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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: History

Monday May 02 2016

As frequently threatened, this blog is going more and more to be about the process of getting old.  Yesterday’s posting was about that, and so is this one.

I have spent the morning doing various household trivia, internetting, and then, in particular, come eleven o’clock, keeping up with county cricket.  This really takes me back, to the time when, as a small boy, I was glued to my radio, keeping up with county cricket.  Then as now, just the numbers were enough to tell me a lot of what was going on.

Second childhood is catered to by tradesmen with just as much enthusiasm as first childhood is, the difference between that we second childhooders now make all our own decisions.

When I was a child, a magic machine that trotted out not just county cricket scores but entire continuously updated county cricket scorecards would have been a marvel.  Now, I have it, and just at the moment in my life when my actual life is winding down, and county cricket again seems like something interesting.  Between about 1965 and about 1995, I paid almost zero attention to county cricket.  I could not have told you who was winning or who had last won the County Championship during those decades.  The newspapers and the telly had remained interested only in international cricket, there was not yet any internet, and above all, I had a life.  But now that life as such is slipping from my grip, county cricket becomes an attraction again.

Notoriously, old age is the time when you remember your childhood better than anything else, or at least you think you do.  And the things that had intense meaning then have intense meaning still.  So it is that much of commerce now consists of digging into the manic enthusiasms that reigned six or seven decades ago, and rehashing them as things to sell now.  On oldie TV, such as I was watching last night, you see shows devoted to the obsessions of the nearly (but not quite yet) forgotten past all the time, every night.  As the years advance, shows about WW2 are succeeded by shows about 1950s dance halls or crooners or early rock and rollers, or ancient cars and trams and steam trains.  Often the shows now are about how the steam trains themselves are being revived, by manic hobbyists who have just retired from doing sensible things.

I know the feeling.  One of the best train journeys I recall from my boyhood was in the Cornish Riviera Express, driven by a huge 4-6-2 steam engine (for real, not as a “heritage” exercise) in about 1952, out of Waterloo.  I can still recall leaning out of the window on a curve, and seeing the locomotive up at the front, chomping away in all its glory, gushing smoke fit to burst.  I never quite turned into a full-blooded trainspotter, but like I say, I know the feeling.

A bit of a meander, I’m afraid.  But don’t mind me.  You’d best be going now.  I’m sure you have more important things on your mind.

Sunday April 24 2016

I just sent out the email plugging a talk to be given at my home this coming Friday (the 29th) by Patrick Crozier, on “The Political Consequences of World War One” (as already flagged up here in this posting).

The email included this:

Many libertarians of my acquaintance talk about World War One as the great libertarian historical What-If? As in: Surely, surely, the world would have remained far more libertarian-inclined if only ... World War One not been blundered into by its deluded protagonists. Everything bad about the modern world, for many libertarians, has its origins in that fateful and fatal moment of mass mobilisation, for massed war, in August 1914. War is the Health of the State! And with war, modern statism just grew and grew.

But has this growth in statism happened because of war, and because of that war in particular? Or did war merely accompany the growth? Was this causation, or merely correlation?

Patrick Crozier writes regularly for Samizdata, specialising in World War One, and in events of WW1 that happened exactly one hundred years before the time of his postings.  Just recently, Patrick has been, as it were, extricating himself from the trenches and from purely military issues, to look also at wider political developments, on the home front and beyond.  So he seemed to me to be the ideal person to be asked, as I did ask him earlier in the month, this question:

Was the rise of statism in Britain and the West seriously accelerated by WW1, or would such stuff have happened anyway, with or without war?

Were there big moves being made towards statism before the outbreak of war, and not even in anticipation of war? Did neutrals also do lots of statist stuff at the same time as the war’s protagonists?

Sounds good to me.  But then, these talks always do, because if at talk doesn’t sound good to me, I keep on looking until I find another that does.

If you didn’t get the email but would like to attend, or would like to get this and future emails, leave a comment or send me an email.  To do the latter click where it says “Contact”, top left.

Saturday April 09 2016

Indeed:

image

It’s been a long day.  It’s been a long day partly because I spent a lot of it out and about, taking photos, of which the above is just one.  But it was still a long day.

I hear a lot of complaints from my fellow Londoners, to the effect that the Shard is all very nice and tall and pointy and everything, but that it doesn’t look finished.  That weird top.  It ought to be a smooth, single point.  Instead, well, look at it.  It looks like someone shot the original top off of it with a giant catapult.

But although this strange and “unfinished” top may make the Shard look less conventionally pretty, it does make that top very recognisable. You only need to see the very top of that weird top peaking out above something else nearer, and you know at once what you are looking at.  And I more and more find myself believing, about architecture in London, recognisable trumps pretty.  (I more and more feel this way about the entirety of the Walkie-Talkie.)

Thursday April 07 2016

I am in the habit of denouncing the notion that science is a precondition for technology (and therefore needs to be paid for by the government).  The tendency is for technological gadgetry to lead science, and often to correct science, by defying it and proving with its success that the relevant science needs to be redone.

But there is another even more direct way in which technology leads science.  Here is yet another excerpt from Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air (pp. 73-77).  Click on the illustration, which I found here and which is the illustration in the book at that point in the text, to get it properly visible:

The study of air itself had only begun to blossom as a science in the past century, with Robert Boyle’s work on the compression and expansion of air in the late 1600s, and Black’s more recent work on carbon dioxide. Before Boyle and Black, there was little reason to think there was anything to investigate: the world was filled with stuff – people, animals, planets, sprigs of mint – and then there was the nothingness between all the stuff. Why would you study nothingness when there was such a vast supply of stuff to explain? There wasn’t a problem in the nothingness that needed explaining.  A cycle of negative reinforcement arose: the lack of a clear problem kept the questions at bay, and the lack of questions left the problems as invisible as the air itself. As Priestley once wrote of Newton, “[he] had very little knowledge of air, so he had few doubts concerning it.”

So the question is: Where did the doubts come from? Why did the problem of air become visible at that specific point in time?  Why were Priestley, Boyle, and Black able to see the question clearly enough to begin trying to answer it?  There were 800 million human beings on the planet in 1770, every single one of them utterly dependent on air.  Why Priestley, Boyle, and Black over everyone else?

One way to answer that question is through the lens of technological history. They were able to explore the problem because they had new tools.  The air pumps designed by Otto von Guericke and Boyle (the latter in collaboration with his assistant, Robert Hooke, in the mid-1600s) were as essential to Priestley’s lab in Leeds as the electrical machines had been to his Warrington investigations. It was almost impossible to do experiments without being able to move air around in a controlled manner, just as it was impossible to explore electricity without a reliable means of generating it.

In a way, the air pump had enabled the entire field of pneumatic chemistry in the seventeenth century by showing, indirectly, that there was something to study in the first place. If air was simply the empty space between things, what was there to investigate? But the air pump allowed you to remove all the air from a confined space, and thus create a vacuum, which behaved markedly differently from common air, even though air and absence of air were visually indistinguishable. Bells wouldn’t ring in a vacuum, and candles were extinguished. Von Guericke discovered that a metal sphere composed of two parts would seal tightly shut if you evacuated the air between them. Thus the air pump not only helped justify the study of air itself, but also enabled one of the great spectacles of early Enlightenment science.

The following engraving shows the legendary demonstration of the Magdeburg Sphere, which von Guericke presented before Ferdinand III to much amazement: two eight-horse teams attempt – and, spectacularly, fail – to separate the two hemispheres that have been sealed together by the force of a vacuum.

image

When we think of technological advances powering scientific discovery, the image that conventionally comes to mind is a specifically visual one: tools that expand the range of our vision, that let us literally see the object of study with new clarity, or peer into new levels of the very distant, the very small. Think of the impact that the telescope had on early physics, or the microscope on bacteriology. But new ways of seeing are not always crucial to discovery. The air pump didn’t allow you to see the vacuum, because of course there was nothing to see; but it did allow you to see it indirectly in the force that held the Magdeburg Sphere together despite all that horsepower. Priestley was two centuries too early to see the molecules bouncing off one another in his beer glasses. But he had another, equally important, technological breakthrough at his disposal: he could measure those molecules, or at least the gas they collectively formed. He had thermometers that could register changes in temperature (plus, crucially, a standard unit for describing those changes). And he had scales for measuring changes in weight that were a thousand times more accurate than the scales da Vinci built three centuries earlier.

This is a standard pattern in the history of science: when tools for measuring increase their precision by orders of magnitude, new paradigms often emerge, because the newfound accuracy reveals anomalies that had gone undetected. One of the crucial benefits of increasing the accuracy of scales is that it suddenly became possible to measure things that had almost no weight. Black’s discovery of fixed air, and its perplexing mixture with common air, would have been impossible without the state-of-the-art scales he employed in his experiments. The whole inquiry had begun when Black heated a quantity of “magnesia alba,” and discovered that it lost a minuscule amount of weight in the process - a difference that would have been imperceptible using older scales. The shift in weight suggested that something was escaping from the magnesia into the air. By then running comparable experiments, heating a wide array of substances, Black was able to accurately determine the weight of carbon dioxide, and consequently prove the existence of the gas. It weighs, therefore it is.

Wednesday April 06 2016

I am continuing to read, with huge pleasure, Steven Johnson’s book about Joseph Priestley, The Invention of Air.  Here’s another good bit (pp. 58-61):

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.

Monday April 04 2016

Recently I wrote about footbridges, one in particular, in theatreland.  As that posting illustrates, I especially like footbridges that join buildings (in that case theatres), rather than merely convey members of the public who are on a journey through the city, even though I myself cannot cross such bridges, because I too am only a member of the public.

The London epicentre of such footbridge action is situated near Tower Bridge, on the south side of the river.  Footbridges of greatly varying heights above the ground and almost beyond counting connect the tall brick buildings on each side of whatever the street is where all these footbridges are to be seen.

I knew that on various journeys along the river I had photoed these bridges, but where were such photos to be found?  Oh well, I thought.  They’ll turn up.

Last night, they did turn up.  I was idling through photo-directories past, looking for something entirely different which I may, or may not, be telling you about Real Soon Now, and suddenly I came across a clutch of photos of the very footbridges I had in mind.  I immediately copied all these photos across into the rather recently created Footbridges directory.  Photos like this:

image

None of the photos I took that evening of these bridges were technically very accomplished.  The light was tricky and I think I was rather tired by the time I took them.  But, there they were, the bridges, and the photos of the bridges.

I chose the above photo from the half dozen or more that I had not because it is the best of these photos, but because it contains this vital piece of information, in writing.  Close up:

image

Le Pont de la Tour?  Google google.  Apparently it’s a posh eatery, for the kind of posh people who now live in these now very posh buildings.  And immediately I had the name of the street.

Shad.

Don’t ask me how you are supposed to say that.  Shad?  The Shad?  Shad Thames?  I don’t know.  But there’s the name.  Shad.  Sounds like Sean Connery saying Sad.  (Do you suppose that the reason Sean Connery pronounces S as Sh is because of how Sean is pronounced?  Jusht a shuggeshtion.)

Armed with this address, I could pin down exactly as opposed to approximately the location of this footbridge clutch, so that I can return there, and take better photos, and look them up on the www some more, and generally celebrate these striking structures.

And the moral is: when you are (I am) out and about taking photos, always get wherever you are (I am) in writing, by photoing writing.  Photo signs of shops, signs outside places, street signs, or, in this case restaurant signs.  That way, you can work out where everything was, even years later.  The above picture was taken nearly six years ago.

Monday March 28 2016

Indeed.  The old Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo is finally coming back to life again, for boring rush hour services, but life.

Until late in 2007, Eurostar trains used to come and go from the new station they built at Waterloo for that exact purpose.  But then they shut the place, and the Eurostars operated from St Pancras instead.  Since 2007, the Waterloo Eurostar terminal has been a corpse.

After much searching, I managed to dig up a photo I took in 2007 of some Eurostar snouts poking out of the Waterloo terminal, just before it died:

image

Once again, we see Century House in the background of a photo here that is basically of something else.  The previous posting in which this happened is here, at which there is a brief explanatory comment about Century House’s history.  Spooks, basically.  Now just flats.

Even older Waterloo Eurostar photos can be viewed here, posted here in 2013, but taken in 2003.  I also just re-listened to a conversation involving Patrick Crozier, Michael Jennings, Rob Fisher and me, about the new St Pancras, which we all liked a lot, and presumably still like a lot.

Wednesday March 16 2016

I am reading Steven Johnson’s book, The Invention of Air, which is about the life and career of Joseph Priestley.

Early on (pp. 10-12) there is a delightful bit concerning Benjamin Franklin, and his early investigations into the Gulf Stream:

In 1769, the Customs Board in Boston made a formal complaint to the British Treasury about the speed of letters arriving from England.  (Indeed, regular transatlantic correspondents had long noticed that letters posted from America to Europe tended to arrive more promptly than letters sent the other direction.) As luck would have it, the deputy postmaster general for North America was in London when the complaint arrived - and so the British authorities brought the issue to his attention, in the hope that he might have an explanation for the lag.  They were lucky in another respect: the postmaster in question happened to be Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin would ultimately turn that postal mystery into one of the great scientific breakthroughs of his career: a turning point in our visualization of the macro patterns formed by ocean currents.  Franklin was well prepared for the task.  As a twenty-year-old, traveling back from his first voyage to London in 1726, he had recorded notes in his journal about the strange prevalence of “gulph weed” in the waters of the North Atlantic.  In a letter written twenty years later he had remarked on the slower passage westward across the Atlantic, though at the time he supposed it was attributable to the rotation of the Earth.  In a 1762 letter he alluded to the way “the waters mov’d away from the North American Coast towards the coasts of Spain and Africa, whence they get again into the Power of the Trade Winds, and continue the Circulation.” He called that flow the “gulph stream.”

When the British Treasury came to him with the complaint about the unreliable mail delivery schedules, Franklin was quick to suspect that the “gulph stream” would prove to be the culprit.  He consulted with a seasoned New England mariner, Timothy Folger, and together they prepared a map of the Gulf Stream’s entire path, hoping that “such Chart and directions may be of use to our Packets in Shortning their Voyages.” The Folger/Franklin map ...

image

… was the first known chart to show the full trajectory of the Gulf Stream across the Atlantic. But the map was based on anecdotal evidence, mostly drawn from the experience of New England-based whalers.  And so in his voyage from England back to America in 1775, Franklin took detailed measurements of water temperatures along the way, and detected a wide but shallow river of warm water, often carrying those telltale weeds from tropical regions.  “I find that it is always warmer than the sea on each side of it, and that it does not sparkle in the night,” he wrote.  In 1785, at the ripe old age of seventy-nine, he sent a long paper that included his data and the Iolger map to the French scientist Alphonsus le Roy.  Franklin’s paper on “sundry Maritime Observations,” as he modestly called it, delivered the first empirical proof of the Gulf Stream’s existence.

I added that map in the middle of that quote, which I found here.  (I love the internet.)

Until now, I knew nothing of this Gulf Stream story.  The reason I knew nothing of this Gulf Stream story is that I know very little about eighteenth century history of any sort.  This book by Johnson looks like it will be a pain-free way to start correcting that.

Tuesday March 08 2016

My photos of London contain may oddities, which I sometimes only notice later, and often only much later.

Take this photo, for instance, which was one of the first I took from the top of One New Change, on the second of two visits I made in the early summer of 2012, on May 22nd:

image

I like it.  Big Ben, seen through the Wheel, the Wheel presumably being what I thought I was photoing at the time.  Outstanding roof clutter, right next to the Wheel.  The pleasingly eccentric Oxo House, slightly nearer to us.  Good stuff, albeit rather dimly lit.

But what about that big photo-within-the-photo, of what looks like the late Lord Mountbatten, standing next to a young man who looks vaguely like a young Prince Andrew, underneath where it says “Sea Containers House”?  What on earth is that about?

Image google “Mountbatten Sea Containters House”, and all quickly becomes clear.

The largest ever photograph of the Royal Family has been unveiled on a prominent South Bank building in the heart of the capital to celebrate the Queen’s upcoming Diamond Jubilee.

When finished, a day or two afte4r I took my photo, the complete photo on Sea Containers House looked like this:

image

I caught the process of this photo being contrived at its very earliest stage.  And yes, that is a young Prince Andrew.

The only thing I remember about all that Jubilee fuss in 2012 is that, for some reason or other, I pretty much ignored it.  I think I may have watch the boats on the telly.  Had I paid more attention, it would have been obvious to me soon after I took my photo of that photo what had been going on.

Google is wonderful.  Also very sinister.  Very sinister because so wonderful.

Saturday March 05 2016

I enjoy books that consist of quite a lot of short biographies.  I feel that I learn a lot from such books, very quickly.  Which is why, when I recently, in a charity shop, came upon Brief Lives by W. F. Deedes, I snapped it up.  I particularly enjoyed this bit, where he describes the rise to prominence of Stanley Baldwin, my enjoyment being caused by having previously known nothing about how this had happened.

The turning point in his career came in April 1921 when at the age of fifty-four he was promoted to President of the Board of Trade in the coalition government under Lloyd George.  There were no great expectations of him among senior ministers but the House of Commons took a liking to his patience and good humour and felt they could trust him.  That element of trust counted, for in the autumn of 1922 strained relations within Lloyd George’s coalition came to breaking point.  The Liberal party was in tatters while the Conservatives were increasingly restless under Lloyd George, and divided about his value to them.  Baldwin had been tramping round Aix-les- Bains, his favourite holiday resort, brooding over his party’s future.  He decided that the Tories must detach themselves from Lloyd George and his wily ways, and return to responsible parliamentary government.  Behind this decision lay profound anxiety about the future of his party rather than promotion of himself.

Baldwin prepared his ground by consulting Conservative colleagues, though up to the last moment he did not know how some of them would respond.  As G. M. Young has observed, what Baldwin’s speech to Conservative backbenchers at the Carlton Club in 1922 did disclose, though not everyone realized it at the time, ‘was that this countrified business man, who seemed to have reached the Cabinet by accident, was the master, and the unequalled master, of a new eloquence: direct, conversational, monosyllabic: rising and falling without strain or effort, between the homeliest humour and the moving appeal.’ Baldwin’s simple earnestness carried the day.  The coalition broke up. Lloyd George resigned. The Conservatives won the 1922 election and Bonar Law, though a sick man, became Prime Minister and appointed Baldwin as his Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, any sense of triumph was soon dimmed by the task of negotiating settlement of the American debt. But Baldwin took a stride forward with his speech on the Address which closed with these words:

The English language is the richest in the world in mono-syllables.  Four words of one syllable each ... contain salvation for this country and the whole world, and they are Faith, Hope, Love and Work.  No Government in this country today which has not faith in the people, hope in the future, love for its fellow-men, and will not work and work, and work, will ever bring this country through into better days and better times, or will ever bring Europe through or the world through.

The House of Commons had not heard language like that for a long time. Baldwin followed this up with a Budget speech which was sound, entertaining and, some thought, brilliant.  He used his mastery of plain English as a key to the hearts of Members of Parliament - and many outside Parliament.

Baldwin spent a long time thinking over what he proposed to say, though speeches were usually delivered from rough notes, never a script.  I can remember watching him from the press gallery as he sat on the government front bench apparently idly browsing through the Order Paper while the House was engaged in business outside his area.  He did this to escape from his office, the telephone, the private secretaries, colleagues and visitors and thus earned a reputation for indolence.  But these spells in the Commons gave him a sensitive ear for other Members’ feelings, which is why some of his speeches caught their imagination.  They also gave him the chance to think things over quietly. These days the Prime Minister is expected to be perpetually in motion and action; he has no time to ruminate.  ‘My mind moves slowly,’ Baldwin sometimes remarked. What he then had to say was all the better for it.

He understood his countrymen, not merely those he associated with in business and politics, but the working man and woman; and, as many of his speeches showed, he had insight into their thoughts and aspirations. I once heard him speak at Ashridge, which was then a Conservative college.  The Morning Post had sent me there disguised as a student to report on whether the teaching was true blue.  Baldwin’s contribution was a bit of a ramble, but his earnest tone of voice drew you into what he was saying. I do not think I ever heard him utter a cliche.

So when ill health compelled Bonar Law to retire Baldwin was a serious contender for the premiership. His main rival was Lord Curzon, who, though Baldwin’s senior, was a controversial choice as it would mean a Prime Minister sitting in the House of Lords.  Baldwin also had his drawbacks: he was not well versed in foreign affairs nor greatly interested in them and he was not well known, partly because he disliked publicity.  Baldwin himself had doubts.  To a journalist who congratulated him on the steps of No. 10, the new Prime Minister replied, ‘I need your prayers rather.’ He took to a cherrywood pipe, wore the incongruous mix of a wing collar with a tweed jacket and waistcoat and took over a nation in a delicate state of health.

The war had played havoc with our overseas trade. Britain had not become, as Lloyd George had promised, a ‘land fit for heroes’; on the contrary, many of the heroes were out of work.  Baldwin took the plunge, dissolved Parliament and sought a mandate for protection. His miscalculation meant that the Tories lost but neither the Liberal nor Labour parties won outright.  Baldwin favoured giving Labour a chance to experience the trials of office and this came to pass. Today, his head would be on a charger for losing an election so soon after entering No. 10, but Baldwin had made his mark on his party and the country.  Even as a rather indifferent Leader of the Opposition he survived, and in little more than a year the Conservatives were back in office with a big majority and a mandate to govern from 1924 to 1929.

Sunday February 21 2016

imageI have been reading Martin Geck’s biography of Bach (translated into English by Anthea Bell).

The question I now bring to Bach is: What did he think he was doing?  Worshipping God?  Being Beethoven before Beethoven?  More the latter than I had realised, it would seem.

Here is an excerpt not from the book itself, but from my English paperback edition’s introduction, by John Butt:

One idea that immediately emerges from his biography is that Bach’s relatively provincial Eisenach background was something that he never fully relinquished. In other words, he plumbed the greatest depth of experience from a relatively modest environment.  Ironically, this gave his music much value in later centuries.  Had this music been truly fashionable or cosmopolitan in its own age, over- filled with local relevance, it would surely have sounded dated in later years.  But Bach’s strikingly profound exploration of a limited world somehow translates well to subsequent eras.  The historical material is relatively easily assimilated by any to whom it is alien, yet Bach’s treatment of it is the most penetrating and challenging imaginable.

Another point that rendered him such a ‘hardy traveller’ in later ages is that he did not cultivate a deliberately idiosyncratic personality.  This biography shows us that his principal means of learning was the traditional one: study and improving exemplars. As Geck observes, Bach spent many years working on the same few works, and the exact beginning and ending of the process cannot (and should not) necessarily be traced. It is as if the composer is aiming for a perfection that is not humanly achievable.  The very openness of these works, coupled with their intense perfection, somehow gives them a momentum that carries them into the future.

Idiosyncratic his compositional personality may not have been, but there is no doubt that Bach’s personality was extremely strong.  Geck reveals an extravagant, ‘virtuoso’ character in Bach’s fiery encounters with the council of Arnstadt.  As a virtuoso, Bach seems to wish to say as much as possible all in one moment, and this develops into a more mature dialectic, between the cultivation of the greatest intensity of expression and the greatest degree of order in his music.  Geck discerns Bach’s search for ultimate truth in his basic compositional philosophy of ‘all-in-one’ and ‘all-from-one’ (his deriving of the entire composition from as small a number of elements as possible).  Once again, this relates to Bach’s development of the most intense musical vision from a straitened environment.

Did Bach thus cultivate a sense of individuality, a sense of autonomous art, within the context of what was basically a traditional craft-like activity?  Geck suggests that there was a real sense in which Bach’s music performed a covert social function somehow sublimating, his professional problems and the various contradictions of his age, such as between church and art.  In this way, Bach’s music does indeed relate to the German tradition of the following century, not least the art of Beethoven, which similarly articulates a special kind of humanity by transcending the difficulties of life.

Art as social climbing.  Discuss.

It certainly worked for Bach.  (And Beethoven.)

Thursday January 14 2016

In a piece that I just linked back to, from this posting, about keeping up appearances, I wrote this:

What this ...

...this being “facadism” …

… tells you is that architectural modernism has utterly conquered indoors, but that out of doors, modernism is only popular because its totalitarian impulses have been held at bay, by what you might call ancientism.

But I realise now that this is not quite right.

The key point is not that modernism has triumphed indoors, but that indoors, we are not at its mercy.  We can decide about whether to keep it.  We control indoors, with furniture, wallpaper, carpets, etc.  If we want ancientism indoors, in the living room, say, or in the bedroom, we can unleash it at will, and there is not a damn thing that any interfering architect can do about it.  Therefore, we do not mind if indoors is totally modern, when we move in.  We can change it, just as much (or as little) as we want to.

Outdoors, however, we cannot just change things at will to suit our personal preferences.  Therefore, if a large number of us want some ancientism to go alongside all the newly arriving modernism, we have to bully the architects and planners into allowing it, or even into doing some more.  We did, and we did.

Modernism has definitely triumphed in the kitchen.  In the kitchen, a place which did not exist in its current and highly mechanised form in ancientist times, it makes such total sense to have smooth white rectangles everywhere.  Kitchen cupboards are for storing stuff, not for showing stuff off.  You want the cupboard and fridge doors to be a vertical note pads for stick-on notes, not sculptures.  You do not want your work work surfaces and wall areas and cupboard doors in the kitchen to be elaborately decorated like the outsides of ancientist buildings, or shaped like curved like car bonnets.  You want them flat, to do things on and put things on.

Above all, you want everything easily cleanable.  What if someone bangs into a saucepan and spreads slurpy food everywhere.  In the kitchen, you want clean, clear, white surfaces, like outdoor Modern Movement modernism.  You want horizontality and verticality, whiteness and cleanness, because you want convenience and cleanliness.  The kitchen is a machine for cooking in.

Here is a picture I took when I recently visited my brother’s new home.  It is a new home in more ways than one.  It is new for him, and it has just been built.  This is what the kitchen looks like:

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Okay, once again, zero points for artistic impression.  But look at what is being photoed.  The Bauhaus is stationary in its happy, plain white, rigidly rectangular modernistical grave.  This was what buildings were all going to look like.  They don’t, thank goodness.  But this is what most new kitchens now look like.

I wish I had also photoed the outside of the building where Pete lives.  This is rather kitchy and cutesy, not at all purely “modern”, although you can clearly tell that it’s recent.

As with the work done in kitchens, so for the work done in other places.  Modernism prevails wherever work is done, of the sort done by “workers”, work that involves doing stuff, to stuff.  (When the work involves creating appearances, setting a particular tone, all bets are off.) The world of work is the world in which modernism evolved.  When we want beauty and pleasure (and particular sorts of appearances or tones), modernism is just part of the mix.  It is kept in its place.

Monday January 11 2016

Today I was out and about in the grim greyness of Winter London, with only very occasional patches of blue in the sky.

Had I had only these three photos in their original versions to go on, I might eventually have pieced together that David Bowie had died:

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But I had already clocked this news from reading this posting at Mick Hartley’s.  Viewers who feel strongly that all commemorations of the recently deceased should be in good taste are urged not to click on the middle picture.  Whether the original you get by clicking is “what he would have wanted”, I do not know.  One thing I know for sure is that it is not what I wanted.  But it is what it is, and I had no other more suitable substitutes.

Later I took a more self-consciously commemorative photo to recognise Bowie’s death:

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I’m not sure that it makes perfect sense to wish that a dead rock star should “rest in peace”, though.  Surely at least the occasional burst of raucous rock and roll would also be in order.  But, they only meant to say the right thing, and if not that, then what?  I don’t know.

My personal feeling about Bowie, as with many rock and rollers, was that I paid very little attention indeed to the words as anything other than an excuse to make a satisfying musical racket.  Also costumes don’t impress me, for better or for worse.  I love the music of Abba, despite their preposterous outfits.  And I love the Bowie tracks that I love, regardless of what “persona” he happened to be adopting at the time.  It’s the backing that I love, and Bowie was really good at making this happen interestingly, I think.

What did “Suffragette City” mean?  I never bothered to find out and I probably never will, but I love the sound it makes.  “When You’re A Boy” made a bit more sense (to me), but it still came as a surprise (to me) when I saw a video of some women dancing along to it, who turned out all to be Bowie in drag.  What was that about?  Some sort of rumination on the socialised nature of sex-roles?  Just a tease, to get the newspapers to denounce it and do the publicity for free?  Probably the latter.  Bowie was a dab hand at that.

Friday January 08 2016

I’m still catching up with some of the things I did last summer, even though it is now next year.  My gaff my rules.  In particularly, I still have finished reporting on Richmond Park.

Richmond Park is the very picture of unthreatening sweetness and light, especially on the sort of day it was when me and GD2 paid our visit to it.  But, as regulars here will know, I like to photograph signs, and maps, so that I will know where I’ve been.

In Richmond Park, there are big maps of Richmond Park, like this one:

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This map is covered with the names of all the various places in Richmond Park.  Most of these names are quite nice, as you can see if you take a closer look (by clicking on it), at this closer-up view of the middle of the above map:

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Prince Charles’s Spinney, Thompson’s Pond, Sidmouth Wood, and Queen Elizabeth’s Plantation, they all sound nice enough, in keeping with the suburban niceness of the place.  Although, I suppose “plantation” might suggest slavery.

But some of these names speak of a different and grimmer past.  How about, to take a closer look at some of them, names like these:

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Suddenly, Richmond Park becomes more like the sort of landscape that brings to mind, say, Vincent Price’s chilling enactment of the Witchfinder General.

Names like those two suggest interpretations that are probably far worse than the truth, of names like these:

imageimageimage

Spankers are probably just people who chase deer so that the upper classes can kill them for sport.  A saw pit is probably just a pit where sawing (of tree trunks) was done.  And Peg’s Pond is probably just the pond which Peg owned, and fished in.  But, I couldn’t helping thinking that Peg’s Pond was really the pond where Vincent Price made poor Peg swim, thereby proving that she was a witch.  And then she got hanged in one of the two hanging locations named above.

And how about these two names:

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Bone Copse?  Killcat Corner? What on earth was that about?  Googling told me nothing, but that proves nothing.

Sunday December 27 2015

Here is another excerpt (pp. 217-219) from Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything, already plundered for this posting on Epicurus and Lucretius and for this posting on how genes follow culture:

Consider the reform of China’s economy that began under Dfen Xiapeng in 1978, leading to an economic flowering that raised half a billion people out of poverty. Plainly, Deng had a great impact on history and was in that sense a ‘Great Man’.  But if you examine closely what happened in China in 1978, it was a more evolutionary story than is usually assumed. It all began in the countryside, with the ‘privatisation’ of collective farms to allow individual ownership of land and of harvests.  But this change was not ordered from above by a reforming government.  It emerged from below. In the village of Xiaogang, a group of eighteen farmworkers who despaired at their dismal production under the collective system and their need to beg for food from other villages, gathered together secretly one evening to discuss what they could do.  Even to hold the meeting was a serious crime, let alone to breathe the scandalous ideas they came up with.

The first, brave man to speak was Yen Jingchang, who suggested that each family should own what it grew, and that they should divide the collective’s land among the families.  On a precious scrap of paper he wrote down a contract that they all signed.  He rolled it up and concealed it inside a bamboo tube in the rafters of the house.  The families went to work on the land, starting before the official’s whistle blew each morning and ending long after the day’s work was supposed to finish.  Incentivised by the knowledge that they could profit from their work, in the first year they grew more food than the land had produced in the previous five years combined.

The local party chief soon grew suspicious of all this work and this bountiful harvest, and sent for Yen, who faced imprisonment or worse. But during the interrogation the regional party chief intervened to save Yen, and recommended that the Xiaogang experiment be copied elsewhere.  This was the proposal that eventually reached Deng Xiaoping’s desk.  He chose not to stand in the way, that was all.  But it was not until 1982 that the party officially recognised that family farms could be allowed - by which time they were everywhere.  Farming was rapidly transformed by the incentives of private ownership; industry soon followed.  A less pragmatically Marxist version of Deng might have delayed the reform, but surely one day it would have come.