Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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- An important game and only a game
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Category archive: Books
Last night I sent out the email concerning the Brian’s Last Friday meeting this coming Friday, at the end of which email I found myself blurting out this:
Whenever I concoct these promotional emails I end up feeling very excited about the forthcoming talk. This time, this effect was especially pronounced.
This was what got me “very excited”:
Marc Sidwell will give a talk entitled: Promoting Freedom in a Post-Expert World.
He will be speaking about “the ongoing erosion of power and technocratic authority (most recently visible in the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump) and proposing some ways libertarians can respond to this shift.”
Other talk titles that were considered: “Twilight of the Wonks” and “The Revenge of Common Sense”.
Marc Sidwell is an journalist, editor, publisher, and writer, most recently of a How To Win Like Trump, now riding high in the Kindle best-seller List. More about Marc, his career and his publications, here.
For further information about the kinds of ideas Marc will be presenting, I strongly recommend a visit to: marcsidwell.com/.
It was there that I gleaned this quote, from Brexit campaigner Dominic Cummings:
“All those amazed at why so little attention was paid to ‘the experts’ did not, and still do not, appreciate that these ‘experts’ are seen by most people of all political views as having botched financial regulation, made a load of rubbish predictions, then forced everybody else outside London to pay for the mess while they got richer and dodged responsibility. They are right. This is exactly what happened.”
It wouldn’t surprise me if that quote gets a mention at some stage during Marc’s talk.
I would add that there are some kinds of expertise that continue to be held in very high esteem. Nobody doubts the expertise of the people who make all the machines and devices, mechanical and electrical, that keep our world ticking over efficiently and entertainingly. Not all expertise is now held in low regard, only the kinds of expertise that Cummings itemises.
The room is already starting to fill up.
Email me (see top left of this blog) if you want to know more about these monthly speaker meetings at my home.
Last night I was at the Institute of Economic Affairs for the launch of James Tooley’s remarkable book, Imprisoned in India: Corruption and Extortion in the World’s Largest Democracy.
Here are a few of the photos I took of him, talking about this book:
James Tooley is the guy who roams the earth, seeking out freelance educational enterprises, and also setting up several of his own. But then, he fell foul of India’s criminal justice bureaucracy, and got imprisoned for a while. Scary. And then he wrote a book about it. I have only read the bit at the end, because I wanted to know that James Tooley was okay. I of course intend to read the rest, and then do my bit to plug it.
Judging by last night’s performance, James is fine. But he is also haunted by the knowledge that many other victims of the same corrupt system are not as lucky, if that’s the word, as he was.
Both were effusive about the book, more than they had to be, if you get my drift.
The Q and A focussed, inevitably, on what is to be done, about the vast scale of the corruption in India. The mood of the room, although packed, was grim. My feeling is: you start by telling the story. You start by writing books like this one.
And the rest of us start by reading them.
Friday is my day for cats and other creatures, but it is also David Thompson’s day for more substsantial collections of all this weird and wonderful on the internet, and one ephemeron (ephemeros? ephemerum?) in his collection today is this:
Brutalist colouring book. Because concrete needs colour.
I followed that link.
Brutalism lovers, sharpen your cold grey and warm grey pencils and add some colour to some great concrete constructions. First edition of 500 hundred copies. Each copy is numbered.
Ooh. First edition. Numbered copies. Very arty. Sign of the times? I want it to be.
I have long thought that the brutalities of brutalism could use a bit of softening, and actually, a lot of softening. With colour. Bring it on.
Someone who agreed with me, from way back was, actually, would you believe?: Le Corbusier. He was into bright colours to soften the brutalities of his brutalism, from the getgo.
(See also: these colourful kittens. No softening needed there, but it was done anyway.)
The idea was that, all alone in my snuggery, I would do lots of tidying up. I have done some, but mostly I have been reading Anthony Beevor’s book, misleadingly entitled ”D-Day”, and unmisleadingly subtitled “The Battle for Normandy”. For Beevor’s story goes from the early agonising about whether (because of the weather), and if so exactly when, the landings would be launched, right up until the German catastrophe that was the Falaise Pocket. Then as now, despite much behind the scenes agonising, the short-term weather forecaster got it spot on, despite having far less to go on than his equivalents have now.
There’s nothing like the misfortunes of others to cheer you up. Which is a terrible thing to say and I wouldn’t say it if there was any chance that my bad attitude was able to reach back into the past and make the sufferings of those soldiers, and all those French people caught up in the fighting, even worse. But it won’t do that. And anyway, what I mean is, I am really just acknowledging how much worse things were for that generation than they have been for mine.
And then, come Christmas time, there was the Battle of the Bulge for all the participants in this book to put up with, if they’d not already been killed, or injured and stretchered off.
I haven’t been reading this book solidly, in its correct order. I have been dipping into it, reading about this or that episode, pretty much at random. Today I was reading about how Brittany was liberated, which until now I knew very little about. It helps a lot having been to all the towns and cities that get a mention.
Earlier, I read about what those Hawker Typhoons did, known to me until now only as an oil painting. What the Typhoons did was destroy a hell of a lot fewer counter-attacking German tanks than they claimed at the time and ever since, but they scared the hell out of the German tank guys, which was almost as effective. The counter-attack was duly snuffed out.
And when that book has finished entertaining me, I have another book, full of more evidence concerning how nice my life has been, this time about something that happened a year earlier. Kursk.
Indeed. Photoed by me in the Victoria Station branch of W.H. Smith, last week.
And here is Where to Find Them. Well, it’s one of the places to find them:
All the Penguin Modern Classics that they are selling occupy just the one alcove. Thirty books to read in a lifetime, one alcove. And Fantastic Beasts, one alcove. The J.K. Rowling juggernaut rumbles on.
And that’s not even to mention Robert Galbraith.
Photoed by me in Leake Street (where this cat was later to be seen), in July:
And what a very appropriate word it is, for the point I am about to make. Which is that although this new Graffiti Style of painting has now upstaged the old My Kid Could Do That Modernism of an earlier era, the two styles both have in common that they are, among other things, trying to baffle you rather than inform you, unless you are part of an inside clique which gets it.
In his book, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe wrote about this earlier sort of bafflement, the sort where you had to know what the theory was that was embodied in whatever random daub you were looking at in an Art gallery. The new Graffiti style actually gives you words, literally. But, you only know what they mean if you know what they mean.
But at least there is some real skill on show, in the form of how the words are presented. They at least look pretty. Your kid probably couldn’t do it, unless he’s one of the ones who does.
It’s for lots of other things, for other people, like: a telly. But that is definitely one of the things that the internet is, for me.
Whenever a new kind of information storage or information transmission comes along, people fret that it will replace all the previous ones. And the others, which when they started were things that people fretted about, become good for you. When reading by the masses got started, there was concern that the masses were doing too much of it, getting addicted to it, enjoying it too much. Dear oh dear, can’t have that. But then telly came along, and reading suddenly became good for you. Telly was the thing that people were enjoying too much, wasting their lives on, etc. etc.
And now that the internet is here, you even hear people moaning that Young People These Days don’t spend enough time watching telly, because they are, you’ve guessed it, addicted to their smartphones (on which they watch telly).
My own feeling is that Young People These Days spend far more time than is good for them gadding about in the open air and watching tiny screens and not enough time sitting at home watching proper telly and proper computer screens, big enough to see what’s going on, the way God and Nature intended. But that’s a feeling, based entirely on which exact generation I happen to be a member of, not a real opinion. Young People These Days, as always, have better eyesight than oldies like me, and, unlike me now, they like to get out and have fun. When I was a (moderately) YPTD, I loved small screens, like the one on the Osborne. (Look it up. Another thing the internet is is a machine for telling you things like what an Osborne was.)
The thing is, new methods of information storage or information transmission typically give the old ones a new lease of life, rather than the kiss of death, at any rate at first and often for ever. Printing didn’t stop people talking to each other, it gave them interesting things to talk about. Trains caused a surge in horse transport, to get people to and from the station. The telly adapts books into telly-dramas, and people buy the books to find out what’s going on and who these people all are. Telephones, email and now smartphones make it easier to organise face-to-face meetings. The first big internet business sold books. And lots of telly shows now consist of bits from the internet, for those who like telly.
And now, for me, one of the most useful uses of the internet is enabling me to keep track of what’s on the regular old telly. Recently, for instance, I recorded a whole stash of Columbo episodes onto DVD. But, which episodes were they and what order should they go on the DVD in? The Radio Times only tells you so much? How many Columbo episodes were there? Who else besides Columbo himself was in them? Step forward, the internet, to tell me all about that.
See also this other blog posting that I just did, in which, among other things, I give a plug to a face-to-face meeting that I will be hosting tomorrow evening.
The internet is fighting back against … cats!
Cats are colonizers: this is what they do. They have colonized the internet just as they have colonized so many other habitats, always with the help of humans. This is the lesson of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, a new book by conservation scientist Peter P. Marra and travel writer Chris Santella. From remote islands in the Pacific to the marshes of Galveston Bay, Cat Wars traces the various ways in which felines have infiltrated new landscapes, inevitably sowing death and devastation wherever they go.
Perhaps the most famous case of genocide-by-cat is that of the remote Stephens Island in New Zealand. Before the end of the 19th century, it was home to a unique species: the Stephens Island wren. One of only a few species of flightless songbirds, the wren ran low to the ground, looking more like a mouse than a bird. After a lighthouse was built on the island in 1894, a small human settlement was established; and with humans, invariably, come pets. At some point a pregnant cat, brought over from the mainland, escaped and roamed wild. The island’s wrens, unused to facing such a skillful predator, were no match for the feral cats that spread throughout the island. Within a year, the Stephens Island wren was extinct. It would take another 30 years to eradicate the feral cats.
This is not an isolated incident. Cats have contributed to species decline and habitat reduction in dozens of other cases. Because they’re so cute and beloved, we have little conception of — and little incentive to find out — how much damage cats are doing to our environment. When researcher Scott Loss tallied up the number of animals killed by North American housecats in a single year, the results were absolutely staggering: between 6.3 and 22.3 billion mammals, between 1.3 and 4 billion birds, between 95 and 299 million amphibians, and between 258 and 822 million reptiles.
Most books that get multiple reviews on Amazon get around four stars out of five, on average, because most of the reviews are from admirers and there are just a few from detractors. This book gets a star average of one and a bit.
I’ve been suffering from something a lot like hay fever. Yesterday, the doctor gave me some anti-hay-fever spray to spray it with, up my nose, which I hate. My symptoms are: aches and pains that wander around all over the left side of my head. I knew you’d be excited.
But, from the same doctor who wants me to spray chemical effluent up my nose I learned that if you get something stuck in your throat, which is what set all this off, they recommend: coca cola. I did not know that. So last night, when I went out for drinks, someone offered me a drink, and I though, no I’ve had enough (what with the headaches and so forth), but then I thought: yes, get me a coca cola. Apparently it clears out stuff in your throat by dissolving it. How come it doesn’t dissolve your entire mouth? (Maybe it does.) But whatever, it felt like it worked, and I’m drinking more coke now.
Last night, at that drinks gathering, I heard something else diverting.
We were having a coolness competition. What’s the coolest thing you’ve done lately? That kind of thing. I contributed the fact that my niece is about to become the published author of a work of crime fiction, which is not bad, and which I will surely be saying more about when this book materialises. It will be published by a real publisher, with an office in London and a name you’ve heard of, which intends to make money from the book and thinks it might. More about that when I get to read it. I usually promise nothing but I do promise that, here or somewhere I’ll link to from here. It would be a lot cooler if it was me who had accomplished this myself, but it is pretty cool even from a moderately close relative.
But another friend from way back whom I hadn’t seen for years trumped this, with something which in my opinion made him the winner, not least because he did the thing in question himself.
Remember the Concorde crash in Paris, back whenever it was, just before 9/11. And remember how the other Concordes all got grounded for ever after that crash. What you may not recall quite so clearly is that the other Concordes were not grounded for ever immediately after the crash. That only happened a few weeks later. And my friend told us that he took a trip on Concorde, on the day after the Concorde crash. How cool is that? Very, I would say. There were many cancellations, apparently, but he was made of sterner stuff, which is all part of what made it so cool.
I know, a bit of a ramble. It comes of me being somewhat ill. Illnesses can be cool, I suppose. But this one, which is just uncomfortable enough to be uncomfortable, but which hasn’t actually stopped me from doing things, merely from doing them energetically and enthusiastically, definitely isn’t cool.
Yes, I’ve been continuing to photo taxis with adverts. Here are half a dozen of the most recent such snaps.
First up, further proof, if you need it, that the internet has not abolished television. People still like to be passively entertained, surprise surprise. But the internet is in the process of swallowing television, so that they end up being the same thing:
Next, become an accountant! Note how they include the word “taxi” in the advertised website, presumably to see whether advertising on taxis is worth it. Note to LSBF: I have no plans to become an accountant.
Note also the Big Things picture of London, something I always like to show pictures of here, and note also how out of date this picture is. No Cheesegrater, for a start:
Next up, a taxi advertising a book. I do not remember seeing this before, although I’m sure it has happened before:
Next, Discover America. I thought it already had been:
Visit a beach. I didn’t crop this photo at all, because I like how I tracked the taxi and its advert, and got the background all blurry, and I want you to see all that blurriness. Nice contrast between that and the bright colours of the advert. A little bit of summer in the grey old February of London:
Finally, a snap I took last night, in the Earls Court area. And now we’re back in the exciting world of accountancy, this time in the form of its Beautiful accounting software:
As you can see, it was pitch dark by the time I took this. But give my Lumix FZ200 even a sliver of artificial light and something solid to focus on, and it does okay, I think. A decade ago, that photo would have been an unusable mess.
I am finding that taxi advertising changes very fast these days. All of the above photos, apart from the one with the beaches, was of an advert I had not noticed before.
Which means that in future years, these taxi photos will have period value, because the adverts will have changed over and over again with the passing of only a handful of years.
I am greatly enjoying the progress of Soon-To-Be President Trump. File under: guilty pleasures. My libertarian friends mostly express horror at Trump’s irresistible rise, and his terrible opinions, and his terrible hair, but surely you never really know what you’ll get with a new President. During the Thatcher years some of the people who most agreed with me did very little that I liked, while others, impeccably governmental sorts, who were just doing what seemed sensible to them, did quite a lot of good things. See: privatisation. Maybe Trump will turn out like that. Maybe he will even decide to have dignified hair.
Trump seems to me like he’s going to be the USA’s first Television President, by which I mean someone who got to be President via television. Didn’t they have one of them in Brazil not so long ago? Some guy who had got well known by being some kind of TV talent show host, or some such thing, and then, to the horror of the Horrified Classes parlayed that into being President. It was probably a disaster, but Brazil usually is. And now, Brazil has one of the strongest libertarian movements in the world, does it not? Maybe that’s how libertarianism wins. First you have a crazy TV guy, and then libertarianism. I can hope.
Anyway, Trump. This piece about Trump by Scott Adams is a good laugh, as are comments on it like this:
I liked the one in Arkansas when the manager of the facility announced that Trump broke the all time attendance record set by ZZ Top in 1978. lol
He is certainly a canny operator, as Adams explains very cannily, cataloguing Trump’s many previous successes, such as a best selling book on how to negotiate.
Part of the skill of getting the Republican nomination is to behave like a guy the Mainstream Media are confident they can easily destroy, in due course. Which means that instead of destroying you straight away, they destroy all the other fellows, who they thought were stronger than you, which by definition they can’t have been, can they? You have to be like Russia, and look either much weaker than you are, so the media don’t bother with you, and then much stronger than you are, so the media then grovel, as they do when they face a force of nature, in other words a force bigger than them.
I could of course be quite wrong, but I reckon Trump is going to walk it, when he gets around to dealing with whichever car crash of a candidate the Dems stick in front of him. And it will either be Clinton or that old socialist guy, the ones already in the race. Nobody else will want to join, because the prize for winning the Dem nomination will be getting Trumped all over, and who needs that? Those two old crocks both joined the race while Trump was still in his ridiculous phase.
The practice of facadism emerged in the 1980s, when construction technology made it possible to retain a mere sliver of a frontage, and as the rise of the conservation movement increased pressure to preserve the historic streetscape – even if it didn’t care much for what happened beyond the surface.
And more to the point, there are some great photos. Photos like this:
Wainwright is of course angry about this unequal style collision. He writes for the Guardian, and being angry about capitalism (aka everything except Guardianism) comes with the job. But I actually quite like it when big modernism rises up behind smaller ancientism. To put it another way, in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, the architect-hero Howard Roark is disgusted when a committee seeks to stick an ancientist front door at the bottom of his modernist skyscraper. But I think this front door, at any rate as shown in the film they made of The Fountainhead, improved things. It certainly made it easier to see where the front door actually was, which is often hard with totally modernist buildings, and used for about a decade to be impossible. Ancientism evolved a way of handling front doors in a way that makes sense to all, and there is no more virtue in destroying these ground-level conventions than there is in abolishing English and trying to replace it with Esperanto.
Besides which, buildings are often hated, to begin with, for the very thing that causes them at a later date to be loved, namely their distinctiveness and their oddity. Think of the Eiffel Tower, which at first was greatly disliked. My guess is that much the same will apply to the above Cardiff oddity.
I also believe that the Carbuncle-Cup-winning Walkie Talkie will in the fullness of time mutate from Carbuncle to National Treasure. I visited that building today. More about that visit Real Soon Now, maybe, I promise nothing.
Fascinating point made in this piece at Libertarian Home by Simon Gibbs, about how and how not to educate computer programmers:
I am skeptical of whether formal education teaches programming, or whether programming is an innate aptitude. My computer science education is certainly a part of what made me a good programmer and I have met very good people who have retrained from other industries and become successful programmers. I have also met people who have had years of training and still lack the fundamental skill of breaking a process down into steps, despite passing various exams and tests. I graduated with such people and not with dramatically higher grades either. Formal education seems ill suited to capture, transmit, and assess the nuances of this particular skill. The ease with which code is plagiarised is one factor, as is the process of mugging up for exams, but the real problem is that the skill itself is a form of implicit knowledge which you cannot simply write down.
Further, learning to program is not an easy process. It is damned hard and no single resource or bootcamp or whatever will help you navigate a route by which you can deliver value. You have to get there on your own and that is, by definition, not something that anyone else can easily help with.
I can remember that, when I education-blogged, the above rumination was the kind of thing I would seize upon.
What Gibbs says sounds like the point that I have recently been making, generally and in particular in connection with this book (about PR (by another friend of mine (Alex Singleton))), that learning how to do something like play the violin (or do PR (or computer programming)) is fundamentally different from merely reading a book about how to play the violin (or reading a book like this one about how to do PR). Most people will never be able to play the violin well (or do PR well), no matter how much else they are able to learn about playing the violin (or doing PR). By writing a mere book about how to do PR, Singleton has not given away his personal-professional crown jewels by teaching thousands of others how to replace him. On the contrary, his crown jewels are his “innate aptitude” (honed by much practising) for combining and deploying all the PR techniques he knows of and knows how to do, when solving a PR problem. He has turned himself into a PR industry go-to media guru (which means he gets to advertise himself free) and made himself even more employable, in a kind of PR positive feedback loop. After all, the better Singleton is at doing his own PR the better he’ll probably be at doing yours.
Gibbs also makes it very clear that he reckons himself to be a good programmer, in a way that many rivals, clever in all sorts of other ways, will never be. He too does some good PR for himself, even though it’s incidental to the main point of his piece. To learn which, read it in full, by clicking on the link at the top of this posting.
Today, however, it’s practically in the air. I could flick through a copy of em>Wired magazine in a supermarket, or see the statue of James Watt in St Paul’s Cathedral. Innovation is unstoppable, but not because the Internet has innumerable nodes of useful information, as Ridley claims. It’s unstoppable because across the world, innovation is so deeply rooted in our speech, thought and culture. And we don’t even know it.
Innovation is, at root, the idea of innovation! And the idea that innovation is a good idea!
Anton Howes is making good progress as a scholar, his latest little victory being that he has been invited to present his findings at this event at Columbia University. My thanks to Simon Gibbs for alerting me to this latter happy circumstance.
A lot of my postings just now involve me showing you photos I took quite a while back, and this one is also one of those.
What happens is, I rootle through all my past photos, and then sometimes get an idea for a posting about a certain category of thing or human conduct or mode of transport or some such thing, and I start gathering photos to illustrate this, in a separate directory. I am careful to copy photos into the new directory, rather than just transfer them there. One of my rules is, keep all the photos you took on a certain day on a certain expedition all in one place. But, no harm in copying from those directories into other ones which are about particular things rather than particular trips or particular times.
However, what often then happens is that I forget about it all. So, the directory sits there, sometimes for years, and then years later I come across it again. This happened last night, when I encountered a collection of photographs, assembled in 2010, of photographers who were also holding guide books. I could tell that I had never used them in a blog posting, because when I do that, I always give photos different names.
Here are four of those photographers-holding-guide-books photos, all of which involve guide books with the word “Londres” on them:
Click to get the bigger pictures.
I’m guessing that both the French and the Hispanics spell London as Londres, with the French calling it Londr and the Hispanics calling it Lon Drez. But that’s only a gez.
And, yes (google google), I gezzed right:
Londres, the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and Filipino language name for London, capital of the United Kingdom and England
The guide book while photoing thing always appealed to me, not least because even then I was looking for ways to not photo people’s faces, and guide books often achieved that outcome for me very nicely. But the phenomenon is also interesting because, slowly, it is fading away. You do still see photographers flaunting guide books, but it is rarer now.
Instead, the smartphone is the new guidebook. And, of course, increasingly, the new camera, for people like those shown above. Makes perfect sense.
As for the lady above (in the picture bottom right) whose face I do here display (if you click), well, she was wearing a T-shirt saying, in London’s own language and therefore to attract the attention of Londoners like me: “believe me… i’m incredible”. Somehow I don’t think it was “incredulous”. Ergo, she was attracting attention with her own attention-attracting behaviour, ergo she was and is fair game for her face to go up, totally recognisably, (but nearly a decade later) on my blog.
Nearly a decade later because these photos were taken by me in 2006 and 2007.