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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

Thursday May 26 2016

One of my regular automatic google-searches is “face recognition”, and just now this has been alerting me to all the various tricks that are coming on stream for making face recognition not work, by putting on make-up, or spectacles, and such like.

Here is my contribution to this discussion:

image

I know what you’re thinking.  Who might that be?

Exactly.  Although, if you’re are supercomputer, you have probably worked it out.  You have a special programme which tells you to take particular interest in any faces that are trying to not be recognised.

Most of my libertarian friends think that such tech solutions are the front line of this battle.  I have long assumed that the world is moving rapidly towards a state where the question of what is X doing at the moment is technologically answerable, and impossible to prevent being answered.  For me, among other desirable things, libertarianism is the claim that although we can see X saying or doing something we don’t approve of, we shouldn’t legally prevent him or her from doing that, unless it is really, really bad.

In a world of Total Surveillance by the Big Machine, the proliferation of stupid rules and regulations with no huge moral content becomes a problem like it never used to be.  I means rules about things like what you should eat or smoke or, now, say in conversation.  Rules like that mean that we can all now be seen and heard breaking such rules.  (Okay, maybe not now, maybe not yet, but that’s where things are headed.) And that means that anyone who wants to fuck up your life or my life (for an actual real reason that has bugger all to do with the stupid rule actually being broken) can then do it.  Worse, some legislative maniac might demand that anyone that the Big Machine sees breaking this or that rule that he personally is obsessed about, should be automatically fucked over, by the Big Machine, with no human intervention involved.  With a big long list of exceptions, like legislators.  The Big Machine can’t touch them.  Libertarianism has arisen, partly, because it has become ever more necessary to insist on certain principles, principles which were imposed upon the world in former times by sheer ignorance of what other people were getting up to.

The other thing people have to do is develop thicker skins, psychologically speaking I mean, because although legislative pressure is not now a problem for most people, social pressure can become a big problem, for example if you find yourself being mobbed on the internet for some innocuous thing you said or ate.  Just because a million idiots on the internet are screeching that you are an idiot, that doesn’t mean you are, or that if you are, it matters.  When it does matter, bosses should chill, and not fire people just because the mob is screeching.  I applaud, tentatively, the recent tendency to give social media mobsters a going-over, using the same methods on them that they have been using.  Who is this mad bitch?  What has she (it does often seem to be she) been up to lately?  What is her job?  Who is her boss?  Etc.  (In the age of cyber-bullying, I feel that I now understand witchcraft crazes better.)

Another problem is that as something easily mistaken for a state of everyone knowing everything increasingly pertains, that old illusion that everything will accordingly be centrally plannable is likely to keep rearing its very ugly head, and keep on having to be experienced as a disastrous illusion.  (More libertarianism.) The point is, everyone doesn’t know everything.  Nothing like.  We can’t.  Our heads aren’t big enough, and even if they were, knowledge is not like that.  Everyone can known anything in particular that is easy to know (like where X is just now) that they want to know and ask the Big Machine about.  That’s entirely different from actual omniscience.

Saturday May 21 2016

Pictures taken by me earlier this month:

imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimage

I keep telling myself to take notes during photo sessions like this, but I didn’t, and it took quite a bit of googling to work out where all this keeping up of appearances was.  But here it is:

image

It’s the big block in the red rectangle.  The big spread to its left as we look is Buckingham Palace.  Hence, I suppose, the Palace in Palace Street.

The former civil service block is being demolished, apart from its Grade II listed façade, and converted into 72 homes within yards of the perimeter wall of the palace grounds.

Then there’s a lot of sales babble, the gist of which is that if you have to ask you can’t afford it.  And then there’s this:

The building, designed by Chelsea Barracks architects Squire & Partners, will be completed in 2017 and reflect five architectural styles: 1860s Italianate Renaissance, 1880s French Renaissance, 1880s French Beaux Arts, 1890s Queen Anne, and contemporary.

Presumably “reflect” here means “preserve the outsides of buildings done in: ...”.

Or, it means “fake”.

Monday May 16 2016

Today I attended Deirdre McCloskey’s talk for the Adam Smith Institute.  I know what you’re thinking.  Okay, okay, photos, as per usual.  But: What did she say? Fine.  Go here, and you can find out.  What I can find no link to is any information about the event – when, where, and so on.  It’s all now gone.  Maybe it was never there in the first place.

But the Man from the Adam Smith Institute told me to send in some of my snaps, and these are the ones I sent them:

imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimage

McCloskey’s basic point was what is rapidly becoming the libertarian orthodoxy, to the effect that (a) the world started getting humungously rich in or around 1780 (Yaron Brook‘s preferred date for this is 1776 (to coincide with America starting and Smith’s Wealth of Nation’s getting published)), and (b) we did this.  Our enemies tried to stop us and they failed.  We know how to make poor people rich, and we’ve been doing it ever since.  Our enemies only know how to make rich people less rich and poor people more poor.  Bastards.

My recent favourite example of enrichment is a very tiny one offered at today’s talk by McCloskey, which is that you can now use your smartphone as a mirror.  Better yet, McCloskey said, before the talk she was giving, she spotted Steve Baker MP doing this exact thing with his smartphone, while perfecting his appearance prior to doing his MP socialising bit.

The reason I particularly like this is that I just recently learned about this trick myself, when I saw someone doing it, and took a photo of it:

If you photo someone looking in a mirror, they can see their face, but you can’t.  (Unless it’s a crap movie, in which case the audience sees the face and the person with the face doesn’t.  I know.  Ridiculous.  But this is truly what often happens.) But, if you photo someone using their smartphone as a mirror, both you and they can see their face.

Thus:

image

McCloskey’s point was that enrichment doesn’t only come in the form of more money, but also in the form of the ever more amazing things that you can buy with your money.  Like a phone that is also a NASA circa 1968 supercomputer.  And a face mirror.

Finally, here are a couple more photography-related photos.  On the left is the official photographer for the McCloskey talk:

imageimageimage

And on the right there is a photo which I also took at the venue for the McCloskey talk, which I will not name, because then the people in charge of this place might then learn of this blog posting and see this picture and then who the hell knows what might happen?  Are you wondering what I am talking about?  Click on the picture and work it out.  I only realised what I had photoed after I had got home.

Saturday May 14 2016

Today I attended the Libertarian Home Benevolent Laissez-Faire Conference.  Here is the text of the opening speech by conference organiser Simon Gibbs.  And here is a selection of the photos I took, of the event and of the speakers:

imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimage

Conference programme here.

1.1: An attender.  1.2: The venue, very good, with a big side window looking out to a small basement level garden.  1.3: Syed Kamall.  1.4 and 2.1: Janina Lowisz and one of her slides.  2.2, 2.3 and 2.4: Julio Alejandro.  3.1: Simon Gibbs and Yaron Brook.  3.2: Brook.  3.3: Kyril and Rob helping with the books.  3.4: LH info, lit up by the afternoon sun through the window.  4.1: Anton Howes.  4.2: Howes and Brook.  4.3 and 4.4: Gibbs, Alejandro, Howes, Brook.

Thursday May 05 2016

Postcards like this one, which I photoed this morning, in ... well, you can see where:

image

Why not just take my own photos?

Well, I do take my own photos, a ton of them, and many of them look extremely like the ones in this photo of a clutch of photos.  But what I learn from these picture postcard pictures is what in, in this case, the small historic town of Castelnou is considered by all the others who visit Castelnou to be most worthy of photographic attention.  I may agree.  I may disagree.  Either way, I consider this to be interesting information.

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:

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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:

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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:

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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 ...

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… 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:

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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:

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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.