Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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- Pictures of soon-to-be-built London Big Things
- Michael Jennings talking about Russia this Friday
- Jiaozhou Bay Bridge (aka Spaghetti Junction on Sea)
- Photographing while on a skateboard
- National Theatre Boo
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- James II dressed as a Roman
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- Guardian online is a group blog that trolls its own readers
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- Vauxhall bus station now – and when it was being constructed
- Painted people
- A slightly foreign part of London
- Spot the owl
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6000 Miles from Civilisation
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Category archive: The internet
Before I forget to link to it, here, very belatedly, is a link to four pictures of central London in the Guardian, which, if you left-click on them, suddenly become populated with soon-to-be-built new Big Things.
This, for example, …:
… turns, when you left-click on it, into this:
That’s the changing picture of the south bank of the river, just upstream from me.
My personal opinion is: it looks great! By which I mean not that the second of these pictures looks great, but that the development it attempts to picture will look great, or at least much better than this picture.
This is a general fact about the new Big Things of London of the last decade and more, I think. All of them have ended up looking, to my eye, better for real than the models and photos of them beforehand looked, which are just too boxy and bland and unrealistic to capture the feeling of how new Big Things will really look.
In particular, the Walkie Talkie looked, to me, terrible, when it was only a faked up computer image. Now, I like it more and more. It’s odd. It’s not beautiful exactly, but it has character. Once you see it, you don’t forget it. In short, it is like London.
These new Big Things will, I predict, be like that also. You can bet that all the architects involved will be trying desperately to upstage each other, by making at least half of these new Big Things systematically more interesting and oddly shaped than these computer mock-ups now make them look.
It occurs to me also to wonder how much difference the ubiquity of such imagery before Big Things get built affects the chances of such Big Things being built. Could such widely-viewed-in-advance pictures perhaps make Big Thing building easier, by mobilising the support of those who, like me, would like such new buildings a lot, but don’t see it as a life-and-death struggle, the way many opponents of such Big Things perhaps do. If that’s right, the opponents keep themselves and each other informed even when that is hard, and fight like hell to stop such Things, either out of aesthetic hatred or because some particular Big Thing will, they reckon, wreck their back yard. Now, we less rabid supporters can all say Go Ahead Build It, but without busting our guts and doing lots of complicated research and politicking, because finding out and saying GABI is now so much easier.
I love this, from AndrewZ at Samizdata, commenting on this piece by Natalie Solent, which quotes a couple of particularly demented pieces of writing in the Guardian, about cupcake fascism (this phrase should never be forgotten) and about the horrors of tourism. (Natalie has been agreeably busy at Samizdata of late.)
The online edition of any newspaper that isn’t behind a paywall relies on advertising to generate income and this depends on maximising the number of page views. The simplest way to do that is to publish outrageous and provocative opinions that will attract links from elsewhere and start a blazing row among the regular commenters. The great liberal newspaper of old is now little more than a group blog that trolls its own readers for advertising revenue.
No link from here to the original pieces, about cupcake fascism or tourism. Oh no. BmdotCOM is not falling into that trap.
Now that I have read the rest of them, I can report that all the comments at Samizdata on this posting are pretty good and worth a look.
I have been following the World T20 cricket tournament now taking place in Bangladesh on Cricinfo in the last few days or weeks or whatever it is, and it has been non-stop thrills and dramas and surprises, the latest being an amazing game between Sri Lanka and New Zealand.
Sri Lankan fans had been urging the replacement of Sri Lankan spinner Mendis by Sri Lankan spinner Herath for some time, and they were not wrong. Mendis in the earlier game that Sir Lanka lost against England: 4 overs 0 maidens 52 runs 0 wickets. Herath in today’s game against NZ: 3.3 overs 2 maidens 3 runs 5 wickets. NZ, chasing a modest 119, only managed 60.
Things will probably calm down as the final games approach, as often happens at big international sports tournaments. I seem to recall many football World Cups starting out fun but then getting duller and duller, culminating in four Continental European teams beating each other one-nil after extra time or nil nil with penalty shoot-outs, and one of them (I immediately forget which) gets to win it. But in the early rounds, when teams like Cameroon and Croatia and England are still involved, it is fun fun fun. I can even remember the long ago times when Scotland used sometimes to be involved in these early dramas.
I can’t say I was too distressed this morning about England being humiliated by The Netherlands. When I saw the scorecard after it was all over (I had been doing something else) I actually laughed, and not bitterly. Well done the Dutch. This is one of those results that are “good for cricket”. Cricket badly needs to extend its empire beyond the usual British Imperial suspects, and nothing attracts attention in an outsider country like their outsider team thrashing one of the insider teams.
England were never going to win this T20 tournament. They did okay for most of it, and only crashed into this Dutch debacle after they were definitely about to go home anyway. Besides which, this is T20, and crazy things happen in T20.
England were a bit unlucky against New Zealand, when rain gave NZ the win that they might not have managed had it not rained, given England’s quite decent total. England’s best game was against Sri Lanka (see above), when Hales hit a brilliant century. Lucky Herath wasn’t yet playing. And England did not disgrace themselves against South Africa. The margin, a mere three runs, flattered England, because actually it was all over several balls before that, with Bresnan only adding a bit of consolation slogging off the last few balls that got England near, but couldn’t have got them near enough in the absence of no-balls. Even so, decent effort, jolly good game, etc. Like every other England fan, I have no idea why Jade Dernbach remains in the England team, despite being regularly clobbered for about fifty. This time he conceded 0-44 in three overs and didn’t bowl his final one, and was dropped for the final game against The Netherlands. Will he play for England ever again?
The Dutch, on the other hand, had a terrific tournament. They got totally creamed by Sri Lanka and beaten by New Zealand. But in the first round they pulled off an amazing win against Ireland, where run rate calculations meant that in order to go through to the next round they had to score something like a hundred and ninety something in about fourteen overs. The Dutch were never going to manage that. But guess what, they did, and they eliminated both Ireland and Zimbabwe. Astonishing. Then, they gave South Africa one hell of a fright, losing a game by six runs that they were well course to win. I was not amazed when they beat England.
Australia didn’t win a single game at the group stage, and were yesterday bowled out by India for 86.
The white guys have not been doing very well at this tournament. It’s happening in Asia and the Asian teams are the strongest.
Interesting. I just looked at a particular classical CD on amazon.co.uk, and it told me I’d already ordered it, last October. As it happens, I knew this. I was just looking to see what had been happening to the price of the CD in question. But I am impressed that they reminded me.
In general, Amazon has a clunky, even twentieth century feel to it. Which for a clunky twentieth century guy is very reassuring.
The automatic delivery to my computer of audio files of CDs I have already ordered in plastic form is very cunning. It all arrives on my computer automatically, and arranges itself on something called my Cloud Player. It is now late at night, and although the speakers on my computer are nothing like as good as my real speakers on my real CD player, they are nearer and can thus be quieter. I’m playing one of these audio files now, which is one I have ordered in plasticated form but which has not yet arrived. This way, I can play it as soon as I pay for it, just as if I was living in the twenty first century!
And I’ve got to admit that there is something rather agreeable about not having to get out of my chair to hear music.
As anyone who noticed the sudden piling up of moronic spam comments here may have suspected, I had an internet disconnect crisis last night, and it was still in effect this morning. I fiddled about with wires, last night and again this morning, because the last time it happened this is what solved it. I did lots of rebooting last night to no avail, so didn’t bother to do this again this morning. Instead I rang The Guru.
It was amazing how much The Guru was this morning able to learn about the problem, by which I mean to learn what the problem was not, just by unleashing his remote control Superpowers. He then suggested another rebooting, and I did this, just to humour him, and back it all came. But why? What was I doing right, all of a sudden? Very troubling.
It’s like that pivotal moment in movie history when Harrison Ford, in one of the first and good trio of Star Wars movies, got a bit of electrical kit in his spaceship to work properly by smacking it.
The skeletons of six cats, including four kittens, found in an Egyptian cemetery may push back the date of cat domestication in Egypt by nearly 2,000 years.
The bones come from a cemetery for the wealthy in Hierakonpolis, which served as the capital of Upper Egypt in the era before the pharaohs. The cemetery was the resting place not just for human bones, but also for animals, which perhaps were buried as part of religious rituals or sacrifices. Archaeologists searching the burial grounds have found everything from baboons to leopards to hippopotamuses.
Three policemen in Pakistan guarding the prime minister’s home have been suspended for negligence after a cat devoured one of the premier’s peacocks, it seems.
It seems? Well, did it or did it not?
This Japanese gum commercial makes me wish I had a super fluffy gigantic cat to help navigate the horrors of public transportation and carry me around, avoiding traffic and other pedestrian suckers who don’t have adorable cat chauffeurs. Then I remember that if a cat that big existed, it would probably just maul me to death, ...
Why are there so many cats on the internet?
The problem is that they are asking the wrong question, which should not be “Why cats?” so much as “Why not dogs?” And the answer is that dogs are trying too hard. When a dog gets in a box or hides under the duvet or wears a funny hat, it is because he is desperately trying to impress you – longing for your validation and approval. When a cat does one of those things, it is because it felt like the right thing to do at the time. And it usually was. It is cool, and effortless, and devoid of any concern about what you might think about it. It is art for art’s sake.
This, at any rate, is one of the theories (of which there are an awful lot) about why content related to cats seems to gain so much traction online.
Maybe. I guess that’s part of it.
The original reason for my Feline Friday cat chat is that cat chat on the internet, at first only at inconsequential blogs such as this one but now everywhere, illustrates that the number one impact of the internet is that there is now a new way to be amused, and cats are amusing. The serious political impact of this is that with the internet it is easier to concentrate on what you consider amusing, and to ignore what people who consider themselves to be more important than you consider to be more important. This really ticks them off. Which is nice. The internet puts politicians, for instance, in their proper place, on the sidelines. Cats may or may not be important, depending on how mad you are, but they are amusing.
The willingness of the big old Mainstream Media to tell frequent cat stories, as they now show and do, illustrates that these organs have now accepted that they no longer control the news agenda. If the people of the world decide that it is news that an angry 22-pound cat that trapped a family of three and prompted a frantic 911 call has been sent to an animal shelter, then news it is, and the big old media now accept this.
I still can’t get used to the internet. I never really will. You can find all kinds of stuff out in a few seconds. You know that, and so do I know it. But, unlike (probably) you, I will never get truly used to this.
Last night, for instance, there was a TV show on about Fossils, fronted by this old Fossil Professor, and mention was made of – and a little sliver of film was shown of – a building (with lots of fossils in it) called the Royal Ontario Museum. I said, that looks like that Daniel Libeskind museum in Berlin, in the saw cuts in big blocks style. So let’s see about that Royal Ontario Museum shall we? Sure enough, that is Libeskind also.
I had imagined that the saw cut style was specifically used only for that Berlin museum, to make you wince when you look at the building, same as you do when you find out the grizzly details of what happened to all those Berlin Jews.
However, it now seems (to me) that Libeskind just likes doing saw cuts. Am I getting this wrong?
Maybe I could google that question also, and find out if anyone else agrees with the above. But that’s enough answers for one posting.
From Tim Berners-Lee, no less, on the occasion of the twenty fifth anniversary of his glorious invention, the www:
Berners-Lee also mentioned something about a Magna Carta for the web, but I am afraid the cat remark has overwhelmed all that stuff.
Or, maybe the cat angle has drawn attention to the Magna Carta stuff, which would otherwise have been ignored even more. (I am starting to notice many rather irrelevant cats in adverts nowadays.)
Christopher Seaman, in his book Inside Conducting (pp. 89-90):
If you truly love a work, you’re bound to feel emotionally involved while you’re conducting it, and if this doesn’t get across to the musicians you’ll get a cold performance. Some conductors need to use bigger gestures than others to communicate with an orchestra. It takes great aptitude and long experience to pour your heart out yet still maintain the necessary composure. Professional musicians don’t need a good conductor to be over-demonstrative in order to pick up his musical ideas and feelings. I sometimes tell students who thrash around ineffectively with paroxysms of emotion that they’re meant to be cooking the music, not eating it. (The French term for conductor is chef d’orchestre, but that’s a coincidence.) James Levine is reputed to have said, “My tears only hurt my ability to make the audience cry.” And Richard Strauss said to Rudolf Schwarz, “Don’t sweat – let the orchestra sweat. Don’t weep – let the public weep!”
I came across an approving reference to the bit about “cooking the music, not eating it” in a review of this book in the BBC Music Magazine, November 2013 issue.
I do like how you can chase these things up properly nowadays.
That at any rate is the date that all the workers working on it have given me, when I asked them:
Although, I suspect that the word “local” is supermarketese for “half as expensive again as you would like”. Fair enough, their gaff their rules. And it all helps. Even if the only consequences are that the other local late-night stores drop their prices by a few pennies and keep their milk a bit colder, well, every little helps.
But then again, see the picture on the left where it says “Great OFFERS” three times over. So, maybe the downward price pressure radiating from this new place will be quite substantial.
I also think it’s a very smart move to feature the opening time very prominently on the front. No matter how often I am told which shop stays open until when, I forget, and 6am-11pm every day is nice and easy.
The shops that are being replaced by this Morrisons are (a) a Jessops camera shop, and (b) a remainder bookshop. Both replaced by the internet, presumably. But, if you are caught short for sugar or coffee or cheap wine at 10.30pm, the internet doesn’t do it.
My Ashes Lag is really being taken care of, by the South Africa Australia cricket, which is in South Africa, God bless it. It starts at Really Early am London time. Crucially, it keeps on doing that. You don’t cure Ashes lag with just one virtuous wake-up. You have to string a bunch of them together. Nothing like a really good test series that starts at Really Early am day after day to do that. It’s just a pity the series is not a fiver rather than a mere threeer.
Australia are crushing South Africa in the third and final game, just as they did in the first game, and just as South Africa crushed them in the second. And I sort of told you so:
Mitchell Johnson won the first game for Australia, then did nothing in the second, but I think I heard that the pitch for the third game will suit Johnson, so maybe it will be an Australia win.
Well, not really, I mostly sat on the fence. But, at least I am not surprised. South Africa are 71-4 in their second innings, with Amla out but AB de Villiers still there. At tea they were 15-3.
I really hope they have lots more one-day games, and that at least some of them start good and early.
The other really good news, aside from the Ashes Lag thing, is that South African captain Graeme Smith has now retired from internatioanal cricket, and can now devote all his energies to getting Surrey back on their feet.
Rather annoyingly, what with me trying to get other stuff done, cricket remained interesting all day, with Pakistan chasing a vast Bangladesh score, in the Asia Cup, or something. The highpoint of that was the innings of Shahid Afridi which began like this, the W at the start being the fall of the wicket that brought him in:
W 6 2 6 1 |6 2 . 6 6
35 in ten balls, in other words. At the start of all that, Pakistan were in a seemingly hopeless position. After those two overs, the chase was doable, and they duly did it, despite Afridi having a bad back which meant he couldn’t stretch out and avoid being run out, just after he’d raced to fifty.
Tomorrow, the decisive SA v Aus action is likely to come at the start, so that’s more good news on the Ashes Lag front. If early wickets fall, especially that of de Villiers, that will be it. If they don’t, and especially if de Villiers hangs around for a decent time, South Africa would have an outside chance of a draw. But, I doubt it. South Africa’s only real chance is if Johnson gets hurt early in the day, just like Steyn got hurt early on day one.
Incoming, entitled “Request Link Removal”:
I am contacting you on behalf of Eurostar, we work with their Online Marketing team and are currently reviewing the number of links pointing to the Eurostar website. In order to comply with Google’s regulations, there are a number of links which we are required to remove or nofollow. We have identified such links from your website and would like to request that you either remove the link or add a nofollow tag to it.
The link(s) we wish to be removed can be found here:
[original link written out but it doesn’t fit properly here]
Please can you let me know once you have altered the link or if you have any questions,
SEO Account Executive
360i | 62-70 Shorts Gardens | Covent Garden| London, WC2H 9AH
The link in the above email is to an entire month of postings here, so it took me a while to find the offending link in question. I was half hoping I wouldn’t find it, so I could send a sarky email back saying: Be more specific. Which posting? No such luck. It’s in this posting, where is says “November”. Worth following that link because it is to one of my very best ever (I think) photos.
I don’t understand what a “nofollow tag” is or how to make such a thing work, so I just removed the link.
My link originally went “http(semicolon)//stpancras.eurostar.com/en-gb/why-we-moving” (I’ve changed “:” to “(semicolon)” there to stop this version causing more grief). Trying StPancrasDotEurostarDotCom now gets Google saying:
Oops! Google Chrome could not find stpancras.eurostar.com. Did you mean: www.eurostar.com/stpancras
Interesting that Google omits the question mark there, I think.
So, presumably this is a case of an old Eurostar website that they no longer want anyone reading.
Or is it? I don’t know. Can anyone tell me more about what just happened?
To me, it all has a slightly objectionable taste to it. The link to our site no longer works, so you must remove your link to it. Why? Why can’t the link just not work any more? Does it clog up the internet, or something, with repeated attempts to make the link work? Is that what this is about?
Seconds after I’d finished photoing that camel, I took this photo:
But whereas I was quickly able to find out about the camel, and about how there’s a pub called that (partly), and so on, I was unable to find out anything about “SOUTH BANK ARCHITECTS” other than a phone number, which I dare not ring because I don’t really have a proper question to ask them other than: do you exist? There is no website. The www knows of no buildings that have been designed by SOUTH BANK ARCHITECTS.
So, if you work for SOUTH BANK ARCHITECTS or if you know anyone who works for SOUTH BANK ARCHITECTS, please add a comment.
My theory is SOUTH BANK ARCHITECTS used to exist, which is when they put up that big sign. But, before the www came into existence, they went out of existence. And now, nobody can be bothered to take the sign down.
As I said in the previous post, my talk about digital photography at Christian Michel’s last night went well, in the sense of me feeling it went well, and it seeming to be well received. I occasionally put my sheets of paper down and extemporised upon some point I was making, but mostly, this was it. No links, no photos, no extras. (They may come later, I hope, but I promise nothing.) Just the bare text that I read out, complete with all the errors of grammar and spelling, of fact and interpretation, that may or may not be present:
I have given several talks in this 6/20 series, but until now this has been because I have had both questions and answers to offer to the assembled throng. I have had theses to present, clutches of facts to pass on.
This time I don’t know the answers. I merely want to know the answers. What is the impact of digital photography? What is it doing to us? Since fixing this subject matter with Christian I have made, I think, some progress in arriving at answers, but only some. Tonight I expect to make further progress.
Luckily, for my purposes, we have all been alive throughout the period of digital photography’s mass use, and have observed it in action, even if we may not always have wanted to. Has anyone here not taken a digital photo? Just as I thought. (It actually says that here. And this.)
I will start my remarks by quoting a remark made by an American whom I overheard about fifty years ago, on the Acropolis in Athens, the place where what is left of the Parthenon stands. I was there trying to do some sketching, a skill I never got any good at but spent a few years attempting. He was doing pictures with his seriously pre-digital camera. As soon as he had finished photoing, he wanted to leave, presumably to get to his next photoing place. But his family were enjoying the Acropolis in the morning sunshine. Said he to his family: “Come one, come on! We’ll look at it when we get home!”
This outburst captures a great deal about what people object to about digital photography, but it also reminds us that photography, by Everyman as opposed to by professionals, is nothing new. Digital photography is partly just the intensification of a process that has been in place in our culture for well over a century. But it is more than that.
Even setting the scale of the phenomenon aside, digital photography is different from the old sort. It was first applied to the real world by NASA, to solve the problem not so much of taking photographs, but of communicating them, from robot spaceships back to earth, without the vast additional expense of getting the robots to fly back home themselves, like World War 2 photo reconnaissance planes. Central to digital photography is that digital photographs are easy to communicate. It is no accident that digital photography has only now become ubiquitous in our culture with the arrival and mass success of the smartphone, which can, just like those first NASA digital space cameras, both take pictures and communicate them. When we speak of “digital photography”, what are the boundaries of the concept? The “digital” bit means that this is photography that goes beyond merely being photography in the sense experienced by that American on the Acropolis all those years ago. Digital photography, as computer insiders have long understood, is only a part of a bigger multi-media picture, and that was always the idea.
One of the ways I have prepared for this talk has simply been to talk with people, both friends and people I just happened recently to bump into. How do you use digital photography? What do you think its impact is?
In the answers I have so far garnered, a number of themes recurred.
Only a tiny few did not use digital photography at all. In one case, this was because he had suffered a particularly painful digital camera robbery, and he just couldn’t make himself resume the activity. All the others who refrained were old, little-rolls-of-film photography devotees. They loved this technology and consequently hated the successor technology that had destroyed the object of their love, in rather the same way that some devotees of vinyl gramophone records hate CDs. This was exceptional.
In all other cases, my respondents used digital cameras with enthusiasm, and often downright joy. They used them in some or all of the regular ways, to take holiday snaps, to take photos at weddings, family reunions, parties, and so on. But another recurring theme also asserted itself. This is the digital photography killer app, different for each person. Everyone does particular work, has particular hobbies, and in almost every case of such a personal angle on the world, digital photography was making a contribution, to their effectiveness or their pleasure or both.
A fine example is a killer app described to me by a gentleman at the previous 6/20 meeting, on the 6th of this month. He regretted being unable to attend tonight, but I will try to recall what he said, briefly but accurately. Basically, he is a butterfly fan. He likes to scrutinise the patterns on the wings of butterflies, which, to him, are of extraordinary beauty and interest. I am sure you can understand.
But he has a problem. Butterflies are notoriously unwilling to stay for any length of time in the same spot. Their wings will often repay long minutes and ever hours of attention, but your typical butterfly only hangs around for a few seconds and certainly cannot be relied upon to stay longer. No problem. Snap. He can then scrutinise the beautiful creature’s wings at his leisure. He can, you might say, look at it when he gets home.
It’s an aside, but I recall the days when butterfly “lovers” could only contemplate the objects of their devotion for any big length of time by killing them. They used to catch butterflies in nets, and pin them onto boards and keep vast collections of dead butterflies in trays with glass tops. I remember such gruesome collections, perpetrated by male relatives long dead, in my grandmother’s house when as a boy I visited her vast home. That the weapon of choice of an ever higher proportion of human hunters of animals – entirely so in the case of rare or endangered animals - is now the camera, rather than the rifle, is surely a step in the right direction for civilisation. Taken literally, my butterfly man’s use of digital photography to immobilise his butterflies was the very opposite of a killer app. It was a let them live app.
Other killer apps spring to mind. My own digital camera killer app, the app that got me started with digital photography, was contriving computer printable photographs of authors whose writings I was engaged in publishing, for the Libertarian Alliance. One of these authors was Christian, as I recall. About fifteen short years ago, using desktop computers to print photographs was as slow and unwieldy as using computers to display photographs on computer screens is easy now, but I was very happy about that. I could do it. All I needed was quite crude black and white pictures, which were not nearly as slow as better pictures would have been to play with, and anyway, all that slowness deterred the competition and made my products look far less domestic in origin than they really were. Later, I used and still use pictures of prominent libertarian personalities to spice up my blog postings, and to boost their prestige and raise their morale.
Intrinsic to digital photography is that digital photographs can be easily processes. This was also why NASA was so keen to develop this technology. Remember those videos of a hopeless image being slowly but miraculously transformed into a miraculous image. I used to muck about with my author photos to make them more photocopier-friendly. Many of my interviewees have talked about how they create images, rather than merely snap them.
Tonight I hope that I will hear of many more killer apps.
One of my favourite digital photography apps is the photographing of other information. An example of this was told to me by Simon Gibbs of Libertarian Home, who works in computers, in some capacity or other. He and his colleagues, in the course of their collective deliberations, are in the habit of covering white boards with verbiage and diagrams and such, often including yellow stick-on notes with further cleverness. And, before the meeting adjourns, photos of all this cleverness are taken, for later pondering. Simon and his colleagues are definitely not the only ones behaving like this, and nor are they the only ones who photograph the resulting writing on the wall, so to speak, for later reflection. A merely temporary piece of scribbled brainstorming becomes as permanent as anyone wants it to be. To
Time was when the only people in the world using small cameras to photograph complicated verbiage and complicated diagrams were spies in movies, and presumably spies for real. And to anyone who says that photocopiers have been around for decades, I say, true, but good luck photocopying a vertical surface several yards wide. Digital cameras are actually now better than photocopiers were. Notice, however, that this was not nearly so true just a few years back, because cheap digital cameras couldn’t then handle the detail. Now, they can.
The more people tell me about their personal, particular, digital photography apps, and about the other apps they have heard about other people using, the more I think that digital photography is like literacy, something that is capable of contributing, always significantly and often crucially, to pretty much any project you care to think of. Of course it has to be done right, used intelligently. Any tool can be misused, applied stupidly or excessively. But seriously, is there any area of work or play to which a bit of shrewdly deployed digital photography can not now contribute?
The pleasure that people get from digital photography is obvious, and often highly visible. But the impact of digital photography on work is just as dramatic if not more so, which is one of the reasons I so like Simon’s photoed brainstorm boards. Where would internet selling be without digital photography? How many pictures are taken per day by the construction industry, to record progress, satisfactory or not? Think of all those Russian cars with their permanently active video cameras, ready to record accidents, and incidentally recording meteor strikes for the evening news.
As for the more conventional uses of digital cameras, to take snaps when on holiday or out of hours when on business trips, at weddings and at funerals and school reunions and at Christmas, well, hear this. Several people volunteered that, were they to suffer a computer calamity and lose all their data, the only losses that would really hurt – really, really hurt – would be the loss of their photo archives.
There were grumbles. Just now a big grumble about digital photography, if my recent conversations are anything to go by, concerns people using tablet cameras (a very recent arrival on the scene) to make bad video recordings of live events, thereby spoiling the view for everyone else. This does not mean that it is silly to photograph Big Ben using a tablet, as I myself have had the pleasure of photographing many people do. On the contrary, a tablet is a very sensible way to take photographs or make videos, because with such a big screen, you know, as never before, the kind of picture you are going to get. But yes, tablets can be used in a way that is annoying to others. More fundamentally, what is the point of going to an event, and then not experiencing it, on account of instead making a bad video of it?
More generally, the grumble is that digital photography does not so much record experience as postpone, diminish, and not infrequently utterly destroy it.
But such grumbles are not new. I would say that they are a consequence of the fact that technology is always now developing, which means that at any particular moment mistakes are going to be made. We are all familiar with the nouveau riche phenomenon, which is people who need to learn how to handle money in quantities they are not familiar with, and in particular not to spend it all. Constantly progressing technology gives rise to a similar effect. At any given technological moment there will be people overdoing it with this or that latest piece of kit. Just now tablet computers are being overused at public events. Suddenly people can record absolutely everything, and some do, excessively and inconsiderately, not even maximising their own pleasure let alone anyone else’s. In the eighties, you may recall, the complaints concerned mobile phones, being misused in trains by people shouting endless gushes of banality into them, concerning the progress of their train journeys, in a way that enraged other passengers. But people learned not to behave like this. The tablet wavers at concerts will likewise learn to mend their manners.
As for the claim that photography is an alternative to visual experience rather than an enhancement of it, my own personal experience has been the exact opposite. I have seen far more of London in the last decade than I would have done had there been no digital photography. And thanks to my photo archives I remember far more of what I have seen, with past photos often vividly triggering past visual memories that would otherwise have gone utterly. My most vivid visual recollection of 2013 was seeing, in the far distance, the first few giant cranes of London Gateway, London’s new container port now being constructed on the north bank of the Thames Estuary. They reminded me of my first sighting of Chartres Cathedral from a similarly great distance, which I spied on one of my sketching expeditions in my teens. Had there been no digital photography, I would never have gone anywhere near London Gateway, let alone now have had such vivid mental (as well as digital) pictures of it. My experience is that digital photography is not a substitute for seeing things. It is an intensification of seeing things.
And as I often like to joke, my camera has better eyesight than I do. One of the most pleasurable moments of my photographic expeditions is when I get home, and fling my pictures up on my big home computer screen. I see all sorts of things in them that I did not see at the time, as perhaps my friend Simon sees in his photos of meetings notes. Just as the butterfly man does not have time to see everything he can later see in his photos, I do not have the eyesight to see what I later see in my photos. Ah, the joy of looking at them when I get home! And yes, I am a bit nouveau riche about digital photography myself. Guilty as charged. But far better to be nouveau riche than not riche at all!
It is because of all the varied pleasures to be had from digital photography that it has become such a mass enthusiasm. All mass enthusiasms give rise to grumbles and sneers, from people who accentuate the negative and prefer to ignore or take for granted the positive.
Some negatives, concerning the impact of digital photography and the new media in general on old school journalism have been much complained about, mostly by old school photographers and journalists. Daily news has been replaced by instant news. Boo. Many people prefer looking at each other’s bad photos instead of looking at good photos taken by the old school photographer complaining in his old school newspaper article. I will not spend time on these grumbles, if only because so many others have done nothing but write about such things. Suffice it to say that the news hasn’t ended. The means of communicating it has changed a lot lately, just as it always has.
One of the many plusses of digital photography is that, by supplying an endless stream of humdrum photos of humdrum people doing humdrum things all over the world, it corrects the impression given by the news that the rest of the world is a crazy place inhabited only by crazy people doing crazily newsworthy and disastrous things, all the time.
One of the bigger negatives associated with digital photography is surely surveillance, both by big organisations like governments and the owners of shopping centres and amusement parks and transport networks, and by individuals, just taking photos, moving or still, of friends or strangers, and then internetting them. And of course the latter activity, as Edward Snowden has now confirmed, feeds massively back into the former one. There was a recent 6/20 talk devoted entirely to this topic a few months back, just before it suddenly became a hot news story.
Surveillance has caught on in the rich world, I am convinced, because it really does do a lot of good, in deterring crime and in supplying evidence for prosecution in crimes that it fails to deter. It also, surely, really does diminish speedy and dangerous driving. The question is not whether there are any benefits to mass surveillance, but whether those benefits are worth the potentially horrible costs. It has been much discussed that Britain has the largest population of surveillance cameras in the world, per head of population being surveilled. I think that one reason for this is that in Britain we have (again: many of my libertarian friends will be disgusted by this claim) some of the – quite possibly the - most trusted public officials in the world. (If my libertarian friends would prefer “least distrusted”, I am happy to let them have that concession, but only that.) Trust in public officials everywhere is probably in decline, including in Britain, but in Britain it still remains very high. There is a lot of ruin in a civil service that started out genuinely civil. Thus, the costs in Britain of public surveillance are considered less burdensome than elsewhere, and the cameras escalate, both in number and in effectiveness.
The Guardian’s Laurie Penny agrees with me. Unlike me, Penny travels a lot to many other cities besides London, and she notes that London – especially London’s trains – are now remarkably free of graffiti, compared to other major cities, and in particular compared to the trains in other major cities. She gives surveillance cameras much of the credit for this. Which makes sense to me. Although, as usual, we have to say that just shoving up surveillance cameras and not paying any attention to their output is utterly insufficient. As with all other digital camera apps, surveillance cameras can be deployed both excessively and incompetently. Cameras only work if part of an effective (and uncorrupt) system of crime prosecution and prevention.
But what if the definition of crime gets expanded? What if British public officials are now becoming lest trustworthy so fast that the British public, now so supportive of surveillance cameras, later changes its mind?
And what else are all these surveillance cameras already deterring? Penny speculates that we have entered a new age of self-censorship, of stuffy social decorum, of watching what we say to anyhone, not unlike the one that was abandoned in the 1960s by the Beatles generation, i.e. mine. I think I agree about that also, although another big part of the reason for that is that the economy is not what it was. Would young people now fret about pictures of themselves behaving rowdily in the street, or for that matter at private parties where privately owned smartphones are hoovering up pictures and showing the worst of them to the whole world, if jobs for young people were as easy to come by as they were in the 1960s? Personally I don’t think such pictures are much of a reason to not employ someone, but they do make a fine excuse if you are looking for one.
Going back to that graffiti that Laurie Penny observes the lack of in London (and she is rather regretful), I think I observe another impact of digital photography on graffiti, at any rate in London. Yes, surveillance cameras may have diminished the quantity of low grade graffiti, the sort that is hardly better than dogs pissing on lamp-posts to mark their territory, and which is done – or feels as if it is done - to maximise annoyance to property owners, and urban dread in the minds of more sober and timid and elderly citizens like me. But at the top end of the graffiti food chain, at any rate to my eye, things have greatly improved. The quality of the best graffiti art is now dramatically better than it has ever been before, so much so that art galleries now fall over themselves to sign up street artists, instead of patronising the more usual sort of artists, who are now being left behind by their more populist competitors with their defiantly realistic and demagogicly communicative imagery.
Digital photography is definitely part of this story, in fact I think somewhere in my photo archives I have pictures to prove it, of street artists photoing their works in progress. Think about it. If you have just done an elaborate work of street art, in a place where you know from experience you are allowed to do it, and won’t be prosecuted for doing it, and you can immediately record an approximate likeness of it for posterity, that has to gain you more kudos and social media attention than if you couldn’t do that. Street art is all too temporary, replaced almost at once by more street art. A digital photo of a piece of street art is far more permanent. Does anyone here present think that digital photography means less high quality street art?
The weekend before last, there was another art event in London which surely also owed much to digital photography, which was a festival of ice sculpture. How demoralising it must be to sculpt a masterpiece, and then immediately watch it melt, in London’s demoralisingly moderate “winter” climate. How much more fun if you can photo it in all its temporary glory. That fact has resulted in a deluge of photos in recent years of such ice sculptures, and that results (it certainly did the weekend before last) in a whole new mob of people who have never seen such a thing before (because before, nobody in London bothered) assembling themselves to witness these miraculously kitchy objects. And to photo them with their cameras. I actually went to this ice sculpture exhibition, which was held in Docklands. I had hoped for a decent number of ice sculptures and a decent number of photographers, some of them the artists themselves, for me to photograph photoing them. Alas for my hopes. I only got as far as photoing the truly gigantic and (to me) totally offputting queue of people who had all had the same idea about where to go as me.
I’ll end this very soon. Melting sculptures and excessive crowds of people wanting to see them and to photo them may seem like a pretty downbeat conclusion to this talk, but actually it isn’t really my conclusion. That will come when I finally sort out in mind what that is. Meanwhile, I am greatly enjoying the process. Talking with people about how they use digital photography, and about what they think its impact has been and is and will be, as opposed to merely reading about this on the internet and musing about how I use digital photography myself, has also been, quite aside (I hope) from being somewhat informative, great fun. Asking someone how they use digital photography is a great conversation starter, I have found. And I intend to continue with my investigations.
If forced to offer a conclusion now, I think I would describe digital photography historically, by talking about how future historians might choose to describe the little episode of technological history that we happen to be living through. And I think, like me, that they will emphasise the multi-media nature of digital photography, the way that it operates in combination with other methods of information storage and communication. When will they date the beginning of this story? Perhaps a date they will mention is May 11th 1844, which was the day when the first Morse Code message was transmitted between two different cities, Washington and Baltimore.
Or, they may go back to the origins of the printing press, or even of literacy, or even of talking itself. I have already emphasised the way that digital photography, among many other things, adds a dose of turbo-charging to old fashioned writing, by photographing it. For this is a story with no very fixed moment of beginning, and as of now there is no end in sight. It is a story of the gradual and accelerating increase in the power of us humans to interact with our world, to remember things, and to communicate things. In almost no time, from the evolutionary point of view, we have gone from creatures who struggled to make noises that communicated different kinds of danger to the tribe, to creatures who may very soon be making elaborate objects simply by thinking about them and emitting telepathic waves to magic machines, telepathy being a word I used in the title of a recent blog posting about the kinds of things I would be talking about this evening. Future historians will talk of shared experience, and gaze at our absurdly flat photographs, perhaps on an antique “computer screen”, with the same impressed but slightly patronising amusement and bemusement that we now bestow upon stained glass windows.
But enough. Thanks for listening, and please tell me more.
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.