Brian Micklethwait's Blog

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

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Category archive: History

Thursday September 29 2016

I like this photo, of Daniel Hannan, at the top of a Guardian piece about him, and about how he was and is “The man who brought you Brexit”:

image

I like this photo because it is exactly the sort of photo that I try to take of photoers myself.  A smartphone with interesting graphics, held over the eyes of the photoer (which of course often happens) to preserve anonymity.  Or it would if there were no other photos of Hannan in the world and no article underneath the photo, telling the world all about him.

While browsing through my archives recently, I came across those pictures I took of Brexiteer Kenny, doing his rehash of a Hannan piece in Trafalgar Square, with white chalk.  And what I discovered was that, to revise that Abba song, I never thought that we could win.  The pictures brought back the feeling I had when I took them, which was: gallant failure.  Brave effort.  Well done mate, going down fighting.  But, we won’t win.

I told myself that we might win, but mostly what I thought was that although the majority for Remain had slimmed down a bit over the years, it was still there.

As for the Brexit arguments now (quick versus careful), I am reading this guy.  He is for careful.  Every post he does says (a) that he is the cleverest person in the world and that everyone else is at best not so clever, and at worst stupid stupid stupid; and (b) something worthwhile, carefully and persuasively explicated.

I never thought that we could win, but just to be clear: there’s no regret.

Wednesday September 28 2016

Last year I posted three bits from Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything, here, here and here.

Earlier, in 2014, I posting another bit from a Matt Ridley book, this time from The Rational Optimist.  I entitled that posting Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science.

Here is another Matt Ridley book bit, on this same subject, of how technology leads science.  And it is also from The Evolution of Everything (pp. 135-137):

Technology comes from technology far more often than from science. And science comes from technology too. Of course, science may from time to time return the favour to technology. Biotechnology would not have been possible without the science of molecular biology, for example. But the Baconian model with its one-way flow from science to technology, from philosophy to practice, is nonsense. There’s a much stronger flow the other way: new technologies give academics things to study.

An example: in recent years it has become fashionable to argue that the hydraulic fracturing technology that made the shale-gas revolution possible originated in government-sponsored research, and was handed on a plate to industry. A report by California’s Breakthrough Institute noted that microseismic imaging was developed by the federal Sandia National Laboratory, and ‘proved absolutely essential for drillers to navigate and site their boreholes’, which led Nick Steinsberger, an engineer at Mitchell Energy, to develop the technique called ‘slickwater fracking’.

To find out if this was true, I spoke to one of hydraulic fracturing’s principal pioneers, Chris Wright, whose company Pinnacle Technologies reinvented fracking in the late 1990s in a way that unlocked the vast gas resources in the Barnett shale, in and around Forth Worth, Texas. Utilised by George Mitchell, who was pursuing a long and determined obsession with getting the gas to flow out of the Barnett shale to which he had rights, Pinnacle’s recipe - slick water rather than thick gel, under just the right pressure and with sand to prop open the fractures through multi-stage fracturing - proved revolutionary. It was seeing a presentation by Wright that persuaded Mitchell’s Steinsberger to try slickwater fracking. But where did Pinnacle get the idea? Wright had hired Norm Wapinski from Sandia, a federal laboratory. But who had funded Wapinksi to work on the project at Sandia? The Gas Research Institute, an entirely privately funded gas-industry research coalition, whose money came from a voluntary levy on interstate gas pipelines. So the only federal involvement was to provide a space in which to work. As Wright comments: ‘If I had not hired Norm from Sandia there would have been no government involvement.’ This was just the start. Fracking still took many years and huge sums of money to bring to fruition as a workable technology. Most of that was done by industry. Government laboratories beat a path to Wright’s door once he had begun to crack the problem, offering their services and their public money to his efforts to improve fracking still further, and to study just how fractures propagate in rocks a mile beneath the surface. They climbed on the bandwagon, and got some science to do as a result of the technology developed in industry - as they should. But government was not the wellspring.

As Adam Smith, looking around the factories of eighteenth-century Scotland, reported in The Wealth of Nations: ‘a great part of the machines made use in manufactures ... were originally the inventions of common workmen’, and many improvements had been made ‘by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines’. Smith dismissed universities even as a source of advances in philosophy. I am sorry to say this to my friends in academic ivory towers, whose work I greatly value, but if you think your cogitations are the source of most practical innovation, you are badly mistaken.

Saturday September 24 2016

I’m listening to chitchat on Radio Three about the origins of Radio Three’s previous and original manifestation, the Third Programme.

They’ve just mentioned an article by John Croft called Composition is not research.  I quickly found it on the www, and I want to hang on to it.

First paragraph:

There are, by and large, two kinds of composers in academia today – those who labour under the delusion that they are doing a kind of ‘research’, and those who recognise the absurdity of this idea, but who continue to supervise PhD students, make funding applications, and document their activities as if it were true. Composing, of course, might on occasion depend on research – how do I make an orchestra sound like a bell? How do I electronically sustain a note from an instrument so that it doesn’t sound mechanical? What is the best way to notate microtones or complex rhythms so that they can be accurately played? But none of these is actually the composition of music. Rameau’s harmonic theory was research, and it surely influenced his music (and music in general), but the Traité de l’harmonie is not a musical composition. The development of the pianoforte involved research and influenced music in profound ways, but it was not composing.

I have not read this essay yet.  But the point of this posting is not to say what I think of it, merely to make sure that I do read it.

I have long been interested in the rather misleading idea of musical “progress”.  This seems like it will be closely related to that idea.  Another related idea: music is not science, and new music does not replace old music.  But, I shall see.

Friday September 23 2016

The internet is fighting back against … cats!

Quote:

Cats are colonizers: this is what they do. They have colonized the internet just as they have colonized so many other habitats, always with the help of humans. This is the lesson of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, a new book by conservation scientist Peter P. Marra and travel writer Chris Santella. From remote islands in the Pacific to the marshes of Galveston Bay, Cat Wars traces the various ways in which felines have infiltrated new landscapes, inevitably sowing death and devastation wherever they go.

Perhaps the most famous case of genocide-by-cat is that of the remote Stephens Island in New Zealand. Before the end of the 19th century, it was home to a unique species: the Stephens Island wren. One of only a few species of flightless songbirds, the wren ran low to the ground, looking more like a mouse than a bird. After a lighthouse was built on the island in 1894, a small human settlement was established; and with humans, invariably, come pets. At some point a pregnant cat, brought over from the mainland, escaped and roamed wild. The island’s wrens, unused to facing such a skillful predator, were no match for the feral cats that spread throughout the island. Within a year, the Stephens Island wren was extinct. It would take another 30 years to eradicate the feral cats.

This is not an isolated incident. Cats have contributed to species decline and habitat reduction in dozens of other cases. Because they’re so cute and beloved, we have little conception of — and little incentive to find out — how much damage cats are doing to our environment. When researcher Scott Loss tallied up the number of animals killed by North American housecats in a single year, the results were absolutely staggering: between 6.3 and 22.3 billion mammals, between 1.3 and 4 billion birds, between 95 and 299 million amphibians, and between 258 and 822 million reptiles.

Most books that get multiple reviews on Amazon get around four stars out of five, on average, because most of the reviews are from admirers and there are just a few from detractors.  This book gets a star average of one and a bit.

I collect footbridges.  (Well, photos of.) Footbridges famous.  Footbridges not so famous.  Footbridges not even built.

Recently I came upon another for the collection:

image

This is a footbridge at the back of the Strand Palace Hotel.  I could find nothing about this footbridge on the www, but luckily I had already taken the precaution of asking someone local, just after I had taken my photos.  This local was entering an office in the same street with the air of doing this regularly, and who therefore seemed like someone who might know.  And he did.  What about that bridge? - I asked him.

Yes, he said.  That used to be the bridge that conveyed the servants from the Strand Palace Hotel, on the left in the above photo, to the servants quarters, which is what the dwellings on the right in my photo, behind the scaffolding, used to be.  These servants quarters had, quite a while back, been turned into mere quarters, for regular people to live in.  So, the bridge then got blocked off at the right hand end as we here look at it.  But, the bridge continued to be used by the Strand Palace Hotel as an elongated cupboard.  These old servants quarters are now being turned into luxury flats, which is why the scaffolding.  But the bridge stays.

That the original purpose of the bridge was to convey servants, as opposed to people, is presumably why the bridge has no windows.  Wouldn’t want to see servants going to and fro, would we.  Fair dos, actually.  A hotel of this sort – this one being just across the Strand from the Savoy - is a lot like a theatre, and the point of a theatre is not to see all the backstage staff wandering hither and thither.  So, I do get it.  And I doubt the servants minded that there were no windows.  I bet they minded lots of other things, but not that.

imageI will now expand on the matter of the exact location of this obscure footbridge.  As you can see from the square to the right, it is in Exeter Street, London WC2.  I took other photos of this Exeter Street street sign, because I have a rule about photoing information about interesting things that I photo, as well as photoing the interesting thing itself, which is that I do.  Sometimes, as on the day I took this photo, I even follow this rule.  But I thought I’d try extricating a detail from the above photo, and see how I did.  I blew the original up to maximum size, and sliced out a rectangle, tall and thin, with the street name in it.  I then expanded (see the first sentence of this paragraph) what I had, sideways, lightened it, contrasted it, sharpened it, blah blah blah, and I think you will agree that the result is unambiguous.  My point here is (a): Exeter Street, WC2, and (b): that such photomanipulation is not merely now possible.  My point (b) is that it is now very easy.  Even I can do all of this photomanipulation, really quickly and confidently.

I can remember when the only people who could work this sort of magic were spooks in movies, and then a bit later, detectives on the television.

Talking of spookiness, I included the surveillance camera in that little detail.  In London, these things are now everywhere.  Because of my sideways expanding of the photo, this camera looks like it sticks out more than it really does.

Wednesday September 21 2016

The directory with all the snaps I took in Quimper and surrounding places, ten years ago, contains some fine images.

And some rather weird ones:

image

Okay, Citroens made of wood is not that weird.  Certainly not in France.

But those really rather realistic black baby dolls is something we surely don’t do nearly so much over here.  I’m guessing we have too much of a history of what you might call derogatory black dolls, unrealistically racist dolls, and that means that all black dolls are now tainted in our eyes, even much more realistic ones like the ones in that picture.  They evoke a tradition and a way of thinking we would prefer not to be reminded of, or worse, to be thought to be perpetuating.  When the British are being sentimental about black babies, they do it in those (I think) ghastly charity fundraising telly adverts.

But what do I know?  I’m just thinking aloud.  Maybe we do have lots of dolls like these in British shop windows, and I merely haven’t noticed them.  But, my first reaction when I say these black babies was, as I say: weird.  Certainly striking enough to take several photos of.

Wednesday September 14 2016

This I knew:

Seven Dials is a small road junction in Covent Garden in the West End of London where seven streets converge.

But this, I did not know:

At the centre of the roughly circular space is a column bearing six sundials, a result of the column being commissioned before a late stage alteration of the plans from an original six roads to seven.

I used to work in Covent Garden and Seven Dials was a favourite spot then.  There was a hardware shop in one of the Seven Dials spokes, so to speak, and I used to go there a lot.

Here is a picture I took of this column and of some of its surroundings, this (very sunny) afternoon:

image

But, here is a picture I took of the inscription at the bottom of the column, which I never noticed before:

image

So, was a replacement column put up, around that time?

Yes.  The original column went to Weybridge, via Addlestone, which reminds me of trains from Egham when I was kid.  “Virginia Water, Chertsey, AddleSTONE and Weybridge”, an old man used to yell, just before the train for these locations departed.  I used to love that.  But I digress.  Here’s what happened to the original Seven Dials column:

The original sundial column was removed in 1773. It was long believed that it had been pulled down by an angry mob, but recent research suggests it was deliberately removed by the Paving Commissioners in an attempt to rid the area of “undesirables”. The remains were acquired by architect James Paine, who kept them at his house in Addlestone, Surrey, from where they were bought in 1820 by public subscription and re-erected in nearby Weybridge as a memorial to Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia, Duchess of York and Albany.

The replacement sundial column was installed in 1988–89 to the original design. It was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands on a visit to commemorate the tercentenary of the reign of William and Mary, during which the area was developed.

Original design presumably means that, just like the original, the new column only has six dials at the top.

Tuesday September 06 2016

In recent days and weeks I have been in the habit of showing photos here that were taken quite a while ago, sometimes even as long as nearly a decade ago, or even longer ago than that.

No apologies for such retrospection, because it can often be very interesting.  But today, I wanted to show a photo that I took today, and I wanted to do this even before I set off to take it, whatever it was.

However, today was grim and gloomy, a bad light stopped play day, not one for bright colours or grand vistas.

But perhaps a rather good day for this, which I had never noticed before:

image

I like the idea of public signs, offering little history lessons to passers-by.  (I recall noting that the French do this a lot with their street name signs, in a blog posting, once upon a time, somewhere.  Yes, in this.)

I also like those blue circles which say that someone interesting once lived here.  I try to photo those whenever I see them.  But, I hope you will agree that the above photo deserves to be on its own, rather than being, so to speak, diluted.

Monday September 05 2016

Yesterday evening, London burned, and people lined the river to watch:

image

That being a horizontal slice of one of the pictures here.  A big wooden sculpture based on the London that was destroyed first time around was put on a barge, floated into central London, and burned.

The work of Artichoke.

Saturday September 03 2016

One of the reasons I have such a pathologically enormous CD collection is that I fear the power that music holds over me.  I fear being in the position of wanting to hear something, but not being able to.

This morning, on Radio 3, they played a piece of piano music which I liked a lot, both the piece itself and the playing, but did not recognise.  I thought it was perhaps Mozart, played by Brendel, maybe.  It turned out to be Haydn, played by Pletnev.  I just dug around on the www, and here is Pletnev playing that same piece.  Whether that’s the exact same performance I don’t know, but it is playing right now and it sounds pretty good to me.  The piece is snappily entitled: “Variations in F minor”.  Until now, this was not a piece I had paid any attention to.

But I hit the age of musical addiction combined with the money to feed the habit long before there was any www.  For me, having music at my command doesn’t mean knowing about a link.  It means possessing a shiny plastic circle, in a square plastic case.  So, as soon as I had set the radio to record CD Review, as is my Saturday morning habit, I searched through my CD collection (subsection: Haydn), for that Pletnev performance.  No show.  But Amazon informed me that there is a Pletnev Haydn double album with Haydn piano concertos on disc one and Haydn solo piano music on disc two.  I looked again, in the Haydn subsection (sub-subsection: piano concertos).  Success.  I possess the exact same performance thad was played on the radion this morning.  So now, this music doesn’t control me.  I control it.

The question of who is in charge of music and music-making is actually a big deal, historically.  Beethoven’s career, and then later Wagner’s career, were all about Beethoven, and Wagner, being in charge of their music and of their music-making, rather than their patrons or their audiences.  You can tell this from just listening to their music.  Haydn, on the other hand, predated that era, and was dependent upon aristocratic patronage, and this shows in his music.  He would probably not enjoy reading this blog posting, by this annoying and undeserving control freak from out of the future.  But he would not have made a fuss.  Or such is my understanding of his character.

Or, he might have rejoiced that he could have made recordings of his music, in circumstances completely within his control, and that I could then listen to them in circumstances completely within my control.  For me, this is the best of both worlds, and it would be nice to think that it might have suited him also.

Tuesday August 16 2016

I continue to hoover up White Van pictures whenever an interesting one presents itself.  And this one, that I encountered yesterday evening in Victoria Street, is surely a classic of the genre:

image

What I enjoy so much about this van is how this enterprise clearly started out in a state of in-your-face honesty.  Yeah, we do lavs.  Our boss is Dave.  Workplaces need lavs.  You got a problem with that?  Everyone needs to piss and/or shit every now and again.

But then, as business expanded, the euphemisms crept in.  Changing the website was too complicated, but the surrounding verbiage got more polite and decorous.  That’s my take, anyway.  Have you ever seen the word “welfare” used like that?  I haven’t.  “Welfare Vans” sounds a bit like something laid on by the Japanese Army during the war, providing you-know-what to the soldiery, and for which they still refuse to apologise to the women thus made use of.

Go to www.davlav.com and it’s all explained:

These self-contained welfare vans offer independent diesel heating, washing, toilet and kitchen/eating facilities. Also included are auxiliary power microwave, hand wash and water boiler. Our welfare vehicles offer superior standards and are completely mobile, providing staff with all the facilities required by current employment law. All parts comply with the new legislation for Whole Vehicle Type Approval.

I might have guessed there’d be government regulations involved.

Thursday July 28 2016

As I said yesterday, much socialising this week.  Another do tonight, and yesterday, another visit with Darren to the Oval.

One of the advantages of my White Van fetish is that whenever I am waiting to meet someone in London, I can pass the time by photoing White Vans, of which there are invariably some and often many.  So, while I waited to meet Darren, I photoed White Vans, and also a couple of not-so-White ones.

Before elaborating on the vans let me be clear that Darren was not late.  He was spot on time.  I was early.  The trip to the Oval is not a totally familiar one for me, so I made sure I was not late by being early.  Hence these vans.

Pride of place goes to the first van, light green in colour, decorated with the regalia of the Surrey County Cricket Club.  I spotted this vehicle as I was making my way towards the Hobbs Gate, where we were due to meet.  It was parked under one of the Oval’s huge stands.  All the other vans were photoed outside the aforementioned Gate.

By the way, I love what I found when I followed the above link, to the Cricinfo Hobbs profile:

Jack Hobbs was cricket’s most prolific batsman. He finished with 61,237 first-class runs and 197 centuries, most of them stylishly made from the top of the Surrey or England batting orders. And he might have scored many more had the Great War not intervened, or if he hadn’t been inclined to get out shortly after reaching 100 to let someone else have a go.

Anyway, here are the vans:

imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimage

1.1: The Surrey CCC van, as related above.

1.2: The first of two snaps with a bike angle.  But, bicycle recovery? This van is for collecting bikes to mend, but not, alas, for recovering bikes that have been stolen.  The bits where it says “We fix bikes” have, for me, an air of clarificatory honesty about them.  Like they were added to lower falsely aroused expectations of daring do against the criminal classes.

1.3: This one I especially like, because I like White Vans and I like signs (by which I mean: I like to notice them).  And here is an example of the former devoted to the latter.  Note in particular: “Health & Safety Signage”.  A big growth area in recent years.

2.1: I think this is my favourite one, of these.  Usually, what I like about the White Vans I photo is the profusion of information that they supply.  But in this case it’s the lack of information that made me smile.  VOITH?  Like: Everyone knows what VOITH is!  But not me.  Turns out it’s an enterprise that makes stuff for cars.  When it says it “builds its partnership with Vauxhall”, this doesn’t mean with Vauxhall the place (which is very near to where I was standing when I took the photo), but rather with Vauxhall the car making enterprise.

2.2: A black van, devoted to cleaning.  Very wise.  One of the problems with White Vans is how dirty they can look, if only slightly dirty.  And if you are a cleaning enterprise – and especially if you are a fantastic cleaning enterprise - you don’t want your vans looking dirty.

2.3: More bike involvement, this time in the form of a Deliveroo biker upstaging a van devoted to motorbikes.  Luckily, I also like to photo Deliveroo bikers.  (See 2.4 here.)

That’s enough vans.

Wednesday July 27 2016

Savour this Dezeen headline:

Le Corbusier’s colourful Cité Frugès workers’ housing now hosts fashionable apartments

I could write a long essay about that headline, and still not have extricated all the irony and nuance and cultural understanding and misunderstanding, history of failure, history of success, wrapped up in it.  Maybe I will.

A central observation in such an essay, should it ever materialise, will be that Modernism now works.  Those “machines for living in” that we were promised all those years ago did not work when they were first built, hence the unwillingness of normal people to inhabit these malfunctioning machines.  But, now the Modernist machines do work.  Architects have spent decades learning how to make “functional” architecture actually function, and now, on the whole, it does.

Thus, buildings which poor people used to run a mile from are now desirable dwellings, and rich people compete to purchase them.

Tuesday July 26 2016

I love before and after pictures.  Here is another, showing how the world looked before Blackfriars Bridge Railway Station was built (photo taken in 2004), and after it was built (photo taken a few weeks ago).

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What the two pictures have in common in those ghostly red columns, left over from an earlier Blackfriars railway bridge.

I seem to recall once upon a time speculating that the ugly lump next to the Shard made the Shard possible.Yes:

The Ugly Lump with the gasometer in front of it, on the right, is Guy’s Hospital.  The other day I heard myself surmising that maybe if Guy’s Hospital had never been built, the Shard might not have been built either.  As it was, there was no nearby neighbourhood or particular bit of the London skyline to ruin, aesthetically speaking, because that job had already been done by Guy’s.  As it was, any aesthetical objection to the Shard was, as far as the immediate locals were concerned, a non-starter.

I still think that’s right.  And what I now wonder is: did something similar happen with the new Blackfriars Station, the one on the bridge, that you can see in the right hand picture above, but not in the left had one?  What I’m thinking is that the view that you see on the left, looking over Blackfriars railway bridge to the towers of the City is perhaps not a view that London’s rulers were especially proud of, what with those columns.  Personally, I love the columns.  For me, they are classic London at its weirdest and most eccentric.  But you can imagine Powerful People being a bit uneasy about this oddity, and about the fact that Something Should Have Been Done About Them, by, you know, them.  So, a railways station which spoilt this view, while not doing too much violence to views across the top of the bridge from further away, might not have been unwelcome.  Without the columns, however, there was a view that they might not have been so ready to see interrupted.

This is just a speculation, just a thought, just a suggestion.  I’m sure lots of other thinking besides that sort of thinking went into the building of this weird and eccentric railway station.  (I added the word “more” to my title after first posting this.) But, I think there might be something to this.

Perhaps those Powerful People also hoped that something new and more constructive might be done with the columns, what with the new railway station being built.  Maybe such a use was even promised, but later abandoned, for some reasons or other.

LATER: Actually, what I am now realising is that there used to be three disembodied rows of red columns, but that the right hand row as we look got swallowed up in a widened version of the original bridge.  My pictures show this rather well, which is why I finally noticed.

Saturday July 23 2016

This is a map showing my officially designated destination last Tuesday (the hottest day of the year (so far)).  Across the bottom we see the railway going from past Waterloo main station to Waterloo East, in the middle towards the bottom, horizontally:

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And just north of Waterloo East station is Roupell Street, in the middle of all those back-to-back houses, that I photoed in 2004 and then again last Tuesday (the hottest day of the year (so far)):

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Here we are at the Cornwall Road end of Roupell Street, looking east.  Lots of blue sky.  No clouds.  No clouds anywhere, actually.

I suspected gentrification, and the place did indeed have an air of rocketing house prices and of the banishment of old-fashioned workers, of the sort who presumably, once upon a time, lived in these houses.

In particular, I spotted three interesting vehicles.

First, a Citroen DS19 (I think 19):

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So far so (relatively) ordinary.

But this was a bit more exotic, also a Citroen, something called (I also photoed where it said this) an “SM”:

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And perhaps best of all, another vintage Citroen, in the form of an estate car version of the DS19:

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Click on the above three pictures to get to the uncropped and even more sun-drenched originals.

All of these Citroens were parked within the space of about two dozen yards of each other, the first two right next to each other.  I reckon what we have here is a collector of antique Citroens.  And if that isn’t gentrification, je ne sais quoi what is.