Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Most recent entries
- To Tottenham (7): Building the new Spurs stadium
- Up early – blogging early – elephant sculptures
- I Love You Will U Marry Me
- I’m back
- A snip at £7,499.99
- The most newsworthy thing so far done by a drone
- A vintage photo
- To Tottenham (6): The Spurs Shop
- Supporting England in the Big Bash League
- A new stadium for Chelsea
- You wait for years and then two come along at once
- Mosaic diversion
- On the value of speaker meetings - to the speaker
- 6k has a drone
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6000 Miles from Civilisation
A Decent Muesli
Adventures in Capitalism
Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise
Another Food Blog
Antoine Clarke's Election Watch
Armed and Dangerous
Art Of The State Blog
Boatang & Demetriou
Burning Our Money
Chase me ladies, I'm in the cavalry
China Law Blog
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Coffee & Complexity
Communities Dominate Brands
Confused of Calcutta
Conservative Party Reptile
Counting Cats in Zanzibar
Deleted by tomorrow
Don't Hold Your Breath
Douglas Carswell Blog
Dr Robert Lefever
Englands Freedome, Souldiers Rights
Everything I Say is Right
Fat Man on a Keyboard
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From The Barrel of a Gun
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Here Comes Everybody
Hit & Run
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Iain Dale's Diary
Jeffrey Archer's Official Blog
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Last of the Few
Libertarian Alliance: Blog
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My Boyfriend Is A Twat
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Never Trust a Hippy
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On an Overgrown Path
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we make money not art
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Category archive: Society
In the cold and muggy January of 2017, I and my aching limbs are spending a lot of time indoors. And many of the photos I am looking at were taken long ago.
Here is one that I took in, if my (very first digital) camera is to be believed, March of 2000. It also claims that it was taken at “01.31”, but I believe Big Ben:
The obviously out of date thing about that picture is the big Le Corbusian slabs of the old Department of the Environment, about to the demolished and replaced by less obtrusive new offices and dwellings.
But for me what was startling about this photo and its companion photos that I took that day is how few of them there were. In those far off times of limited SD card storage, the photos were far smaller, about a tenth of the size of the photos I take now. And, on that journey in the Wheel, no less, a trip that would now see me hoovering up views of London near and far, guess how many photos there are, in the relevant directory. Thirty nine. Thirty nine!!!
London has indeed changed, quite a bit. But digital photography has been transformed.
Also of interest is that among those few photos are photos of strangers, who were obviously happy to pose. As were their children. Not long after then, photos of other people’s children pretty much vanish from my archives.
Part of learning things is stuffing information into your brain. But another equally important part is arranging and connecting and understanding all the information once it is inside your head. And also: trying to understand why you stuffed all this particular information into your head in the first place. What were you thinking? What were you feeling? Why the attraction to this particular information?
In those two latter respects, I found that the talk I gave last Friday at Christian Michel’s was particularly useful. See here for a pre-report in what I talked about. I didn’t read out everything in that posting last Friday, but I did read out all the questions in the email that I sent Christian before the meeting, in other words I read out the indented bit of that earlier posting.
As I went on to ramble about in that earlier posting, and as I also rambled about last Friday, I have been pondering the Modern Movement in Architecture ever since I was a teenager. But last Friday evening I made some big steps forward in rearranging and organising how I think about it – and just as important how I have felt about it, what the attraction is, why I love it and love observing it and love photographing it, as much as I do.
In the word-processed file where this posting began life, there already follows the beginnings of a stream-of consciousness piece itemising a few of these steps forward. But I don’t want to rush that out before it has been written properly. In the meantime, I just want to assert my simple pleasure at what happened for me last Friday evening, without going into any detail.
Of particular value to me last Friday were some of the remarks from the floor, one in particular. This told me nothing that I did not already know, by which I mean already agree with. But what it did was place this particular observation into a different context. Into a different part of my head, so to speak. I found that particular moment especially helpful.
One obvious implication of my experience that I am willing to write about here immediately is that my happy experience last Friday made me very glad and proud that I also organise meetings at which others speak. Like Christian Michel, I give my speakers a lot of latitude in what they will speak about, this being because I have long known that a major part of the point of getting people to speak about something is that it will cause them to make discoveries rather like the ones I made last Friday. I often invite my speakers to speak about subjects they feel only partly on top of, which they are still getting to grips with, getting their heads round, getting their thinking straight about and their feelings clearer about. I have long known that this is a valuable thing to do, for the speakers. If the audience is a bit confused, so be it.
Well, I say that I have long known it. Now, I really know it, with a great deal more certainty, derived from a great big gob of recent and enormously encouraging experience.
It’s not that I am a hair fetishist. It’s more that I dislike faces, as in: I dislike photoing the faces of my fellow photoers, by which I mean photoing the faces of strangers. And then sticking their faces on the www. Or merely looking as if I might be doing that. Bad form. Not done. Especially with face recognition just getting bigger and bigger as a thing people worry about.
One way to not do this is to wait until they hold their cameras in front of their faces. Another is to simply photo them from behind. I do that a lot.
Which means that I find myself photoing a lot of hair, and a lot of hair styles.
And that is how I found myself noticing the deliberately bald look, so often sported by gentlemen these days.
And that is why I photoed this advert, which I chanced upon recently in a tube train:
I was standing up at the time. Which was lucky, because I was consequently able to take this photo without even the appearance that I might instead have been photoing the face of the man sitting underneath the advert. Many is the amusing tube advert I have refrained from photoing, in order not to arouse such fears, and maybe then cause A Scene.
More information about this impressive looking product here.
Indeed. I have the rest of today set aside for other things, maybe even including a little more tidying up, which I have been neglecting of late, but need to get a lot of done by the end of the year.
So here is a particularly diverting white van:
My rule for paying attention to things is to pay attention to things that intrigue me, without necessarily knowing why these things intrigue me. So it has been with white vans. Partly it is because they are politically symbolic. But partly it is because, actually, white vans span the entire social spectrum, in the atmospheres they radiate. There are as many different ways to make a white van look as there are ways to wear your clothes.
Yes, The Railwa. I had continued my odyssey from Seven Sisters on the regular railway, to White Hart Lane Station. And from the platform, and then when I got outside, this was what I saw. The Railwa:
As you can see from the picture on the right, The Railwa used to be The Railway Tavern.
The y Tavern bit has disappeared because this is one of the many, many British pubs that has recently been shut down.
The other night they had a telly show about this, but it seems that it’s not all doom. Pubs are being shut by Big Booze, and often then turned into blocks of posh flats, which are more lucrative. But, some of the pubs are being saved, and taken over by The Community. Accompanying this is the rise of “craft beer” (I at first misheard this as “crap beer"), which seems to be a mixture of regular beer and fruit juice, and as such, sounds right up my street. When it comes to drink, I am a girl. My alcoholic drink, on those rarish times when I am in a pub, is: lager and lime. So it’s all going my way, apart from if I go to one of these new pubs and find it full of The Community.
To be a bit more serious, what I think I see happening here is that the old Working Class, the sort that used to smoke, and watch football teams while standing up and wearing cloth caps is ceasing to exist and what remains of it is being kicked out of the pubs by the new Working Class, the sort that doesn’t smoke, and designs websites and manages brands and works in call centres and which spent this weekend at the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at Tate Modern. The fate of the Railwa is what happens when an industry goes through a transformation of this sort. Many of the old institutions collapse and get trashed, like the Railwa, by the look of it. Others get transformed in accordance with the new dispensation, as perhaps the Railwa will be.
For me, on this night, Bonfire Night really was a bonfire night, and here is that bonfire:
There were also fireworks, in abundance. But I learned that photoing fireworks effectively is actually quite hard, if you are not used to using that snap-snap-snap-snap-snap procedure that is also used to capture sportspersons in action, so you can pick the best of five snaps rather than just hope that your one snap is good. My camera could probably do this, if only I knew how to push the right buttons. But, I don’t.
But it was great to be at this event, which took place in the grounds of this church. It reminded me a bit of the Farnborough Air Show, in that although there was a very large crowd of people present, all just standing in a big clump, nobody’s view of the excitements was impeded by any other people, because the drama was all in the sky, which we could all see quite clearly, with nobody interrupting anyone else’s view (as I explained in the final paragraph of this Farnborough Air Show posting). This fact alone made for a very convivial atmosphere. Usually crowds are rather bad tempered because the ones at the front can see whatever it is better, and the others are all fighting each other for what remains of the view. But not at the Farnborough Air Show, and not if there are fireworks, presented in the way that they were outside and above St John’s Loughton, earlier this evening.
Afterwards I and my Loughtonian host were able to buy a hot dog and a hamburger, for two quid each. Usually, “events” are an excuse to charge far too much for such things. Not there, not this evening.
No Guy, though. I would have liked a Guy.
I’ve already given you Rod Green’s Dangereuse. Here’s another, longer bit from his book about Magna Carta, a bit which he entitled “Boys and Men” (pp. 61-66) I was especially struck by the part near the end, about people who could pronounce Latin words but who didn’t know what they meant. Sounds horribly familiar:
Not so long ago, it was widely assumed that the concept of “childhood” simply didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. The view was that the kind of life led by a modern child - where good health, play and education experienced as part of a loving family environment is seen as the norm - was in stark contrast to the lives of children 800 years ago, who were treated as a burden to be tolerated until they were old enough to be of some use.
Recent research, however, shows that this may not have been entirely the case. Studies of toys from the period have shown that children were encouraged to play. The toys may have been homemade in many cases, but models of mounted knights made out of metal would have been bought or specially commissioned, showing that some parents cared enough about their children’s play time to lavish gifts on them.
Children do not feature prominently in illustrated manuscripts, paintings or tapestries doing anything more than emulating their parents, but in some cases they can be seen playing games like tag or “king of the castle” and riding on hobby-horses. They were, it seems, encouraged to play and enjoy an active childhood, although their lives were set on a predetermined course at an early age.
In the early thirteenth century, a child surviving the first year of life had a reasonable chance of fighting off disease long enough to acquire the strength needed to survive in the harsh and unhygienic medieval world. In fact, 25 per cent of those born to wealthy parents and up to 50 per cent of those born to the poor did not. A whole host of infectious
diseases for which we now have myriad names would then simply have been classed as “fever” or “food poisoning”. Life expectancy was only around 30 years, although anyone from the ruling classes who made it, strong and healthy, to the age of 21, might well have had another 40 years to look forward to. In the fourteenth century, the Black Death was to reduce life expectancy dramatically.
In the days of King John, however, a fit young boy born into a noble family could expect to live in his parents’ grand house or castle until he was about seven years old. He would then be sent off to live in another castle, most likely in the house of a nobleman a rung or two up the feudal ladder from his own parents, perhaps even in one of the king’s
Here he would serve first as a page, running errands and generally waiting on the lords and ladies of the household. However, he would also learn how a large house functioned and how people interacted with one another, as well as learning about customs and proper manners. He might also be taught how to read and understand Latin and, if it were not already his native tongue, the version of French spoken by the Norman nobility.
A young boy would also learn how to ride and, if he showed promise, he might, when he was around 14 years old, become apprenticed to a knight as a squire. They had to train hard to learn the art of combat, which included lifting heavy stones to build muscle, throwing the javelin, fighting with a quarterstaff, archery, wrestling, acrobatics and sword fighting. Swordsmanship was taught using a blunted sword and a buckler, a small shield the size of a pot lid. This trained the would-be knight how to parry sword thrusts and how to use his shield as an offensive weapon without the novice having to start off with a full-sized, cumbersome shield. Similarly, the blunted sword was used against heavily padded protective layers, although the dull blade could still inflict painful wounds.
The squire would learn how to clean and prepare the knight’s armour and weapons, although major repairs had to be undertaken by a blacksmith or armourer. He would also need to help his knight put on his armour, which meant more than simply helping him to dress - the various elements of the heavy steel all had to be strapped into place in the correct sequence to make sure that they overlapped and allowed for movement in the right way.
This, of course, meant that the squire went with his knight to compete in tournaments. He would eventually get the chance to compete in his own right, even before he became a knight, as there were special contests organized solely for squires.
Whether a squire lived in his knight’s house, or whether he lived in a baron’s castle where landless knights also lived as part of the baron’s permanent military force, he would have regular chores to perform, which would include acting as a servant when his masters sat down to eat. Squires were expected, for example, to learn the correct way to carve meat at the table.
The squire’s apprenticeship would last until he was around 21 years of age, at which point he might expect to be knighted himself. However, he might want to avoid that happening - a squire could be made a knight either by his local lord or by the king, but it wasn’t an honour that everyone could afford. The squire’s family, whom he may have visited only a couple of times a year since he was sent away as a seven-year-old, would have to pay for the costly armour, weapons and warhorse that a knight required, as well as funding any forays he might make to tournaments far and wide. Being a knight could be prohibitively expensive, especially if a second, third or fourth son, who might not inherit any part of his father’s estate when he died (the bulk of property often being bequeathed to the first-born).
Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, there was a growing “middle class” of merchants, tradesmen and professionals, particularly in the new cities and busy ports. Trade with continental Europe had expanded enormously since the Norman Conquest, although Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurs are known to have traded extensively with partners as far away as Russia. Clauses 41 and 42 of Magna Carta make special mention of such merchants.
The son of a merchant would live an entirely different life from that of a boy born into the nobility. From a very young age, he would learn about the family business, in order to play a full part as soon as he was old enough. A boy might also become apprenticed to another merchant or tradesman, a privilege for which his family would have to pay, and be sent away from home to live with his new master.
Merchants, especially those dealing in foreign trade, had to be able to speak and read Latin, which was the international language of commerce, the legal profession and the Church. The sons of the middle classes learned Latin either through private tuition or at one of the new schools that were beginning to appear.
Merchants donated money to set up schools in the most important trading towns and boys would be sent to school to learn arithmetic and Latin grammar, the institutions becoming known as grammar schools. The schools were allied to a particular trade, making them private schools, although fee-paying schools would later be established that were open to anyone who could pay, such establishments being termed “public” schools.
There would have been few if any books in schools. These were hugely expensive, hand-written items - the first printed books didn’t begin appearing until the mid-fifteenth century. Boys learned their lessons verbally, repeating their Latin phrases time and time again, and earning themselves a beating if they got anything wrong.
Some might learn mathematics or become proficient in the use of an abacus, but few would continue their formal education beyond a basic level or contemplate attending one of the new universities.
As the oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford University had been growing in stature since the latter part of the eleventh century and the colleges of Cambridge University can trace their history back to around the same time.
Peasants, still by far and away the largest portion of the population, could not afford to send their sons to school. A peasant boy was expected to do chores as soon as he was old enough to learn how to feed chickens or help to herd livestock. When he was strong enough, he would help with the back-breaking work in the fields and perhaps spend some time working in the local landowner’s house or castle, if such was required by the terms of his family’s tenure.
The Church played a major role in everyone’s lives and even the most lowly peasants attended church on a regular basis. However, all services were conducted in Latin, so most people couldn’t understand what was being said - sometimes not even the priest. Despite being the most educated man in the village, while the priest might be able to pronounce written Latin, the chances are he did not understand it. For a lucky few, a well-educated priest might teach boys how to read, but even as late as the fourteenth century it has been estimated that 8 out of 10 adults in England were unable even to spell their own names.
Recently I came upon another for the collection:
This is a footbridge at the back of the Strand Palace Hotel. I could find nothing about this footbridge on the www, but luckily I had already taken the precaution of asking someone local, just after I had taken my photos. This local was entering an office in the same street with the air of doing this regularly, and who therefore seemed like someone who might know. And he did. What about that bridge? - I asked him.
Yes, he said. That used to be the bridge that conveyed the servants from the Strand Palace Hotel, on the left in the above photo, to the servants quarters, which is what the dwellings on the right in my photo, behind the scaffolding, used to be. These servants quarters had, quite a while back, been turned into mere quarters, for regular people to live in. So, the bridge then got blocked off at the right hand end as we here look at it. But, the bridge continued to be used by the Strand Palace Hotel as an elongated cupboard. These old servants quarters are now being turned into luxury flats, which is why the scaffolding. But the bridge stays.
That the original purpose of the bridge was to convey servants, as opposed to people, is presumably why the bridge has no windows. Wouldn’t want to see servants going to and fro, would we. Fair dos, actually. A hotel of this sort – this one being just across the Strand from the Savoy - is a lot like a theatre, and the point of a theatre is not to see all the backstage staff wandering hither and thither. So, I do get it. And I doubt the servants minded that there were no windows. I bet they minded lots of other things, but not that.
I will now expand on the matter of the exact location of this obscure footbridge. As you can see from the square to the right, it is in Exeter Street, London WC2. I took other photos of this Exeter Street street sign, because I have a rule about photoing information about interesting things that I photo, as well as photoing the interesting thing itself, which is that I do. Sometimes, as on the day I took this photo, I even follow this rule. But I thought I’d try extricating a detail from the above photo, and see how I did. I blew the original up to maximum size, and sliced out a rectangle, tall and thin, with the street name in it. I then expanded (see the first sentence of this paragraph) what I had, sideways, lightened it, contrasted it, sharpened it, blah blah blah, and I think you will agree that the result is unambiguous. My point here is (a): Exeter Street, WC2, and (b): that such photomanipulation is not merely now possible. My point (b) is that it is now very easy. Even I can do all of this photomanipulation, really quickly and confidently.
I can remember when the only people who could work this sort of magic were spooks in movies, and then a bit later, detectives on the television.
Talking of spookiness, I included the surveillance camera in that little detail. In London, these things are now everywhere. Because of my sideways expanding of the photo, this camera looks like it sticks out more than it really does.
Savour this Dezeen headline:
I could write a long essay about that headline, and still not have extricated all the irony and nuance and cultural understanding and misunderstanding, history of failure, history of success, wrapped up in it. Maybe I will.
A central observation in such an essay, should it ever materialise, will be that Modernism now works. Those “machines for living in” that we were promised all those years ago did not work when they were first built, hence the unwillingness of normal people to inhabit these malfunctioning machines. But, now the Modernist machines do work. Architects have spent decades learning how to make “functional” architecture actually function, and now, on the whole, it does.
Thus, buildings which poor people used to run a mile from are now desirable dwellings, and rich people compete to purchase them.
This is a map showing my officially designated destination last Tuesday (the hottest day of the year (so far)). Across the bottom we see the railway going from past Waterloo main station to Waterloo East, in the middle towards the bottom, horizontally:
And just north of Waterloo East station is Roupell Street, in the middle of all those back-to-back houses, that I photoed in 2004 and then again last Tuesday (the hottest day of the year (so far)):
Here we are at the Cornwall Road end of Roupell Street, looking east. Lots of blue sky. No clouds. No clouds anywhere, actually.
I suspected gentrification, and the place did indeed have an air of rocketing house prices and of the banishment of old-fashioned workers, of the sort who presumably, once upon a time, lived in these houses.
In particular, I spotted three interesting vehicles.
First, a Citroen DS19 (I think 19):
So far so (relatively) ordinary.
But this was a bit more exotic, also a Citroen, something called (I also photoed where it said this) an “SM”:
And perhaps best of all, another vintage Citroen, in the form of an estate car version of the DS19:
Click on the above three pictures to get to the uncropped and even more sun-drenched originals.
All of these Citroens were parked within the space of about two dozen yards of each other, the first two right next to each other. I reckon what we have here is a collector of antique Citroens. And if that isn’t gentrification, je ne sais quoi what is.
One of my regular automatic google-searches is “face recognition”, and just now this has been alerting me to all the various tricks that are coming on stream for making face recognition not work, by putting on make-up, or spectacles, and such like.
Here is my contribution to this discussion:
I know what you’re thinking. Who might that be?
Exactly. Although, if you’re are supercomputer, you have probably worked it out. You have a special programme which tells you to take particular interest in any faces that are trying to not be recognised.
Most of my libertarian friends think that such tech solutions are the front line of this battle. I have long assumed that the world is moving rapidly towards a state where the question of what is X doing at the moment is technologically answerable, and impossible to prevent being answered. For me, among other desirable things, libertarianism is the claim that although we can see X saying or doing something we don’t approve of, we shouldn’t legally prevent him or her from doing that, unless it is really, really bad.
In a world of Total Surveillance by the Big Machine, the proliferation of stupid rules and regulations with no huge moral content becomes a problem like it never used to be. I means rules about things like what you should eat or smoke or, now, say in conversation. Rules like that mean that we can all now be seen and heard breaking such rules. (Okay, maybe not now, maybe not yet, but that’s where things are headed.) And that means that anyone who wants to fuck up your life or my life (for an actual real reason that has bugger all to do with the stupid rule actually being broken) can then do it. Worse, some legislative maniac might demand that anyone that the Big Machine sees breaking this or that rule that he personally is obsessed about, should be automatically fucked over, by the Big Machine, with no human intervention involved. With a big long list of exceptions, like legislators. The Big Machine can’t touch them. Libertarianism has arisen, partly, because it has become ever more necessary to insist on certain principles, principles which were imposed upon the world in former times by sheer ignorance of what other people were getting up to.
The other thing people have to do is develop thicker skins, psychologically speaking I mean, because although legislative pressure is not now a problem for most people, social pressure can become a big problem, for example if you find yourself being mobbed on the internet for some innocuous thing you said or ate. Just because a million idiots on the internet are screeching that you are an idiot, that doesn’t mean you are, or that if you are, it matters. When it does matter, bosses should chill, and not fire people just because the mob is screeching. I applaud, tentatively, the recent tendency to give social media mobsters a going-over, using the same methods on them that they have been using. Who is this mad bitch? What has she (it does often seem to be she) been up to lately? What is her job? Who is her boss? Etc. (In the age of cyber-bullying, I feel that I now understand witchcraft crazes better.)
Another problem is that as something easily mistaken for a state of everyone knowing everything increasingly pertains, that old illusion that everything will accordingly be centrally plannable is likely to keep rearing its very ugly head, and keep on having to be experienced as a disastrous illusion. (More libertarianism.) The point is, everyone doesn’t know everything. Nothing like. We can’t. Our heads aren’t big enough, and even if they were, knowledge is not like that. Everyone can known anything in particular that is easy to know (like where X is just now) that they want to know and ask the Big Machine about. That’s entirely different from actual omniscience.
This is a first:
I am at Brian Micklethwait’s place for his latest Friday. This argument against leaving the EU was made (I am literally live blogging, this is breaking news!): The good thing about Brussels is that it is impossible to be emotionally attached to it. This weakens the state.
Interesting discussion is now ensuing. And we have not even got to the speaker yet.
The liveblogger in question being Rob Fisher, to whom thanks.
The speaker and subject matter were described in this earlier posting here.
I do hope to write something soonish about what was actually said by Patrick Crozier, but meanwhile, the other interesting thing about this evening’s event, for me, was how well attended it was. By this I mean that the room was, as it usually seems to be, comfortably but not uncomfortably full.
What was so unusual about this outcome was that when I sent that first email out last Sunday evening, flagging up the meeting, I got no responses. Usually, one or two or three people reply by return of email that they intend to attend, and more acceptances come in as the week before the meeting (which is on the Friday) progresses. But this time: nothing. Not even one email. Not a sausage. In my reminder email, which went out yesterday, I pretty much begged people to come, and to tell me beforehand that they were coming. And a healthy trickle of positive responses duly trickled in, and I relaxed. And then, come the evening itself, as already revealed, pretty much the exact same number of people showed up as usually shows up.
How do people, collectively, know to do this? There has to be some kind of mathematical law in operation here, which says that the right number of people always shows up, no matter what.
It cannot be coincidence that the only time when far, far too many people showed up for comfort was the very first of these meetings, when I restarted them at the beginning of (I think it was) 2013. Never again. This strongly suggests to me that The Crowd, subsequently so wise, started out ignorant, of how much comfortable space there was, but that The Crowd has subsequently learned. And now, The Crowd knows how to turn up chez moi in the exact right numbers, every time. No matter what I do to assemble it, and no matter what it says beforehand, or doesn’t say.
With the university system languishing amid archaic traditions, and corporate R&D labs still on the distant horizon, the public space of the coffeehouse served as the central hub of innovation in British society How much of the Enlightenment do we owe to coffee? Most of the epic developments in England between 1650 and 1800 that still warrant a mention in the history textbooks have a coffeehouse lurking at some crucial juncture in their story. The restoration of Charles II, Newton’s theory of gravity, the South Sea Bubble – they all came about, in part, because England had developed a taste for coffee, and a fondness for the kind of informal networking and shoptalk that the coffeehouse enabled. Lloyd’s of London was once just Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, until the shipowners and merchants started clustering there, and collectively invented the modem insurance company. You can’t underestimate the impact that the Club of Honest Whigs had on Priestley’s subsequent streak, precisely because he was able to plug in to an existing network of relationships and collaborations that the coffeehouse environment facilitated. Not just because there were learned men of science sitting around the table – more formal institutions like the Royal Society supplied comparable gatherings – but also because the coffeehouse culture was cross-disciplinary by nature, the conversations freely roaming from electricity, to the abuses of Parliament, to the fate of dissenting churches.
The rise of coffeehouse culture influenced more than just the information networks of the Enlightenment; it also transformed the neurochemical networks in the brains of all those newfound coffee-drinkers. Coffee is a stimulant that has been clinically proven to improve cognitive function - particularly for memory-related tasks - during the first cup or two. Increase the amount of “smart” drugs flowing through individual brains, and the collective intelligence of the culture will become smarter, if enough people get hooked. Create enough caffeine-abusers in your society and you’ll be statistically more likely to launch an Age of Reason. That may itself sound like the self-justifying fantasy of a longtime coffee-drinker, but to connect coffee plausibly to the Age of Enlightenment you have to consider the context of recreational drug abuse in seventeenth-century Europe. Coffee-drinkers are not necessarily smarter; in the long run, than those who abstain from caffeine. (Even if they are smarter for that first cup.) But when coffee originally arrived as a mass phenomenon in the mid-1600s, it was not seducing a culture of perfect sobriety. It was replacing alcohol as the daytime drug of choice. The historian Tom Standage writes in his ingenious A History of the World in Six Glasses:
The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak “small beer” and wine .... Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved .... Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.
Emerging from that centuries-long bender, armed with a belief in the scientific method and the conviction, inherited from Newtonian physics, that simple laws could be unearthed beneath complex behavior, the networked, caffeinated minds of the eighteenth century found themselves in a universe that was ripe for discovery. The everyday world was teeming with mysterious phenomena – animals, plants, rocks, weather – that had never before been probed with the conceptual tools of the scientific method. This sense of terra incognita also helps explain why Priestley could be so innovative in so many different disciplines, and why Enlightenment culture in general spawned so many distinct paradigm shifts. Amateur dabblers could make transformative scientific discoveries because the history of each field was an embarrassing lineage of conjecture and superstition. Every discipline was suddenly new again.
I’ve been reading more of Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything, from which a previous excerpt can be found here, here. It continues to be very good. In this bit, Ridley discusses the relationship between genetic and cultural evolution:
What sparked the human revolution in Africa? It is an almost impossibly difficult question to answer, because of the very gradual beginning of the process: the initial trigger may have been very small. The first stirrings of different tools in parts of east Africa seem to be up to 300,000 years old, so by modern standards the change was happening with glacial slowness. And that’s a clue. The defining feature is not culture, for plenty of animals have culture, in the sense of traditions that are passed on by learning. The defining feature is cumulative culture - the capacity to add innovations without losing old habits. In this sense, the human revolution was not a revolution at all, but a very, very slow cumulative change, which steadily gathered pace, accelerating towards today’s near-singularity of incessant and multifarious innovation.
It was cultural evolution. I think the change was kicked off by the habit of exchange and specialisation, which feeds upon itself - the more you exchange, the more value there is in specialisation, and vice versa - and tends to breed innovation. Most people prefer to think it was language that was the cause of the change. Again, language would build upon itself: the more you can speak the more there is to say. The problem with this theory, however, is that genetics suggests Neanderthals had already undergone the linguistic revolution hundreds of thousands of years earlier - with certain versions of genes related to languages sweeping through the species. So if language was the trigger, why did the revolution not happen earlier, and to Neanderthals too? Others think that some aspect of human cognition must have been different in these first ‘behaviourally modern humans’: forward planning, or conscious imitation, say. But what caused language, or exchange, or forethought, to start when and where it did?
Almost everybody answers this question in biological terms: a mutation in some gene, altering some aspect of brain structure, gave our ancestors a new skill, which enabled them to build a culture that became cumulative. Richard Klein, for instance, talks of a single genetic change that ‘fostered the uniquely modern ability to adapt to a remarkable range of natural and social circumstance’. Others have spoken of alterations in the size, wiring and physiology of the human brain to make possible everything from language and tool use to science and art. Others suggest that a small number of mutations, altering the structure or expression of developmental regulatory genes, were what triggered a cultural explosion. The evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo says: ‘If there is a genetic underpinning to this cultural and technological explosion, as I’m sure there is .. .’
I am not sure there is a genetic underpinning. Or rather, I think they all have it backwards, and are putting the cart before the horse. I think it is wrong to assume that complex cognition is what makes human beings uniquely capable of cumulative cultural evolution. Rather, it is the other way around. Cultural evolution drove the changes in cognition that are embedded in our genes. The changes in genes are the consequences of cultural changes. Remember the example of the ability to digest milk in adults, which is unknown in other mammals, but common among people of European and east African origin. The genetic change was a response to the cultural change. This happened about 5,000-8,000 years ago. The geneticist Simon Fisher and I argued that the same must have been true for other features of human culture that appeared long before that. The genetic mutations associated with facilitating our skill with language - which show evidence of ‘selective sweeps’ in the past few hundred thousand years, implying that they spread rapidly through the species - were unlikely to be the triggers that caused us to speak; but were more likely the genetic responses to the fact that we were speaking. Only in a language-using animal would the ability to use language more fluently be an advantage. So we will search in vain for the biological trigger of the human revolution in Africa 200,000 years ago, for all we will find is biological responses to culture. The fortuitous adopting of a habit, through force of circumstance, by a certain tribe might have been enough to select for genes that made the members of that tribe better at speaking, exchanging, planning or innovating. In people, genes are probably the slaves, not the masters, of culture.
On Friday November 27th (i.e. exactly one week from now), my friend from way back, Antoine Clarke, will be giving a talk at my place entitled “Herding cats, or lessons from drunks about organising anarchy”.
These talks happen every last Friday of the month, and before they give one of them, I ask each speaker to supply a paragraph or two about what they’ll be saying, so I can email my list of potential attenders. Antoine has just supplied me with ten paragraphs on his talk:
It would be hard to imagine any more dysfunctional organisation than a leaderless group of drunks promising among themselves to quit drinking and to help other drunks to quit.
And then I realized that there is a similar organisation for narcotics addicts, one for cocaine addicts, crystal meth addicts and even “sex and love addicts” - whatever that may mean.
Alcoholics Anonymous has been described as a “benign anarchy” by one of its founders and manages to organize over 100,000 groups worldwide with between 1.5 million and 2 million members. Its power structure has been described as an “inverted pyramid”.
AA operates by having almost completely autonomous branches, no publicity, no professional class of “charity workers” and no set fees. It has a “12-step program” and “12 traditions” which have been described respectively as “rules for not killing yourself” and “rules for not killing other people”.
The effectiveness of AA at curing or controlling alcohol addiction is not clear cut. Because of anonymity, self-selection and the difficulty of known if someone who stops attending meetings has relapsed or simply found he can lead a functional lifestyle. The fact that over a dozen other organisations have copied AA’s 12-step and 12 tradition system suggests at least some level of success, unlike, say the UK’s National Health Service which has fewer imitators.
One particular problem for AA is that any 12-step program will only really work if it is voluntary, but in the USA especially, courts mandate that convicted criminals attend AA meetings as a parole condition. I think this reduces recidivism among the criminals (compared with them NOT following a program), but it surely dilutes the effectiveness of AA groups (more disruptive attendees, people going through the motions, possible discouragement of others).
I shall be looking at the elements of AA’s structure and organisational culture to see what lessons can be learned about the possibility of anarchic institutions especially at handling social problems.
What interests me is the “anarchy with table manners” aspect of AA and the contrast with truly dysfunctional libertarian organisations, like the Libertarian Alliance.
I’m also interested in the issue of government interference and the ways in which well-meaning interventions make matters worse. I shall also take a look at the spiritual element of AA’s 12-step program, noting that it claims to work for atheists and agnostics as well as for theists.
Hopefully, this is an attractive alternative to binge drinking on a Friday night in central London.
Indeed. There will be no binge drinking at the meeting.