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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

Friday January 30 2015

Busy day getting ready for a Friday evening meeting, then having a Friday evening meeting.  Now knackered.  Therefore another quota photo.  But it is at least one of mine:

image

As you can see, it’s another snap taken at that Charlie Hebdo demo in Trafalgar Square.  What I like is the stoical dignity of the statue, surrounded by the demo which is completely not interested in the statue, and is something very different.  I am not blaming anybody for anything, or comparing anyone to anyone else’s advantage or disadvantage.  I just like the effect.

I didn’t make any use of this picture at the time, because what on earth would it illustrate that I wanted to say then?  Nothing.  It’s just a picture.  And one that I happen to like.

More about Cunningham here.

Tuesday January 27 2015

Lexington Green, here:

What if … ?

What would a history of the British Empire look like if it did not use the “rise and fall” metaphor?

What would that history look like if it examined not just the political framework or just the superficial gilt and glitter, or just the cruelty and crimes, but the deeper and more enduring substance?

What if someone wrote a history of the impact of the English speaking people and their institutions (political, financial, professional, commercial, military, technical, scientific, cultural), and the infinitely complex web of interconnections between them, as a continuous and unbroken story, with a past a present … and a future?

In other words, what if we were to read a history that did not see a rising British Empire followed by a falling Empire, then a rising American Empire which displaced it, but an organism which has taken on many forms over many centuries, and on many continents, but is nonetheless a single life?

What if we assume that the British Empire was not something that ended, but that the Anglosphere, of which the Empire was one expression, is something that has never stopped growing and evolving, and taking on new institutional forms?

What if it looked at the unremitting advance, the pitiless onslaught, universal insinuation, of the English speakers on the rest of the world, seizing big chunks of it (North America, Australia), sloshing up into many parts of it and receding again (India, Nigeria, Malaya), carving permanent marks in the cultural landscape they left behind, all the while getting wealthier and more powerful and pushing the frontiers of science and technology and all the other forms of material progress?

What if jet travel and the Internet have at last conquered the tyranny of distance which the Empire Federationists of a century ago dreamed that steam and telegraph cables would conquer? What if they were just a century too early?

What if linguistic and cultural commonalities are more important than mere geographical location in creating political unity in this newly shrunken world?

I recall musing along the same kind of lines myself, a while back.

The important thing is, this mustn’t be advertised first as a plan.  If that happens, then all the people who are against the Anglosphere, and who prefer places like Spain and Venezuela and Cuba and Hell, will use their ownership of the Mainstream Media to Put A Stop to the plan.  What needs to happen is for us to just do it, and then after about two decades of us having just done it, they’ll realise that it is a fate (as the Hellists will describe it) accompli.

Because, guess what, we probably are already doing it.

Friday January 16 2015

Here:

Sadly Jacob Rees-Mogg is not taking part, his cat wasn’t feline up to it. The big pussy. ...

Etcatera, etcatera.

Guido keeps going on about the Guidoisation of politics.  But he, it would appear, is on the receiving end of the ever rising tide of internet cat references.

imageMeanwhile, another outing here for the only cat reference I saw at the Charlie Hebdo demo in Trafalgar Square last Sunday.

Guido has of course been all over that story.

I’ve just been listening to Christopher Hitchens reading out what is apparently one of the chapters of his book God Is Not Great, and there is a cat reference in that also. Although down on dogs, it seems that the Muslims have tended, historically, to be nicer to cats than the Christians, because Christians have been in the habit of associating cats with the Devil.

Good grief!  More Guido moggy-blogging.

Thursday January 15 2015

Here’s a nice coincidence.  There I was writing about how I went from being, in my teens, a bad pen-and-ink picture-maker to, from around 2000 onwards, a far happier digital-photographic picture maker.  And here is a picture that captures that kind of metamorphosis perfectly:

image

It’s one of these pictures by Christoph Niemann.  Niemann’s pictures bring to mind that phrase used by one of the alter egos of Barry Humphries, Barry McKenzie, who described paintings as “hand done photos”.  These pictures really do only work as photos.  Until they are photoed, the job is not done.  But the hand-done bit is essential to what they are.

One thing about these pictures that I particularly like, apart from the basic fact that I like them, is their very favourable effort-to-impact ratio.  For my taste, too much of the picture-making displayed at Colossal consists of stuff that is quite nice to look at, but which took an absurdly huge amount of time and effort to contrive.  Also, there is often no logical or even meaningful connection between how the pictures are contrived and how they end up looking.  So, you’ve made a table cloth out of seeds.  Clever you.  But, why?  Niemann’s pictures answer this question perfectly.

But then again, the internet being the internet, if your elaborately pointless pictures catch people’s fancy and thousands glance at them, then I guess that, if you put in a lot of time and effort, you may well reckon than all the time and effort was worth it, especially if you had fun spending it and doing it.  And of course it is digital photography that transforms a laboriously produced one-off item of visual art that took far too much time and effort to do, into a mass experience that it made sense to spend a lot of time and effort doing.  But, most of these intricate sculptures and pictures at Colossal are just sculptures and pictures that were then photographed.  Niemann’s pictures are real Hand Done Photos.

As for me, between being a bad pen-and-ink picture maker and an okay-to-good digital photographer, I endured a big interval during which I made hardly any pictures of any kind.  My pictorial enthusiasm expressed itself in the design of pamphlets, and graphic design generally.  Basically I became a desktop publisher.  (I even earned money doing this.) First I just did publishing, on a desktop, paper-scissors-glue-photocopier.  Then computers arrived, and I was an early adopter of “desktop publishing”.  Then the internet arrived, and drew a big line under all that stuff.  I shovelled all my pamphlets onto the internet, and became a blogger.  And, I bought my first digital camera.  At first, blogging and digital photography did not mix very well.  Now, they mix very well indeed.

Tuesday January 13 2015

From time to time I go looking for pictures of bridges, preferably new ones, but seldom find anything I don’t know about.  And then, quite by chance, while clicking through these old photos, I chance upon this:

image

It’s the Golden Gate, being built, in 1937.

I recall doing a pen-an-ink type sketch (as opposed to something theatrical like a comedy sketch – odd double meaning that), when in my teens, of the Severn Road Bridge, when it only had a chunk of road in the middle, suspended in glorious isolation, going nowhere in either direction (like in the photo here).  This photo reminds me of those times.

I never actually drew any decent pictures, but I did spend a lot of time thinking about composition, by which I mean that I chose quite good pictures to do, but actually did them very badly.  Now I take good pictures, rather less badly.  How I wish there had been digital cameras when I was a teenager.  My cycling expeditions around France, and then Scandinavia, and then Iceland, would have been far more fun, and now far easier to remember.  The old cameras, with “film” in them, were ridiculous.  You had to “develop” all the damn pictures, very expensively, just to find out that about three of them weren’t total crap.  But you tell young people this nowadays they think you’re mad.  And if you did all this, guess what, you were mad.

I have never shared the contempt that most people show - or pretend to show - for Adolf Hitler’s paintings.  Okay, so they aren’t Rembrandts, but even so, I would have loved to have been as good hand-done picture-making as he was.  Could it be that people just can’t bear to accept that he ever did anything well or anything good?  Just a wild guess.

Wednesday January 07 2015

The world is very full of ugly modern buildings, which would be greatly improved, I think, by a dash of colour.  Accordingly, I am always on the lookout for brightly coloured modern buildings, either because they have been coloured much later, or because they were like that to start with.  See also this posting, about white architectural modernism is so black and white..

So, I like this, in Tokyo:

image

Details here.

There are street wires to be seen, but not very many, and in only one of the photos.

Tuesday January 06 2015

Spent the day writing half a talk about sport as a replacement for war, for Christian Michel.  But, on the night (i.e. tonight), I just winged it.  One of the better talks I’ve ever given, which admittedly isn’t saying much.  And one of the most shambolically prepared.  Now knackered and watching the Wildcard Playoff Highlights on C4.  More considered content should follow, Real Soon Now.

Monday January 05 2015

My thanks to Tony, for his and his family’s hospitality during the last week and more, and for this photo, which he took in Quimper recently, and kindly emailed to me a few days ago.  I couldn’t then pay attention to it, but it was waiting for me when I got home:

image

What this shows is how Quimper Cathedral looked before they put two big(ger) spikes on the top of it, in the nineteenth century, thus making it look how it looks now.

I can find nothing about this transformation on the internet, let alone any repro of this actual map.  Odd.  Odd, that is, unless it is all there and I merely couldn’t find it.  That would not be odd at all.

Sunday December 14 2014

A moment ago I had a twenty first century moment.  I thought: Wouldn’t it be great to have a keyboard on the top of your thighs, embedded in the front of the top of the legs of your trousers.  You could then type wherever, perhaps combined with a pair of those google glasses that you also wear perpetually.  And it could all add up to a mega-computer if combined with a big cycle helmet full of electro-magic.

The point being that typing is never going to go away.  The QWERTY keyboard is permanently with us, I think.

So, what about that top-of-your-trousers keyboard?  Time was when a thought is all that such a thought could ever be.  But now, no sooner is the thought thought than it is googled:

image

Brilliant.  It’s not market-ready yet, but they’re working on it.

Gotta love that Golden Age.

Although, great though the basic idea is, I can’t help feeling that (a) washing and/or cleaning might be an issue, and (b) the keyboard needs to be separable from the trousers by some means.  Maybe just strapped on, or something.  What if the keyboard malfunctions?  Do you then have to chuck away the jeans?  What if the jeans catch on fire?  Is the mere keyboard then any use?  Problems problems.  This, after all, is why keyboards originally separated themselves from personal computers.

But like I say, the basic idea is a very good start.

Maybe in the longer run, the future of the mobile keyboard is that your Goggle Spex will project a keyboard onto a nearby surface (and then keep that keyboard still even when you move your head around), which it will then observe your fingers typing on.

But basically we are talking about the next iteration of the personal computer.  First, big old box in the office.  Second, big old luggable/portable “laptop”.  Third, little toy in your pocket that you can peck at.  And now fourth, this.  A real computer than you can wear all the time and type into whenever, wherever, within less than a second of whatever you want to type occurring to you.  Had I been on a train when I had this notion, I could not then have done this blog posting.  That is what needs to change, much more conveniently than it has so far changed.

Saturday December 13 2014

Back when I took these two pictures (September 15th 2007), this was the camera that most impressed me, because its screen was so big:

image

Now, it is this camera that impresses me most, because its screen is so small:

image

More and more postings here, I predict, are going to be of pictures I took a while back.

Friday December 12 2014

I just chanced upon this list of London’s twenty tallest buildings.  What I particularly like about this list is that it includes date of construction.

No less that sixteen of these tall buildings were built during this century.  The other four are: One Canada Square (the pointy Docklands one), “Tower 42” (aka the Natwest Building), the “South Bank Tower”, and the Guy’s Tower (aka the ugly little monster now dwarfed by and right next to the Shard).  Those are all twentieth century.  All the rest are twenty first century.

That last one, the Guy’s Tower was, when first perpetrated, the tallest building in London.  I did not know this.  Now it holds the number eighteen spot.

image

That’s a picture I took of the middle of the Shard and of the top of Guy’s Tower from Blackfriars Station (the one on the bridge) when both that station and the Shard were still being constructed, in 2012.  I chose that picture because in it, the Guy’s Tower looks particularly ugly and bedraggled and stained and horrible.

I recently speculated that the Guy’s Tower might have made the Shard possible, by destroying all concerns about aesthetic suitability in its area.  Now I am starting to suspect that it may have had an even more profound effect, on the whole of London.  I mean, if that horrid Thing is the tallest Thing London has, then the sooner we build lots of other taller Things the better.  That’s what I would have been thinking in the seventies, if I had been thinking about London Things at all at that time.

What I am saying, to spell it out, is that if that Guy’s Tower had not been built at all, then the subsequent architectural history of London might have been very different, and far less interesting.

Wednesday December 10 2014

Nothing, apart from this, here, today, but I did manage a posting at Samizdata entitled Anton Howes on the Golden Age that never stopped.

I say nothing, but here is a picture I took of someone in a woolly hat taking a picture at Piccadilly Circus:

image

Gotta love that Golden Age we’re living in.

Tuesday December 09 2014

Another Bit from a Book, and once again I accompany it with a warning that this Bit could vanish at any moment, for the reasons described in this earlier posting.

This particular Bit is from The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (pp. 255-258):

Much as I love science for its own sake, I find it hard to argue that discovery necessarily precedes invention and that most new practical applications flow from the minting of esoteric insights by natural philosophers. Francis Bacon was the first to make the case that inventors are applying the work of discoverers, and that science is the father of invention. As the scientist Terence Kealey has observed, modern politicians are in thrall to Bacon.  They believe that the recipe for making new ideas is easy: pour public money into science, which is a public good, because nobody will pay for the generation of ideas if the taxpayer does not, and watch new technologies emerge from the downstream end of the pipe. Trouble is, there are two false premises here: first, science is much more like the daughter than the mother of technology; and second, it does not follow that only the taxpayer will pay for ideas in science.

It used to be popular to argue that the European scientific revolution of the seventeenth century unleashed the rational curiosity of the educated classes, whose theories were then applied in the form of new technologies, which in turn allowed standards of living to rise. China, on this theory, somehow lacked this leap to scientific curiosity and philosophical discipline, so it failed to build on its technological lead. But history shows that this is back-to-front. Few of the inventions that made the industrial revolution owed anything to scientific theory.

It is, of course, true that England had a scientific revolution in the late 1600s, personified in people like Harvey, Hooke and Halley, not to mention Boyle, Petty and Newton, but their influence on what happened in England’s manufacturing industry in the following century was negligible. Newton had more influence on Voltaire than he did on James Hargreaves. The industry that was transformed first and most, cotton spinning and weaving, was of little interest to scientists and vice versa. The jennies, gins, frames, mules and looms that revolutionised the working of cotton were invented by tinkering businessmen, not thinking boffins: by ‘hard heads and clever fingers’. It has been said that nothing in their designs would have puzzled Archimedes.

Likewise, of the four men who made the biggest advances in the steam engine - Thomas Newcomen, James Watt, Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson - three were utterly ignorant of scientific theories, and historians disagree about whether the fourth, Watt, derived any influence from theory at all. It was they who made possible the theories of the vacuum and the laws of thermodynamics, not vice versa. Denis Papin, their French-born forerunner, was a scientist, but he got his insights from building an engine rather than the other way round. Heroic efforts by eighteenth-century scientists to prove that Newcomen got his chief insights from Papin’s theories proved wholly unsuccessful.

Throughout the industrial revolution, scientists were the beneficiaries of new technology, much more than they were the benefactors. Even at the famous Lunar Society, where the industrial entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood liked to rub shoulders with natural philosophers like Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley, he got his best idea - the ‘rose-turning’ lathe - from a fellow factory owner, Matthew Boulton. And although Benjamin Franklin’s fertile mind generated many inventions based on principles, from lightning rods to bifocal spectacles, none led to the founding of industries.

So top-down science played little part in the early years of the industrial revolution. In any case, English scientific virtuosity dries up at the key moment. Can you name a single great English scientific discovery of the first half of the eighteenth century? It was an especially barren time for natural philosophers, even in Britain. No, the industrial revolution was not sparked by some deus ex machina of scientific inspiration. Later science did contribute to the gathering pace of invention and the line between discovery and invention became increasingly blurred as the nineteenth century wore on. Thus only when the principles of electrical transmission were understood could the telegraph be perfected; once coal miners understood the succession of geological strata, they knew better where to sink new mines; once benzene’s ring structure was known, manufacturers could design dyes rather than serendipitously stumble on them. And so on. But even most of this was, in Joel Mokyr’s words, ‘a semi-directed, groping, bumbling process of trial and error by clever, dexterous professionals with a vague but gradually clearer notion of the processes at work’. It is a stretch to call most of this science, however. It is what happens today in the garages and cafes of Silicon Valley, but not in the labs of Stanford University.

The twentieth century, too, is replete with technologies that owe just as little to philosophy and to universities as the cotton industry did: flight, solid-state electronics, software. To which scientist would you give credit for the mobile telephone or the search engine or the blog? In a lecture on serendipity in 2007, the Cambridge physicist Sir Richard Friend, citing the example of high-temperature superconductivity - which was stumbled upon in the 1980s and explained afterwards - admitted that even today scientists’ job is really to come along and explain the empirical findings of technological tinkerers after they have discovered something.

The inescapable fact is that most technological change comes from attempts to improve existing technology. It happens on the shop floor among apprentices and mechanicals, or in the workplace among the users of computer programs, and only rarely as a result of the application and transfer of knowledge from the ivory towers of the intelligentsia. This is not to condemn science as useless. The seventeenth-century discoveries of gravity and the circulation of the blood were splendid additions to the sum of human knowledge. But they did less to raise standards of living than the cotton gin and the steam engine. And even the later stages of the industrial revolution are replete with examples of technologies that were developed in remarkable ignorance of why they worked. This was especially true in the biological world. Aspirin was curing headaches for more than a century before anybody had the faintest idea of how. Penicillin’s ability to kill bacteria was finally understood around the time bacteria learnt to defeat it. Lime juice was preventing scurvy centuries before the discovery of vitamin C.  Food was being preserved by canning long before anybody had any germ theory to explain why it helped.

Sunday November 30 2014

Yesterday, encouraged by the weather forecast (which predicted a window of weather excellence in the midst of the otherwise dark and dreary weather that had been prevailing until yesterday and that has resumed today), I went out photo-walking.  The mission was to check out that viewing platform at the top of Tower Bridge.  How does that look from below? I will tell you all about that later, maybe.  (I promise nothing.)

Within seconds of stepping outside my front door, I knew that this was going to be a very good day for photoing, because of the light.  Photography is light.  I like lots of it, but I don’t like it to be too bright, and I don’t like it all going in the same direction.  Yesterday was such a day.

If you are a Real Photographer, and if the sort of light that is readily available is not what you would like it to be, then you contrive what you do like, or you fake it - with clever filters, Photoshop, blah blah - processes that you know all about.  I am not a Real Photographer.
image
On the right there is one of the very first shots I took, a shadow selfie, which included a lady walking past me in the opposite direction.  It’s not really proper to stick photos of strangers up on your blog - photos of strangers complete with their faces, photos of the strangers complete with their faces who are doing nothing to draw attention to themselves - no matter how obscure your blog may be.  But, photoing their shadows and sticking that up is definitely okay.

And here are two more pictures I took early on in my perambulations, just after I had emerged from Tower Hill tube station.  I start with them simply because they are vertical rather than my usual horizontal, and hence it makes sense to display them next to each other:

image image

Here is a report from when that statue was unveiled, in 2006.  It is not the war memorial that it resembles, more like a peace memorial, for people killed while doing building work.  Good.  This is the least that such unlucky persons deserve.

As for the Shard, it was looking particularly beautiful yesterday, like a ghost of its regular self.  It was all to do with that light.

The Thing in front of the Shard is the highest of the four towers of The Tower of London.  The Tower of London is an odd way to describe it, what with their being so many towers plural involved.  I’m guessing they built one big Thing, called it the Tower of London, and by the time they added all those little towers, the name had stuck.

However, after reading this, which says things like this, ...:

It is not clear exactly when work started on the Conqueror’s White Tower or precisely when it was finished but the first phase of building work was certainly underway in the 1070s.

Nothing quite like it had ever been seen in England before. The building was immense, at 36m x 32.5m (118 x 106ft) across, and on the south side where the ground is lowest, 27.5m (90ft) tall. The Tower dominated the skyline for miles around.

… I would like to revise my guess.  It would seem that the four little towers on the top were there from the start, and that to start with it wasn’t the Tower of London at all.  So, what I want to guess instead is that now that the Tower of London is surrounded by London as we now know it, what we tend mostly to see of it is the four towers at the top.  But, for many centuries, the Tower of London was indeed seen by all those within sight of it as the one Big Thing (which merely happened to have a few spikes on the top), London’s first Big Thing, and for many decades, its only Big Thing.

Tuesday November 25 2014

As discussed in this earlier posting, here is a chunk of Frisby, from his book Bitcoin: The Future of Money? (pp. 197-201 – the chunk entitled “Beware the hype cycle").  And for the reasons stated in that earlier posting, this posting might rather suddenly disappear, so if you feel inclined to read it, do so now.  And then when you have, buy the book and tell me that you have done this in the comments, because this might cheer up any passing authors or publishers:

There is a cycle that a new technology passes through as it goes from conception to widespread adoption. The research company Gartner has dubbed it the ‘hype cycle’. It has five phases: the technology trigger, the peak of inflated expectations, the trough of disappointment, the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity.

In the first phase the new technology is invented. There is research and development and some early investment is found. The first products are brought to market. They are expensive and will need a lot of improvement, but they find some early users. The technology clearly has something special about it and people start getting excited. This is the ‘technology trigger’. The internet in the early 1990s is a good example.

As this excitement grows, we move into the second phase.  The media start talking about this amazing new technology.  Speculative money piles in. All sorts of new companies spring up to operate in this new sector. Many of them are just chasing hot money and have no real product to offer.  They are sometimes fraudulent. This new technology is going to change the world. The possibilities are endless. We’re going to cure diseases. We’re going to solve energy problems.  We’re going to build houses on the moon. This is the ‘peak of inflated expectations’. This was the internet in 2000.

But at some point, the needle of reality punctures the bubble of expectation, and we move into the third phase.  Actually, this technology might not be quite as good as we thought it was; it’s going to take a lot of work to get it right and to make it succeed on a commercial scale.  A great deal of not particularly rewarding hard work, time and investment lies ahead.  Forget the ideas men – now we need the water-carriers.  Suddenly, the excitement has gone.

Negative press starts to creep in. Now there are more sellers than buyers. Investment is harder to come by. Many companies start going bust. People are losing money. The hype cycle has reversed and we have descended into the ‘trough of disappointment.’ This was the internet between 2000 and 2003.

But now that the hot money has left, we can move into phase four. The incompetent or fraudulent companies have died. The sector has been purged. Most of those that remain are serious players. Investors now demand better practice and the survivors deliver it. They release the second and third generation products, and they work quite well. More and more people start to use the technology and it is finally finding mainstream adoption. This was the internet in 2004. It climbed the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’, the fourth phase of the hype cycle, and entered the ‘Plateau of Productivity’ - phase five - which is where the likes of Google, Amazon and eBay are today.

Of course, cycles like this are arbitrary.  Reality is never quite so simple.  But it’s easy to make the case that crypto-currencies in late 2013 reached a ‘peak of inflated expectations’.

Perhaps it was not the.  It wasn’t Bitcoin’s dotcom 2000 moment – just a peak on a larger journey up.  Many Bitcoin companies, for example, are not even listed on the stock market.  Greater manias could lie ahead.

But it’s also easy to make the case that it ws the peak of inflated expectations.  In the space of three or four years, Bitcoin went from an understated mention on an obscure mailing list to declarations that it was not only going to become the preferred money system of the world, but also the usurper of the existing world order.  At $1,000 a coin, some early adopters had made a million times their original investment. Speculators marvelled at the colossal amount of money they were making. The media were crazy for it. Bitcoin was discussed all over television.

It caught the imagination of the left, the right and the in-between.  Computer boffins marvelled at the impossibly resilient code. Economists and libertarians marvelled at the politics of a money without government or border. There were early adopters, from the tech savvy to the black markets (black markets are usually quick to embrace new technology - pornography was the first business sector to actually make money on the internet, for example).

Every Tom, Dick and Harry you met under the age of 30 with an interest in IT was involved in some Bircoin start-up or other.  Either that or he was designing some new alt currency - some altcoins were rising at over a thousand per cent per day.  ‘Banks, governments, they’re irrelevant now,’ these upstarts declared.

I suggest that in late 2013 we hit the peak of the hype cycle - the peak of inflated expectations.  Now Bitcoin is somewhere in the ‘trough of disillusionment,’ just like the internet in 2001. The price has fallen. There have been thefts. Some of the companies involved have gone bankrupt.

The challenge now is for all those start-ups to make their product or service work. They have to take Bitcoin from a great idea and a technology that works to something with much wider ‘real world’ use. They have to find investment and get more and more people to start using the coins. This is a long process.

There are many who will disagree with this interpretation.  And, with investment, it is dangerous to have rigid opinions – I reserve the right to change my mind as events unfold.