons involving several semi-regulars happening to have other things on such as wedding anniversaries, I feared there might be too few. In the event, the number of attenders, both last time and this time was pretty much identical and just right. It always is. A Samizdata commenter, commenting on something I wrote there about this odd phenomenon, said that there is an explanation of it in this book, which I’m pretty sure I already possess. I must track it down. With luck, this posting will remind me to do this instead of forgetting about it.
I have plenty more to say about Alex’s PR Masterclass, and may even get around to saying it, Real Soon Now. Meanwhile, here is my favourite snap that I snapped at the launch of the book last night, at the office of Adam Smith Institute:
If you hold a book launch for a book called “PR Masterclass”, that launch had better be packed out, or you look like a prune.
It was. He didn’t.
As my talk deadline (tomorrow evening) approaches, further insights keep rearranging themselves in my brain.
Not long ago, I read Alex Singleton’s new book (he will be speaking at my home on Friday 31st of this month) about how to do P(ublic) R(elations). (Not so long before reading that book, I read another book in which PR meant, throughout, P(hoto) R(econnaissance). How the world keeps changing (see below).)
I don’t recall any of the facts in this book of Alex’s about how to do PR being any sort of shattering revelation. Rather was the book a relentless drip-drip-drip of what is called “commonsense”, that is, of facts which might well be true, which would make sense if true, and which are, in the opinion of one who knows, actually true, as opposed to some other equally commonsensical notions about these or those circumstances, which, in the opinion of the same expert, are not true. Yet Alex telling me all the things he knows about how to do PR hardly begins to turn me into a PR expert, even though I am now at least passingly acquainted with every important principle, or even fact, that he has gathered up during his PR-ing over the last few years, and furthermore now know (or think I know) where to look to reacquaint myself with all these facts.
What distinguishes Alex from me as a PR-er is that he not only has his facts right, but that he also has them, as the saying goes, “at his fingertips”. That is, he knows how to deploy the pertinent fact at the pertinent time, again and again. He makes connections between his facts, and knows, from experience, which fact matters at which particular moment. He has his facts properly arranged and cross-referenced, inside his head. He knows his way around his facts. All I have is an ill-remembered list of facts.
Trying to “make sense” (as I now am) of digital photography is like that. I already know everything about digital photography that I need to know, pretty much, as (I’m guessing) do you. The problem is making sense of what I know, of putting it all together and relating this fact to that fact, in a way that is slightly interesting and surprising, yet also true.
I now find myself thinking about digital photography as part of that wider historical change known by labels like: the Information Revolution. The Information Revolution kicked off, I would say, on May 11th 1844, when the first message between two different cities (Washington and Baltimore) was sent by electric telegraph. It is intrinsic to digital photography that it is photography that can be communicated.
The effect of the Information Revolution has been to unleash a succession of changes in the texture of everyday life, with each successive decade being defined by whatever stage the Information Revolution happened to have arrived at at that particular passing moment. Photography is both an example of such a change, and the means of recording and remembering and celebrating such changes. Photography remembers things like tablets and iPhones, just as in earlier times it remembered and still remembers big mobile phones, antique microphones, dance crazes, the social structure of successive pop combos, fashions in costume and make-up, and so forth and so on. (Photography also remembers successive iterations of the Industrial Revolution, like trains, cars, airplanes and wars.)
Photography remembers, among many other things, itself. Digital photography remembers, among even more other things, itself.
I’m reading Boris Johnson’s book about London. It’s good fun. I don’t know how much Boris is to be trusted about things like historical facts, but I doubt it is that bad, even though he is a politician.
The thing is, for years I’ve been looking for a brief history of London, but all the others seem to be too long, and too solemn, or worse, they exude literary pretension. I think I own this book, but have never been inclined to read it.
I’ve just finished the Chaucer chapter. I hadn’t realised quite what a swell Chaucer was. Him writing in English was a rather generous - or maybe rather patronising - gesture from a man whose first language was Norman French. It was during his lifetime that English supplanted French as England’s language. Johnson mentions the Black Death, of course, but not one of my pet theories about the Black Death, which is that the Black Death actually helped to cause English to take over, by killing half the royal administrators, who then had all to be replaced, because clearly the bureaucracy couldn’t get any smaller. That would be against the laws of everything. So, what remained of the teaching profession was sucked into the bureaucracy. At which point the English turned to home education. Guess in which language. But I digress.
I am greatly looking forward to reading about the time of the English Civil War, and then the stuff about John Wilkes, who is someone I keep hearing about but have never really got to grips with. I anticipate a good, quick, potted biography. I am expecting the arguments swirling around Wilkes to be a bit like those that now rage around the figure of Edward Snowden.
The book passes my basic test, which is that having started it, I find that I want to finish it. I am reading the book, despite merely needing to read other books.
In the shop (a remainder shop), I read the beginnings of the chapter on Shakespeare, and bought it on the strength of that. You can buy it for £2.82.
For about one second this posting appeared here. But then I realised it could just as well go there. So, there it went.
Now on display in the window of a local Oxfam shop, the one in Strutton Ground:
Here it is on Amazon.
(Further Amazon thoughts from me here. The weird thing about Amazon is that it seems, still, to be a hangover from the dot com boom bust era. It doesn’t make a profit, but still people want to own its shares. Explanations anyone?)
But back to the latest England Ashes tour, which has become another very tough one. Day One at Melbourne was hard going for England, not at all like their previous Day One at Melbourne. And you can bet Clarke remembered that day when he put England in this time around. This time over, he wanted to knock England over for something like 98, and end the day with Australia on something like 157-0. At least England escaped that. They didn’t do terribly badly, just not terribly well. All the England top five got starts. Only Pietersen got past 50. It won’t be enough. Australia will surely score quicker, get a lead, and win well, again.
Australia aren’t especially good, and England aren’t especially bad. But Australia are now definitely better in all departments, and with no interruptions or fluctuations caused by the weather like in England, they just keep on winning and England keep on losing, not just every match but pretty much every session. Oh well. Only a game.
England’s problem now is that the formerly great oldies (Cook, Pietersen, Bell, Anderson), are not yet bad enough to drop, and the newbies are not yet good enough. But, if they don’t drop the oldies, the newbies will never get good.
I am, as noted in the previous posting, reading Deidre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity. At the join between page 350 and page 351, I learn this:
The second sons of British aristocrats, such as Richard Howe, had long joined even the technically demanding and bourgeois navy. They stood on the quarterdecks facing enemy fire, as aristocrats should, but their fellow offers were the sons of lawyers or of clergymen (such as Sir Frances William Austen, Admiral of the Fleet in 1863 and Jane Austen’s brother; and Sir Charles Austen, another brother and another admiral).
I did not know this, that is to say, I did not know (in particular) the bit in the brackets. That explains a great deal about the novel Persuasion, in which the best men are navy men, and the biggest arse is an aristocrat.
Jane Austen’s books are popular because, despite the way they look on television, they are precisely not unthinking celebrations of aristocratic privilege and excellence. Upwardly mobile traders are accorded dignity, and aristocrats who despise tradesmen for trading are in their turn despised by Jane Austen. Yes, Mr Darcy owns half a county, and Elizabeth Bennet falls for him when she first sets eyes on his gigantic stately home. But his aunt, Lady Catherine de Burgh, who despises Elizabeth for being related to tradespeople, is another pompous aristocratic arse (of the female sort), bested at the end by bourgeois Elizabeth Bennet.
By the way, McCloskey is a cricket fan.
Is this book … :
… the same book as this book?:
It turns out that they are the same book. Hannan:
But, are they precisely the same? I mean: same intro? Same preface? Any other small tinkerings? If the Yanks (maybe the Brits?) changed the damn title, what the hell else did they change?
I find this kind of thing intensely annoying. The whole point of reading something like a book, or watching something like a movie, is that you read (or watch) precisely the same object as everybody else. (This being one reason why I so particularly resent censorship. It prevents me, again and again, from seeing what others elsewhere are seeing.)
The best you can say about this muddle is that at least this/these book/books seem to be coming out at approximately the same time.
How we invented Freedom is nevertheless in the post.