Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Alastair on Santa's tired helpers
dodgy geezer on Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
michael fallon on Halloween buckets
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Michael on Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
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Most recent entries
- To Covent Garden (2): Rough roofs – smooth roof
- Christmas tree with scaffolding
- Santa’s tired helpers
- To Covent Garden (1): The twisty footbridge
- Trousers keyboard
- Cameras photoing the Wheel (in 2007)
- Was Guy’s Tower a key building in the architectural history of London?
- Photo-drone wars to come
- A link and a photo of a photographer
- Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
- Sign blocked by surveillance camera
- My digital photos on his TV
- ASI Christmas Party photos
- Photoing at the ASI party
- Quota roof clutter
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Category archive: History
A moment ago I had a twenty first century moment. I thought: Wouldn’t it be great to have a keyboard on the top of your thighs, embedded in the front of the top of the legs of your trousers. You could then type wherever, perhaps combined with a pair of those google glasses that you also wear perpetually. And it could all add up to a mega-computer if combined with a big cycle helmet full of electro-magic.
The point being that typing is never going to go away. The QWERTY keyboard is permanently with us, I think.
So, what about that top-of-your-trousers keyboard? Time was when a thought is all that such a thought could ever be. But now, no sooner is the thought thought than it is googled:
Brilliant. It’s not market-ready yet, but they’re working on it.
Gotta love that Golden Age.
Although, great though the basic idea is, I can’t help feeling that (a) washing and/or cleaning might be an issue, and (b) the keyboard needs to be separable from the trousers by some means. Maybe just strapped on, or something. What if the keyboard malfunctions? Do you then have to chuck away the jeans? What if the jeans catch on fire? Is the mere keyboard then any use? Problems problems. This, after all, is why keyboards originally separated themselves from personal computers.
But like I say, the basic idea is a very good start.
Maybe in the longer run, the future of the mobile keyboard is that your Goggle Spex will project a keyboard onto a nearby surface (and then keep that keyboard still even when you move your head around), which it will then observe your fingers typing on.
But basically we are talking about the next iteration of the personal computer. First, big old box in the office. Second, big old luggable/portable “laptop”. Third, little toy in your pocket that you can peck at. And now fourth, this. A real computer than you can wear all the time and type into whenever, wherever, within less than a second of whatever you want to type occurring to you. Had I been on a train when I had this notion, I could not then have done this blog posting. That is what needs to change, much more conveniently than it has so far changed.
Back when I took these two pictures (September 15th 2007), this was the camera that most impressed me, because its screen was so big:
More and more postings here, I predict, are going to be of pictures I took a while back.
I just chanced upon this list of London’s twenty tallest buildings. What I particularly like about this list is that it includes date of construction.
No less that sixteen of these tall buildings were built during this century. The other four are: One Canada Square (the pointy Docklands one), “Tower 42” (aka the Natwest Building), the “South Bank Tower”, and the Guy’s Tower (aka the ugly little monster now dwarfed by and right next to the Shard). Those are all twentieth century. All the rest are twenty first century.
That last one, the Guy’s Tower was, when first perpetrated, the tallest building in London. I did not know this. Now it holds the number eighteen spot.
That’s a picture I took of the middle of the Shard and of the top of Guy’s Tower from Blackfriars Station (the one on the bridge) when both that station and the Shard were still being constructed, in 2012. I chose that picture because in it, the Guy’s Tower looks particularly ugly and bedraggled and stained and horrible.
I recently speculated that the Guy’s Tower might have made the Shard possible, by destroying all concerns about aesthetic suitability in its area. Now I am starting to suspect that it may have had an even more profound effect, on the whole of London. I mean, if that horrid Thing is the tallest Thing London has, then the sooner we build lots of other taller Things the better. That’s what I would have been thinking in the seventies, if I had been thinking about London Things at all at that time.
What I am saying, to spell it out, is that if that Guy’s Tower had not been built at all, then the subsequent architectural history of London might have been very different, and far less interesting.
Nothing, apart from this, here, today, but I did manage a posting at Samizdata entitled Anton Howes on the Golden Age that never stopped.
I say nothing, but here is a picture I took of someone in a woolly hat taking a picture at Piccadilly Circus:
Gotta love that Golden Age we’re living in.
Another Bit from a Book, and once again I accompany it with a warning that this Bit could vanish at any moment, for the reasons described in this earlier posting.
This particular Bit is from The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (pp. 255-258):
Much as I love science for its own sake, I find it hard to argue that discovery necessarily precedes invention and that most new practical applications flow from the minting of esoteric insights by natural philosophers. Francis Bacon was the first to make the case that inventors are applying the work of discoverers, and that science is the father of invention. As the scientist Terence Kealey has observed, modern politicians are in thrall to Bacon. They believe that the recipe for making new ideas is easy: pour public money into science, which is a public good, because nobody will pay for the generation of ideas if the taxpayer does not, and watch new technologies emerge from the downstream end of the pipe. Trouble is, there are two false premises here: first, science is much more like the daughter than the mother of technology; and second, it does not follow that only the taxpayer will pay for ideas in science.
It used to be popular to argue that the European scientific revolution of the seventeenth century unleashed the rational curiosity of the educated classes, whose theories were then applied in the form of new technologies, which in turn allowed standards of living to rise. China, on this theory, somehow lacked this leap to scientific curiosity and philosophical discipline, so it failed to build on its technological lead. But history shows that this is back-to-front. Few of the inventions that made the industrial revolution owed anything to scientific theory.
It is, of course, true that England had a scientific revolution in the late 1600s, personified in people like Harvey, Hooke and Halley, not to mention Boyle, Petty and Newton, but their influence on what happened in England’s manufacturing industry in the following century was negligible. Newton had more influence on Voltaire than he did on James Hargreaves. The industry that was transformed first and most, cotton spinning and weaving, was of little interest to scientists and vice versa. The jennies, gins, frames, mules and looms that revolutionised the working of cotton were invented by tinkering businessmen, not thinking boffins: by ‘hard heads and clever fingers’. It has been said that nothing in their designs would have puzzled Archimedes.
Likewise, of the four men who made the biggest advances in the steam engine - Thomas Newcomen, James Watt, Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson - three were utterly ignorant of scientific theories, and historians disagree about whether the fourth, Watt, derived any influence from theory at all. It was they who made possible the theories of the vacuum and the laws of thermodynamics, not vice versa. Denis Papin, their French-born forerunner, was a scientist, but he got his insights from building an engine rather than the other way round. Heroic efforts by eighteenth-century scientists to prove that Newcomen got his chief insights from Papin’s theories proved wholly unsuccessful.
Throughout the industrial revolution, scientists were the beneficiaries of new technology, much more than they were the benefactors. Even at the famous Lunar Society, where the industrial entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood liked to rub shoulders with natural philosophers like Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley, he got his best idea - the ‘rose-turning’ lathe - from a fellow factory owner, Matthew Boulton. And although Benjamin Franklin’s fertile mind generated many inventions based on principles, from lightning rods to bifocal spectacles, none led to the founding of industries.
So top-down science played little part in the early years of the industrial revolution. In any case, English scientific virtuosity dries up at the key moment. Can you name a single great English scientific discovery of the first half of the eighteenth century? It was an especially barren time for natural philosophers, even in Britain. No, the industrial revolution was not sparked by some deus ex machina of scientific inspiration. Later science did contribute to the gathering pace of invention and the line between discovery and invention became increasingly blurred as the nineteenth century wore on. Thus only when the principles of electrical transmission were understood could the telegraph be perfected; once coal miners understood the succession of geological strata, they knew better where to sink new mines; once benzene’s ring structure was known, manufacturers could design dyes rather than serendipitously stumble on them. And so on. But even most of this was, in Joel Mokyr’s words, ‘a semi-directed, groping, bumbling process of trial and error by clever, dexterous professionals with a vague but gradually clearer notion of the processes at work’. It is a stretch to call most of this science, however. It is what happens today in the garages and cafes of Silicon Valley, but not in the labs of Stanford University.
The twentieth century, too, is replete with technologies that owe just as little to philosophy and to universities as the cotton industry did: flight, solid-state electronics, software. To which scientist would you give credit for the mobile telephone or the search engine or the blog? In a lecture on serendipity in 2007, the Cambridge physicist Sir Richard Friend, citing the example of high-temperature superconductivity - which was stumbled upon in the 1980s and explained afterwards - admitted that even today scientists’ job is really to come along and explain the empirical findings of technological tinkerers after they have discovered something.
The inescapable fact is that most technological change comes from attempts to improve existing technology. It happens on the shop floor among apprentices and mechanicals, or in the workplace among the users of computer programs, and only rarely as a result of the application and transfer of knowledge from the ivory towers of the intelligentsia. This is not to condemn science as useless. The seventeenth-century discoveries of gravity and the circulation of the blood were splendid additions to the sum of human knowledge. But they did less to raise standards of living than the cotton gin and the steam engine. And even the later stages of the industrial revolution are replete with examples of technologies that were developed in remarkable ignorance of why they worked. This was especially true in the biological world. Aspirin was curing headaches for more than a century before anybody had the faintest idea of how. Penicillin’s ability to kill bacteria was finally understood around the time bacteria learnt to defeat it. Lime juice was preventing scurvy centuries before the discovery of vitamin C. Food was being preserved by canning long before anybody had any germ theory to explain why it helped.
Yesterday, encouraged by the weather forecast (which predicted a window of weather excellence in the midst of the otherwise dark and dreary weather that had been prevailing until yesterday and that has resumed today), I went out photo-walking. The mission was to check out that viewing platform at the top of Tower Bridge. How does that look from below? I will tell you all about that later, maybe. (I promise nothing.)
Within seconds of stepping outside my front door, I knew that this was going to be a very good day for photoing, because of the light. Photography is light. I like lots of it, but I don’t like it to be too bright, and I don’t like it all going in the same direction. Yesterday was such a day.
If you are a Real Photographer, and if the sort of light that is readily available is not what you would like it to be, then you contrive what you do like, or you fake it - with clever filters, Photoshop, blah blah - processes that you know all about. I am not a Real Photographer.
On the right there is one of the very first shots I took, a shadow selfie, which included a lady walking past me in the opposite direction. It’s not really proper to stick photos of strangers up on your blog - photos of strangers complete with their faces, photos of the strangers complete with their faces who are doing nothing to draw attention to themselves - no matter how obscure your blog may be. But, photoing their shadows and sticking that up is definitely okay.
And here are two more pictures I took early on in my perambulations, just after I had emerged from Tower Hill tube station. I start with them simply because they are vertical rather than my usual horizontal, and hence it makes sense to display them next to each other:
Here is a report from when that statue was unveiled, in 2006. It is not the war memorial that it resembles, more like a peace memorial, for people killed while doing building work. Good. This is the least that such unlucky persons deserve.
As for the Shard, it was looking particularly beautiful yesterday, like a ghost of its regular self. It was all to do with that light.
The Thing in front of the Shard is the highest of the four towers of The Tower of London. The Tower of London is an odd way to describe it, what with their being so many towers plural involved. I’m guessing they built one big Thing, called it the Tower of London, and by the time they added all those little towers, the name had stuck.
However, after reading this, which says things like this, ...:
It is not clear exactly when work started on the Conqueror’s White Tower or precisely when it was finished but the first phase of building work was certainly underway in the 1070s.
Nothing quite like it had ever been seen in England before. The building was immense, at 36m x 32.5m (118 x 106ft) across, and on the south side where the ground is lowest, 27.5m (90ft) tall. The Tower dominated the skyline for miles around.
… I would like to revise my guess. It would seem that the four little towers on the top were there from the start, and that to start with it wasn’t the Tower of London at all. So, what I want to guess instead is that now that the Tower of London is surrounded by London as we now know it, what we tend mostly to see of it is the four towers at the top. But, for many centuries, the Tower of London was indeed seen by all those within sight of it as the one Big Thing (which merely happened to have a few spikes on the top), London’s first Big Thing, and for many decades, its only Big Thing.
As discussed in this earlier posting, here is a chunk of Frisby, from his book Bitcoin: The Future of Money? (pp. 197-201 – the chunk entitled “Beware the hype cycle"). And for the reasons stated in that earlier posting, this posting might rather suddenly disappear, so if you feel inclined to read it, do so now. And then when you have, buy the book and tell me that you have done this in the comments, because this might cheer up any passing authors or publishers:
There is a cycle that a new technology passes through as it goes from conception to widespread adoption. The research company Gartner has dubbed it the ‘hype cycle’. It has five phases: the technology trigger, the peak of inflated expectations, the trough of disappointment, the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity.
In the first phase the new technology is invented. There is research and development and some early investment is found. The first products are brought to market. They are expensive and will need a lot of improvement, but they find some early users. The technology clearly has something special about it and people start getting excited. This is the ‘technology trigger’. The internet in the early 1990s is a good example.
As this excitement grows, we move into the second phase. The media start talking about this amazing new technology. Speculative money piles in. All sorts of new companies spring up to operate in this new sector. Many of them are just chasing hot money and have no real product to offer. They are sometimes fraudulent. This new technology is going to change the world. The possibilities are endless. We’re going to cure diseases. We’re going to solve energy problems. We’re going to build houses on the moon. This is the ‘peak of inflated expectations’. This was the internet in 2000.
But at some point, the needle of reality punctures the bubble of expectation, and we move into the third phase. Actually, this technology might not be quite as good as we thought it was; it’s going to take a lot of work to get it right and to make it succeed on a commercial scale. A great deal of not particularly rewarding hard work, time and investment lies ahead. Forget the ideas men – now we need the water-carriers. Suddenly, the excitement has gone.
Negative press starts to creep in. Now there are more sellers than buyers. Investment is harder to come by. Many companies start going bust. People are losing money. The hype cycle has reversed and we have descended into the ‘trough of disappointment.’ This was the internet between 2000 and 2003.
But now that the hot money has left, we can move into phase four. The incompetent or fraudulent companies have died. The sector has been purged. Most of those that remain are serious players. Investors now demand better practice and the survivors deliver it. They release the second and third generation products, and they work quite well. More and more people start to use the technology and it is finally finding mainstream adoption. This was the internet in 2004. It climbed the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’, the fourth phase of the hype cycle, and entered the ‘Plateau of Productivity’ - phase five - which is where the likes of Google, Amazon and eBay are today.
Of course, cycles like this are arbitrary. Reality is never quite so simple. But it’s easy to make the case that crypto-currencies in late 2013 reached a ‘peak of inflated expectations’.
Perhaps it was not the. It wasn’t Bitcoin’s dotcom 2000 moment – just a peak on a larger journey up. Many Bitcoin companies, for example, are not even listed on the stock market. Greater manias could lie ahead.
But it’s also easy to make the case that it ws the peak of inflated expectations. In the space of three or four years, Bitcoin went from an understated mention on an obscure mailing list to declarations that it was not only going to become the preferred money system of the world, but also the usurper of the existing world order. At $1,000 a coin, some early adopters had made a million times their original investment. Speculators marvelled at the colossal amount of money they were making. The media were crazy for it. Bitcoin was discussed all over television.
It caught the imagination of the left, the right and the in-between. Computer boffins marvelled at the impossibly resilient code. Economists and libertarians marvelled at the politics of a money without government or border. There were early adopters, from the tech savvy to the black markets (black markets are usually quick to embrace new technology - pornography was the first business sector to actually make money on the internet, for example).
Every Tom, Dick and Harry you met under the age of 30 with an interest in IT was involved in some Bircoin start-up or other. Either that or he was designing some new alt currency - some altcoins were rising at over a thousand per cent per day. ‘Banks, governments, they’re irrelevant now,’ these upstarts declared.
I suggest that in late 2013 we hit the peak of the hype cycle - the peak of inflated expectations. Now Bitcoin is somewhere in the ‘trough of disillusionment,’ just like the internet in 2001. The price has fallen. There have been thefts. Some of the companies involved have gone bankrupt.
The challenge now is for all those start-ups to make their product or service work. They have to take Bitcoin from a great idea and a technology that works to something with much wider ‘real world’ use. They have to find investment and get more and more people to start using the coins. This is a long process.
There are many who will disagree with this interpretation. And, with investment, it is dangerous to have rigid opinions – I reserve the right to change my mind as events unfold.
On the way back from the Royal College of Music to South Kensington tube after that magic Magic Flute, I encountered, for the first time, in Exhibition Road, the phone box that you see to the right.
It is a telephone box, but a telephone box with a difference. The windows have been replaced by sheets of reflective metal, and the telephone is now outside. Inside is whatever gubbins is needed to support a cash machine, which is also to be seen on the outside.
The reason I was only seeing this item for the first time is that I usually use the tunnel, but GD2 and her mum, with whom I was walking, prefer to stay above ground.
The classic London phone box, like the double decker bus, refuses to die. It helps that it can survive, in all its essentials, a sustained period of neglect and it is hard work actually to destroy. So, the period between the relevant bureaucrats deciding, for their own bureaucrat type reasons, to scrub these phone boxes from the face of the earth and the mere people deciding to revive them was a period that the phone box was able to survive, in numbers.
Next step, make replica phone boxes out of newer materials. Has that happened already, I wonder? Yes it has.
I further wonder: Is the the phone box in my photo one of these phoneys?
I was in Paris in the freezing February of 2012, and while there, on the coldest day of the lot, I visited an amazing exhibition of Relief Maps. Thank googleness for the internet, because instead of having to explain this, I can just give you the link, and let you learn as much or as little about this event as you want to.
Here is the photo:
I can’t remember how exactly all the things that you see there came to look the way they do in that photo, but I’m pretty sure that a big mirror was involved, and also the glass of the big case that this map was in. I can say with absolute certainty that no Photoshop(clone)ing is involved.
The big near-white thing in the middle is a map, on the floor, of France.
Go to the very middle of the picture, and then across a bit to the left and then down a bit, and you will see: me. Wearing a scarf indoors, as was everyone else.
Those Tower of London Poppies are causing quite a stir, with politicians of all parties, and people too, saying they ought to stay there longer, beyond Remembrance Sunday (today), beyond 11am on Tuesday, and maybe as long as Nov 11th 2018, so as many people as want to can get to see them.
I’ve checked them out twice myself, and took many photos of the sort that are presumably now tsunaming all over cyberspace. I already mentioned these Poppy trips in passing, in this and in this and in this, but this is the first Poppy Posting here that is specificallly about The Poppies, hence the number in the title.
Here are a few of my “what it looks like” snaps (click to get them larger):
What these snaps of mine don’t show (although 2.1 and 2.3 hint at it) is the panoramic hugeness of it all. For that I turn to Goddaughter 2, who accompanied me on my first Poppies visit.
She had her mobile phone with her, which has an app for taking extremely wide photos. By combining these two snaps …:
… she arrived at this:
That is about two thirds of it. You can see all of it only in pictures like this one
I can entirely see why thousands upon thousands of people have wanted to come and gaze at these Poppies, because the effect is very striking, and the vast scale seems entirely appropriate. There is one poppy for each British soldier who died, the Britishness of the poppies being the excuse for the Guardian to have a go at it all, in such postings as this one and this one. But if I was French or German or Turkish and I saw this huge spread of poppies in London, I don’t think I’d feel that my dead ancestors were being dissed in any way. And actually, I think I did hear quite a few foreign languages being spoken when I visited. I mean, why wouldn’t a nation mourn its own dead? I didn’t feel any resentment, when I recently visited a French graveyard with lots of war dead in it, that the ancestors of me and my fellow countrymen were being omitted from the story, any more than I do when I chance upon a war memorial in England with only local local names on it. Why would I?
The odd thing is, my two personal sets of ancestors had no WW1 deaths in them, or not one that anyone in my particular little family ever talked about. This was not because of any general reluctance to talk about such things. In WW2, we lost my mum’s older and only brother, Uncle John, and that was talked about every now and then, as were the two uncles who fought in WW2 and survived. But stories about my ancestors in WW1? Nothing. I’m guessing this is a bit unusual.
The other day, I forget which one, I worked something out that had been confusing me. Why, given all the fun I get out of photography and given all the time I spend doing it and thinking about it, have I not immersed myself in all the technicalities of photography? Why is it that the only setting on my camera that I regularly use is the one called “Automatic”? Why am I no nearer to understanding manual focussing than I was a decade ago?
The answer is that it is the point-and-shoot sort of photography that strikes me as the most interesting sort of photography now happening. Not in art galleries where the latest black-and-white photos of plague victims or under-age African soldiers are on display, in photos that cost more to buy than paintings and took more trouble to produce. That is all so twentieth century, and even, actually, nineteenth century. What counts now, for me, are the photos you can take with your mobile phone camera, or with the jumped-up mobile phone camera that I use, and the sort of photos that regular people are now able to take, of regular stuff rather than of foreign catastrophes that someone will pay them to take art-gallery standard photos of.
In short, I take point-and-shoot pictures because I like to be part of history, and this is where the history of photography now is. (If you disagree, realise that what you are reading is not an argument. It is a description of a feeling.)
What I have is called a “bridge” camera, but all that this means is that it is a bog-standard point-and-shoot camera that takes somewhat better photos when you go click, and which has a twiddly screen, and a lens that can go from close-up to mega-zoom without any faffing about with multiple lenses. I have the best cheap camera that I can get, rather than the cheapest proper camera. Oh, you can set my camera on manual and go all Real Photographer with it. But if you want to do that, you should have a proper Real Photographer camera, not a bridge camera, and you should have a rucksack full of lenses, each perfect for each oh-so-carefully-taken shot. What “bridge” means is the best camera you can have without having to give any thought to “photography”. Instead, you just think about the picture. More precisely, you think about what you see and which of the things that you see are the most interesting, and why.
My camera is not really any sort of “bridge”. Bridge suggests that I am going somewhere with it, somewhere different, as in different from the technical point of view. But I’m not. Technically, I am staying right where I am. If I am getting better at photography, it is because I am getting better at choosing what to point my camera at.
A bridge camera is rather like “crossover” music in that respect. Crossover music is not for people who are actually doing any crossing over, from one sort of music to any other sort of music. Crossover music is its own sort of music. The people who like crossover music (and there’s nothing wrong with that) are people who like crossover music and who will continue to listen to crossover music, with no actual crossing over from any other sort of music to any other sort of music happening at all.
No links, because I thought of this all by myself.
Last Wednesday and Thursday, I attended two talks, both at lunchtime, at and arranged by the Adam Smith Institute. No event links because information about the first talk has already vanished from the ASI website, and information about the second hasn’t yet but presumably soon will.
On Wednesday, Russ Roberts talked about how to do libertarianism. I agreed with pretty much everything he said, having long ago written very similar things, in particular in this. Guy Herbert talked, on Thursday, about the Human Rights Act 1998. He is, with qualifications and hesitations, for it. He told me afterwards that the text of his talk will be available on line very soon, so I’ll try to add a link later to this posting, at the bottom. If I fail, perhaps a commenter could remind me. (LATER: Actually, I’ll add the link to the text (as Samizdata) here.)
At the talk given by Russ Roberts I forgot to take any pictures. But at the talk given by Guy Herbert yesterday, I remembered. This was the right way round to remember and forget. There are many fine pictures of Russ Roberts on line, far fewer of Guy Herbert.
Here is one of the better ones I took of Guy:
And here, on the left, is another one that I liked:
On the right there is the explanation of the picture on the left. I took it through the gap at the top of the empty chair in front of me. No, I do not know who David Penfold is. I’m guessing he is the David Penfold mentioned as something to do with this.
The audience for the Russ Roberts talk was packed into the small room it was given in. The Guy Herbert talk, in the same room, was less well attended, hence that empty chair in front of me. But that’s because its subject matter was less of an ASI core concern. It was about things outside the free market comfort zone. Which is good. That sends out a signal. We don’t only operate inside our comfort zone. There is a bigger, wider world out there. We think about that also.
Today, blogwise, has been one of those days. By that I mean not that I have been too busy to do any blogging. I merely mean that I haven’t felt like doing any, and have in fact not, until now. I have had plenty of time to blog. I just haven’t used any of it to blog.
So, it’s just as well that, I now discover, there has been an incoming email from Michael Jennings, entitled:
If you want to ride a really old bus, here is your chance.
Which reminds me that, recently, when mostly photoing photoers photoing Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, I found myself photoing, instead, this:
He wasn’t taking photos. He was checking through photos he’d taken earlier.
I can remember when buses like that were the latest thing.
LATER: More about those Tower of London poppies. I read that Guardian piece before I discovered Guido was already on to it, and I thought it was weird too. Like one of the commenters, and Guido, said: clickbait. Plus, as another commenter said: yeah, the general public likes it, it means something, no wonder the Guardian art critic can’t be doing with it. Let’s hope Natalie Solent gives the piece a good fisking like it’s 2004.
I know what you are thinking. That there is no connection between a big red historic thing which people just never forget about and a big red thing about an historic thing which people just never forget about. Something along those lines?
Next Friday, October 31st, Christian Michel is giving a talk at my home entitled, somewhat provocatively: “Soviet and Nazi Art as Illustrations of Ayn Rand’s Aesthetics”. He is certainly not the first to have pointed out the overlap, so to speak.
Here’s what Christian says about his talk (which I “LATER” (Tuesday) realised I need to insert into this posting, near the beginning):
Art does not feature high on the libertarian agenda. One exception is Ayn Rand, who declared that of all human products art is perhaps the most important. She went on to develop her own theory of aesthetics, and even attempted (as did Jean-Paul Sartre at the same time) to deliver her entire philosophy through the sole medium of literature (both failed).
In my talk this Friday I will sum up Rand’s aesthetics, her contribution to the field, and will show that it was nowhere better illustrated in the twentieth century than in the arts of National-Socialist Germany and Soviet Russia. The point is not to denigrate Rand’s philosophy by that association, but to say that genuine artists find a way to convey their deepest values and sense of life, to express the highest human aspirations and struggles, whatever their circumstances, and that’s exactly what Rand celebrated.
And here is something of what I think about these kinds of things.
Just after World War 2, many an artist said things along the lines of: after Auschwitz, we cannot any longer do purely representational art. (Similar things were said by classical composers: after Auschwitz, we can’t any longer do pretty tunes.) But the artists had been abandoning pictorial representation (and tunefulness) long before Auschwitz happened, so “Auschwitz” has the air of being a rationalisation rather than the real reason for these artistic trends.
The crimes of Soviet Communism never had quite the same effect on most of the artists, even as an excuse for abstraction, although there were honourable exceptions (Mondrian for instance). Too many artists admired the Soviet Union, especially during and just after World War 2, during its struggle and after victory over Nazi Germany.
Realistic art had also been seriously deranged by photography. Photography destroyed the economic foundations of your average painter of realistic portraits and realistic paintings of such things as landscapes, and turned art painting into a sort of cultural bombsite, in which (to quote the words of an early twentieth century popular song) “anything goes”, anything, that is, except realistic pictures of people and of things. Realism, for the average artist, just made him look like a bad photographer. Even the claim that “art” now had to be an attack on the delusional bourgeois habit of trying to make visual and conceptual sense of the world has the feel, for me, of a rationalisation.
But there is much more to “realism” than mere realism. What looks at first glance merely realistic is often aspirational, and to abandon the field of representational art to the mid twentieth century totalitarians was surely a propaganda error, to put it no more strongly. For the likes of Ayn Rand, this was a surrender by the civilised world that should never have happened.
To point out that Rand favoured images that resembled Nazi and Soviet art is not to accuse her of being a Nazi or a Communist. It is to realise that she did not want the still immensely potent artistic weapon that is representational painting and sculpture to be monopolised by the totalitarians.
All of which is something of how I see (and hear) the kinds of things that Christian Michel will be talking about on Friday. As to what Christian himself will say, well, we shall see, and hear.
Meanwhile, here is an abundance of visual clues as to the sort of aesthetic territory that Christian will be traversing in his talk. It will be an illustrated talk. Here, without identification or further comment, from me or from him, are the illustrations he has sent me, in the order (I assume) in which he will be referring to them.
A few of these images are small enough to fit within the 500 pixel horizontal limit that prevails at this blog, a couple being very small indeed. But most can be enlarged (a little or quite a lot) with a click:
There I was, lying in the bath, listening to Radio 3. Some music had ended, and I was now being subjected to a programme which I do not usually listen to, called Words and Music. And I heard the actor Jim Broadbent saying these words, by Michel de Montaigne:
I take the first subject that chance offers. They are all equally good to me. And I never plan to develop them completely. For I do not see the whole of anything. (Nor do those who promise to show it to us.) Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone. I give it a stab, not as wide, but as deep as I know how. And most often, I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view. Scattering a word here, there another, samples separated from their context, dispersed, without a plan and without a promise, I am not bound to make something of them, or to adhere to them myself, without varying when I please, and giving myself up to doubt and uncertainty, and my ruling quality, which is ignorance.
Sounds like a blogger, doesn’t he? A blogger, that is to say, like me. Especially where he says “without a promise”. I keep saying that. Above all there is that “this is what it is and if you don’t like it you know just what you can do about it” vibe that so many bloggers give off. With Montaigne, we are arriving at that first moment in history when writing and publishing new stuff had become easy. Not as easy as it is when you blog, but a whole lot easier than it had been.
I transcribed the above quote from Broadbent’s reading of it. The punctuation is somewhat uncertain, and at one point assertively creative on my part. I added some brackets, around what is clearly a diversion from his main line of thought to which he immediately returns. It’s a sideswipe at others and it is then forgotten.
Such is the wonder that is the internet that I had little difficulty in tracking down the quote. It is near the beginning of Montaigne’s essay entitled “Of Democritus and Heraclitus”, in volume three of his essays.
The BBC used a more recent translation, which I much prefer the sound of, it being less antique and long-winded. And if Montaigne himself was also antique and long-winded, then I still prefer intelligibility to stylistic accuracy.
LATER: More about Montaigne, also emphasising the modern social media angle, here.