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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Category archive: How the mind works

Friday March 27 2015

It started with this picture, which I took at the home of some friends a while back.  I know exactly how you probably feel about this cushion, but on the other hand, I don’t care:

image

I love how the TV remote is there next to it.  I had no idea at the time, or I would have made a point of including all of it.

But now the www-journey begins.  At the bottom right hand corner of the cusion are the words “Susan Herbert”.

I google susan herbert cushion, and enter a world of cushion kitsch.  Mostly it’s more cats on more cushions, as you can see, but one of the pictures is this:

image

Obviously, I click where it says “visit page”, and arrive here.  I scroll down, looking for the picture of Bill Murray and the artistic nude girl.  I don’t ever find the picture of Bill Murray and the artistic nude girl, but I do encounter this, which is a posting about a big blue horse at Denver Airport.  Clicking on “Denver Public Art Program” merely gets me to useless crap about Denver, but googling “luis jimenez mustang” gets me to pictures like this ...:

image

… and to an article in the Wall Street Journal from February 2009, which says things like this about the Blue Denver Horse:

Anatomically correct - eye-poppingly so - the 32-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture makes quite a statement at the gateway to Denver International Airport.

But that begs the question: What kind of statement, exactly?

“It looks like it’s possessed,” says Denver resident Samantha Horoschak. “I have a huge fear of flying anyway, and to be greeted at the airport by a demon horse - it’s not a soothing experience.”

Many people here agree, calling the muscular steed a terrifying welcome to the Mile High City.

Samantha Horoschak was not wrong.  Because, it gets better:

Mr. Jimenez was killed working on the sculpture. In 2006, while he was hoisting pieces of the mustang for final assembly in his New Mexico studio, the horse’s massive torso swung out of control and crushed the 65-year-old artist.

Ah, that magic moment in the creative process when a work of art escapes from the control of its creator and carves out a life of its own, independent of its creator.  And kills him.

Is it still there?  How many more victims has it claimed?  Has it caused any crashes?

I love the internet.  And not just because I am quickly able to look up the proper spelling of such words as “posthumous” (which was in the original version of the title of this) and “kitsch”.  It’s the mad journeys it takes you on.  Who needs stupid holidays when you can go on a crazy trip like this without getting out of your kitchen chair?

Thursday March 26 2015

Is it a bird?

Yes:

image

Is it a plane?

Yes:

image

And it’s also a partial eclipse of the sun.

We had this in London, earlier in the week.  All I remember is that I, one of the seemingly small minority of people who realise that Britain’s next day weather forecasts are accurate, ignored it, knowing that it would be clouded out of view.

Which it was.

A routinely good way to photo something which is only quite interesting is to line it up with something else that is similarly quite interesting.  The result can be very interesting.

Tuesday March 17 2015

I was in Tottenham Court Road this afternoon, searching out a toner cartridge for what I discovered is now an antique laser printer.  I had no idea until now how much less toner cartridges cost if you get them on line.  Stupid me. 

Anyway, it was a chance to photo the BT Tower, the first and still one of the greatest of London’s new Big Things (Big Thing being what BT stands for).  Most things in London look better in bright sunshine, or at least I can photo them better.  But for some reason, this rule does not apply to the BT Tower.  Today’s decidedly muggy weather suited it very well.  Because it is quite a way behind those empty trees, it looks dim and grey, instead of bright, and this seems to suit it.  Maybe this is because muggy weather makes it look further away, and consequently bigger.  Here is my favourite shot that I took of it:

image

Summer is very nice and well lit and warm and everything, but all those damn leaves get in the way horribly, and ruin all manner of what could be great shots.

Friday March 13 2015

Indeed. What on earth was I thinking, posting - on a Thursday, rather than today, Friday, the traditional BMdotcom day for cat-related items - a piece that starts with how computers are rather bad at recognising cats? I only even realised that the cat category should be attached to the posting just now.  Oh well.

imageAnyway, more cat news, which I did deliberately hold back until today, is that the mega-behemothic-super-industry that is Hello Kitty is making a deliberate play for more male customers, with T-shirts decorated with such things as the picture you see to your right.  But, will such images repel human females?  You can imagine the high level debates that the Hello Kitty high ups (I somehow imagine them to be mostly men) must have been having about this issue, of such fundamental importance to their brand.

More cat news?  I need a bit more to be sure that the picture there doesn’t bash its way into the posting below (even though that would be rather appropriate).  Well, I am sad to report that for some people, the most interesting thing about the death of Terry Pratchett (good quote that – that’s the sort of thing he will be really missed for) was that he had a cat sleeping on his bed at the time.

Thursday March 12 2015

I have been reading Peter Thiel‘s book Zero to One.  It abounds with pithily and strongly expressed wisdoms.

Here (pp. 143-5) is how Thiel explains the difference between humans and computers, and how they complement one another in doing business together:

To understand the scale of this variance, consider another of Google’s computer-for-human substitution projects.  In 2012, one of their supercomputers made headlines when, after scanning 10 million thumbnails of YouTube videos, it learned to identify a cat with 75% accuracy.  That seems impressive-until you remember that an average four-year-old can do it flawlessly.  When a cheap laptop beats the smartest mathematicians at some tasks but even a supercomputer with 16,000 CPUs can’t beat a child at others, you can tell that humans and computers are not just more or less powerful than each other - they’re categorically different.

The stark differences between man and machine mean that gains from working with computers are much higher than gains from trade with other people. We don’t trade with computers any more than we trade with livestock or lamps.  And that’s the point: computers are tools, not rivals.

Thiel then writes about how he learned about the above truths when he and his pals at Paypal solved one of their biggest problems:

In mid-2000 we had survived the dot-com crash and we were growing fast, but we faced one huge problem: we were losing upwards of $10 million to credit card fraud every month.  Since we were processing hundreds or even thousands of transactions per minute, we couldn’t possibly review each one - no human quality control team could work that fast.

So we did what any group of engineers would do: we tried to automate a solution.  First, Max Levchin assembled an elite team of mathematicians to study the fraudulent transfers in detail.  Then we took what we learned and wrote software to automatically identify and cancel bogus transactions in real time. But it quickly became clear that this approach wouldn’t work either: after an hour or two, the thieves would catch on and change their tactics. We were dealing with an adaptive enemy, and our software couldn’t adapt in response.

The fraudsters’ adaptive evasions fooled our automatic detection algorithms, but we found that they didn’t fool our human analysts as easily.  So Max and his engineers rewrote the software to take a hybrid approach: the computer would flag the most suspicious transactions on a well-designed user interface, and human operators would make the final judgment as to their legitimacy.  Thanks to this hybrid system - we named it “Igor,” after the Russian fraudster who bragged that we’d never be able to stop him - we turned our first quarterly profit in the first quarter of 2002 (as opposed to a quarterly loss of $29.3 million one year before).

There then follow these sentences.

The FBI asked us if we’d let them use Igor to help detect financial crime. And Max was able to boast, grandiosely but truthfully, that he was “the Sherlock Holmes of the Internet Underground.”

The answer was yes.

Thus did the self-declared libertarian Peter Thiel, who had founded Paypal in order to replace the dollar with a free market currency, switch to another career, as a servant of the state, using government-collected data to chase criminals.  But that’s another story.

Monday March 09 2015

Just before Christmas, Goddaughter 2 arranged for the two of us to see and hear a dress rehearsal of a Royal Opera House Covent Garden production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.  This was, for all practical purposes, a performance.  I didn’t much care for Verdi before I went to this event, and I still don’t, but the show was at least notable for the outstanding singing of the lead tenor, Joseph Calleja, a new name to me.  I was extremely happy whenever he was singing.  (He has a blog.) The rest of the show I found somewhat forgettable, mainly because Verdi seems to have been opposed to doing nice tunes that you can remember, unlike my operatic composer favourites, Mozart, Puccini, and Richard Strauss.

But very memorable indeed, almost as good as Calleja’s singing, was the bar we visited afterwards, which is right next to the main performing space.

From the outside the opera house and the bar look like this:

image

The bar being the thing on the left as we look there.

And on the inside, the bar looks like this:

image

The ROH refers to this place as the Paul Hamlyn Hall.  What regular people call it for real I have no idea, but I like it.

I especially like that disembodied clutch of drinkers, suspended up there as if in mid air, but actually in mid mirror.

Here is a closer look at that same feature:

image

I know exactly what is going on here, and how this weird effect is achieved, but still I’m impressed.

A bit of hasty googling has failed to tell me what this place used to be and when it was first built.  I’m guessing it was at first something to do with selling fruit and/or veg, but that’s only a guess.  Anyone?

Tuesday March 03 2015

Yesterday evening’s rather blatant quota photo was because yesterday, I (a) failed to do my blogging duties here in the morning, and then (b) went on a photo-walk, from which I returned in a state of exhaustion.  It was all I could then do to pick out just the one nice photo and shove it up, accompanied by just enough words for me not seem rude.

Single photos are good when I have nothing much to say, nor much time or energy to say it with, because they take very little time to do or to look at.  They don’t exhaust me.  Nor do they take up much of your time unless you decide that you would like them to.  It’s up to you.  You can be done with a photo in a second, literally, while still quite liking it.  Or, you can contemplate it for as long as you like, even for as long as it might take you to read a quite long essay.  What you do not want from a blogger who is posting only for the sake of it is a long essay, which turns out to be saying nothing.  That you can not get a nice little second of fun from and be off, certain that you probably missed very little.  Hence quota photos.  Hence also quota quotes, provided they are short, and to a point.

Monday March 02 2015

Indeed:

image

That’s the new Blackfriars Bridge railway station, with its ziggy zaggy solar panels roof.  Taken just under a year ago.

What you get when you click on the above horizontal slice is actually a whole lot better, despite the fact that this horizontal slice is what makes the picture as a whole such a nice picture.

Sunday March 01 2015

The other day (to be more exact: on this day) I described England as a “dead team walking”, in the currently unfolding Cricket World Cup.  So, if England now turn around and start winning and winning well, well, that’s good because hurrah England.  But if England carry on losing, and losing badly, then hurrah me for being right.

How to snatch happiness out of thin air: be a prophet of doom proved right.  There are other ways to place a bet besides spending money.

This explains a lot about the world, I think.  Basically, as Steven Pinker has pointed out in the first half of that excellent (because of its first half) book of his, everything (approximately speaking) is getting better, slowly and with many back-trackings, but surely.  Yet to listen to publicly expressed opinion, both public and posh, you’d think that everything was getting worse, all the time.  And it’s been like that throughout most of recorded history.  But people are not really that pessimistic.  All that is really happening is that people are predicting the worst in order to be happy if the worst happens, and also happy if the worst does not happen.

Tuesday February 24 2015

This blog is where, among other worthier things, I boast about what a clever fellow I am, given that not many other people are in the habit of saying this.  A recent incoming email from Michael Jennings, entitled “You told me about this 12 years before the New York Times did”, gives me another opportunity thus to indulge.

The New York Times piece is this, which is a about how rich people have less stuff than poor people, because stuff is now so cheap.

And I said this in this, just over twelve years ago, as Michael says.

I’m guessing it’s the BJT Bosanquet reference that he particularly remembered.

Sunday February 22 2015

Somewhere between posting a photo of totally recognisable strangers that you took without their permission in 1930 and posting a photo of totally recognisable strangers that you took without their permission yesterday afternoon, there is a line.  I took this photo ...

image

… in 2007.  Did I cross that line?  Perhaps.  But they just look so great, and so happy.  When it comes to totally recognisable strangers who look bad in the photo I took of them without their permission, I think I’d give it another decade or two.

I love all the white space behind and around them.  It makes them look, in combination with the signpost, like a piece of sculpture.  That spot often does that.  Which is why it is one of my favourite photographic spots in London, up the steps that are attached to Westminster Bridge on the north side, looking up over the road towards the Houses of Parliament.

Friday February 20 2015

Yes, just back from a talk at Christian Michel’s.  Didn’t drink “too much” wine, but did drink a lot, far too much to still be sober.

Cat news?  You want cat news?  Okay, the cat news is that lots of people have got into trouble of various sorts because they have too many cats, or killed too many cats, or something along those lines.  Google “cats” news, and you can find the details for yourselves.

Meanwhile, here is news of a new Big Thing, in London:

image

This is the replacement for the Pinnacle.

Everyone commenting on this is angry about it.  But then, everyone commenting on new Big Things is always angry.  It’s ugly!  It’s a joke!  It’s random!  It’s …

Excuse me while I eat a Sainsbury’s Basics egg bite.  Several, actually.

… something else terrible!

But give it a few years, and we’ll all be complaining about how the next London Big Thing is spoiling the view of this Big Thing.

Tuesday February 17 2015

I just posted a Samizdata piece about Peter Thiel, a most admirable man, if the video performance that got me interested in him is anything to go by, and of course it is.

I kept the Samizdata posting short, and there follow a couple of paragraphs I decided not to include, because … well, I just decided not to.  The posting, which was basically just saying how about this for a clever guy go and watch him was becoming too unwieldy and too full of ponderousness.  So, the rest of this is me recycling my cuts here.  I can’t really put what follows as a quote, but it sort of feels like maybe I should.  Anyway, here we go.

There are around a dozen or more fascinating notions expounded in Thiel’s talk.  One thing in particular interested me, because it is an argument that has always interested me.  Extreme pessimism, says Thiel, often causes people to think that there is nothing to be done, because whatever they do is bound to fail.  Very true.  But extreme optimism (optimism being my preferred stance when trying to do anything) is also dangerous, because it is liable to tell you that you don’t need to do anything.  Good things will happen automatically.  Says Thiel: avoid both extremes.  Steer a middle path.  Do of a bit of both.  All of which may seem very obvious to you, but I have never heard it put quite like that, and certainly not so succinctly.

Another nice and counter-consensual thing Thiel says is that failure is over-rated, because you generally only learn one of the reasons why you failed, when in fact there were probably about half a dozen.

See the early comments at Samizdata by Rob Fisher, for other bits of cleverness from this extremely clever man.

More Thiel spiel here.

Thursday February 12 2015

Last night, seeking to illustrate a point made in the previous posting about how things on the ground look like toys, when viewed from an airplane, I failed to find any pictures of my own to illustrate the point, but I did come across this:

image

Triple Chess!!!  I did not know that such a thing existed, as a serious thing, until last night.

I took this photo in 2008, but it was one of those photos that I took and then instantly forgot about.  Then, later, when looking through the photos I took, I skipped straight over this one and concentrated on others taken at the same time, so I did not actually learn of the existence of Triple Chess, in 2008, when I photoed it, even though I had just photoed it.

Also in this photo is another strange contrivance: the Four Wheeled Pedal Board.  How the hell does that work?  Judging by the absence of any feedback at the other end of that link, the Four Wheeled Pedal Board never caught on.  Perhaps because nobody else could see how it worked either.  And perhaps also because it actually did not work?  “How far”, asks the box, “can you go without falling off?” I’m guessing that for most the answer was: not very far at all.

Despite the instructions for the Four Wheeled Pedal Board being in English, this photo of stuff in a shop window was taken in France, in Quimper, a city which regulars here will know that I often visit.

And look, there is a website. Does the fact that this Four Wheeled Pedal Board seems to be an Anglo invention reflect the continuing interest of Anglo culture in pointless gadgets, in mucking about instead of doing serious things?  Because in Angloland we think that mucking about can lead to serious things?  Perhaps.

Some might seize on all this as illustrating the fact that photography is a substitute for really looking at things.  I photoed it, but I didn’t actually look at it!  But, I am looking at it now.  And, do people who do not take photos look carefully at everything that they see?  Of course not.  The real problem with photography (as I recall mentioning in this talk I recently gave about photography) is not that you don’t look at things, but that you are liable to spend your entire life looking at things and never doing anything else.

Note also the red, white and blue accordion, bottom right.  Confirmation of the Anglophile inclinations of this shop?  Well, no, because the French are also big on red, white and blueness, aren’t they?

Wednesday February 11 2015

One of the better kept secrets of the popular entertainment industry of the modern world is how very good certain people are at faking reality, with quite small but very well made models.  Thoughtless people say they can always spot such fakery.  But the truth is that they only spot what they spot.  What they don’t spot, they don’t spot.  Obvious, if you think about it.  The same principle applies to things like men wearing wigs.  We can only see them when they are done badly.

So, I’m guessing that not everyone in Hollywood will be pleased about the internet presence of this guy, who contrives pictures like this ...:

image

… by doing this:

image

I found out about Michael Paul Smith from this Colossal posting, which is also where I got the above photos.

Much of the success of such fakery is to do with the camera being in the right place.  In particular, it needs to be low enough to see things from the same angle that a human would see them if the scene was real.

I remember first working this out when, as a kid, I went through a model railway magazine phase, a craze I caught from my best friend just a few doors away in Harvest Road, Englefield Green.  Most of the pictures in those magazines were obviously of models, but this was not because the models were always badly made.  It was because the camera was looking down on the scene, just as you do when you are looking at a model.  On the few occasions when the photographer would take the trouble to get his camera at real eye level, so to speak, it was amazing how realistic everything could suddenly look.

By the same token, and being only an occasional flyer, I have never yet tired of the thrill of looking down at the ground, preferably at built-up areas, from an airplane in the process of taking off or landing.  Everything looks like toys.  Really, really well made toys.  Your frequent flyers have got used to the idea that this is really just boring old reality, seen from above.  But to me, what I see from an airplane is something totally different from reality.  It is an entire world, painstakingly faked in miniature, for my personal entertainment.