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: USA

Friday August 14 2015

That’s not my punctuation.  That’s their punctuation:

image

This is sort of a wedding photo, in the sense that I took it just before the wedding of Ayumi and Richard, last Saturday, just outside the Church, where there is a market.

There was nobody manning this particular stall, selling miniature pub signs.  And I have a rule about signs that say No Photos, or for that matter No Photo’s.  That rule is: I take a photo of all such signs that I encounter.  Their rule: No Photos.  My rule: Photo of their rule.

I’m guessing that what they mean by a photo is a carefully composed photo of just one of these signs, so I don’t believe that, in the unlikely event that they find out about me posting this photo here, they’ll care.  Besides which, maybe they have discovered that if they exhibit all their signs for sale, and stick “Sorry! No Photo’s!” in among them, they get free publicity from photographers like me.

I didn’t really compose the shot.  I just grabbed it, on my way into the wedding.  But I do like how it says “Queen Vic” and then “England”, right at the top.  And, top left: “London”.

This had to go up today, because as you can see, cats are involved.  And my rule about sometimes having stuff here about cats on Fridays has mutated in my head into a rule that says that I may only mention cats on Fridays, otherwise they’d overrun the entire blog.

Speaking of cats, I also recommend this video, which I found when I visited, after long absence, Norman Lebrecht’s site, this morning.

And see also: Fossils reveal felines drove 40 species of canines to extinction after arriving in North America.

And: An actual exhibition about cats and the internet, just opened in New York.

Thursday June 18 2015

For most of today I was without my computer, and yesterday I could only use it in “safe” mode, the most obvious and lamentable effect of which was that I couldn’t see or manipulate pictures properly.  So, I couldn’t do pictures for the best part of two days.

Pictures like this one, which needed cropping because to the left of this young man (as I looked and snapped) was a close-up of another young man’s face, with nothing in the way and hence totally recognisable:

image

What I liked about this picture at the time when I took it, on Westminster Bridge two days ago, was that the guy’s smartphone had a banknote on it.  And what I liked even more about this picture when I took another look at it just now with my restored computer is that the man on the banknote is Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin, an enthusiastic inventor, would surely have loved the idea of his face being, two and a quarter centuries after his death, on a portable instantaneous communication and computation machine, with the ability to create and transmit instantaneous likenesses of one’s companions and one’s surroundings and to record and transmit verbal messages, and to perform many other tasks and wonders.  Or: whatever he might have called a smartphone.

Sunday June 14 2015

Can artists learn about how to do art when they get old, from sportsmen?  Can sportsmen learn from artists about how to handle their career twilights?  I face my own twilight now, so I read Ed Smith’s piece about such things with keen interest.

Choice quote:

The weird aspect of sporting maturity is that it happens so early in life. An athlete’s career is played out in fast-forward.  Professional and emotional maturity are wildly out of sync.  Andrew Flintoff told me recently that his cricket career was practically over before he felt at his most confident as a person.  Many sportsmen feel the same.  By the time they’ve grown up, it’s gone.  The period of critical decision-making and the exercise of power arrives frighteningly early.  Only when they retire do sportsmen become young again as they rejoin civilian time.

Yes, if you leave pro sport but land on your feet afterwards, much as Ed Smith himself seems to have done, it might be like being born again, rather than the slow death that it often seems to be for many sports people.  But, no chance of any such resurrection for those artists, or for me.  This is it.

Today there was a reminder, for cricket followers anyway, of how sports careers, like lives, can be cut cruelly short.  Sometimes, sportsmen only get to have just the one (short) life.

Two cricket fielders, both running for the same catch in the outfield, collided and had to be taken away in ambulances.  The match was called off.

I learned about this in an odd way.  Cricinfo was doing basic commentary.  Just runs, dots and wickets as they happened.  No frills.  No explanations.  And then, the commentary just stopped.  What was going on?  A complicated run out.  Rain?  But they usually say if it is raining.  Eventually I tuned into the BBC’s radio commentary, and got the story.

Google “Burns Henriques” and maybe also “Surrey” during the next few hours and days, and you’ll get plenty of hits.  Rory Burns and Moises Henriques are the names.  Surrey is their county.  At first I thought Surrey were maybe looking at another death (to add to this one, which caused havoc at the club).  So, I imagine, did everyone who was at the ground and who saw it happen.  But now that seems unlikely:

One piece of misinformation circulating was that Henriques was receiving CPR. Thankfully, rumour was quickly replaced by the sight of Henriques and Burns both sitting upright and giving the thumbs up as they were lifted into ambulances and taken to nearby St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester.

So, can you get hurt, do a thumbs up, and then go to hospital and die?  What do I know?

Get well soon, gentlemen, and hopefully well enough to play again, also soon.

More sports news, old sports news, from a movie I’m watching in the small hours of tomorrow morning on the TV.  I know - how does that work? - time travel.  The movie is Secretariat, about a champion horse in 1970s America.  So, the horse’s champion jockey, the usual diminutive jockey size, walks into the Belmont Ball on the eve of the big race, with a tall and gorgeous blonde on his arm.  He is asked how he convinced the tall and gorgeous blonde to attach herself to him.  He says:

“I told her I’m taller when I stand on my wallet.”

Old joke?  Maybe so, but first time I heard it.

I had no idea how Secretariat would end.  But I know the end now.  Secretariat won Belmont (on June 9th 1973, by the way) by thirty one lengths, a Belmont winning margin never seen since.  Even I know that’s a lot of lengths.  I did not see that coming.

LATER: Burns (a confusing name in a story when injuries are being listed): facial injuries.  Henriques: seriously broken jaw.  Nobody died or is going to.

LATER STILL: One man’s facial injury is another man’s opportunity.  Arun Harinath, playing for Surrey for the first time this season in place of Burns, has just scored a century against Glamorgan.  Such are the downs and ups of sport.

Monday June 01 2015

It’s actually the final sentence of the Samizdata quote of the day:

Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

It’s Edward Snowden, in one of those unwieldy comment thready things that I never read.

Guy Herbert doesn’t add what comes next, which is also good:

A free press benefits more than just those who read the paper.

Very true.

Here is a picture of Edward Snowden, that I took in June of last year ...:

image

... in Battersea, right across the road from where the big new US Embassy is being constructed. (Pictures of that, as recently was and as soon will be, here.)

Sunday May 31 2015

Incoming from Michael Jennings:

Truly, that’s a glorious headline.

Indeed it is:

Enrique Iglesias sliced his fingers on a drone during a concert

The drone was not hostile.  It was part of the show, as was Iglesias attempting to handle it.  It was just that it all went rather wrong:

“During the show a drone is used to get crowd shots and some nights Enrique grabs the drone to give the audience a point of view shot,” the statement read. “Something went wrong and he had an accident. He decided to go on and continued playing for 30 minutes while the bleeding continued throughout the show.”

Iglesias was semi-treated immediately after the accident.

Definitely a future trivia question in a pop quiz.  But the worst that could have resulted from this would have been a couple of missing Iglesian fingers.  This ("NY-bound plane nearly collides with drone, FAA says") could have ended far more grimly.

There will be many, many more drone dramas.  They are colossally useful, and accidents buzzing around begging to happen. 

Saturday May 23 2015

Indeed:

image

No not taken by me. I wish.  The original and several others of the same guy that are equally fun, here.

I chose that one because, in addition to showing the artist and his murals, it also shows what a fight reinforced concrete puts up, when someone tries to destroy it.  (A point also made, with an illustration (yes taken by me) in this earlier posting.)

Friday May 15 2015

Once again 6k provokes a BrianMicklethwaitDotCom posting, this time about a drone, and by the look of it maybe the best and cheapest drone yet.

The video at the other end of that link sells the drone as being fun for tourists.  But I now surmise that the first great impact of drones on economic life is now already happening, in agriculture, in the bit of it where a tiny number of people manage vast acreages of agricultural land, and where a tiny increase in productivity is worth millions.  These people already have an entire industry of small airplanes doing things like crop dusting, which is a very ungainly process but still already well worth doing.  Imagine the benefits of being able to do that and much more, at virtually zero cost.  You could plant the crop.  Spray the crop.  Keep and eye on the crop.  Only the actual digging up of the crop, or whatever it is you have to do to crops, would still involve a bit of old school work.

I just googled “drones in agriculture”, and then clicked on Images.  Wow.

Drones are a bit like 3-D printing, as a technology.  There is much talk of mere humans doing it for fun, in their homes (3-D printing) or while out and about having fun (drones) but the real impact of poth these technologies is in niche markets, where specialists are doing things that have long been done, but quicker, better, cheaper, and by-and-by doing things in their line of business that were never before doable.  Drones, for instance, will make a lot of land farmable that was not farmable before.

I have always believed that the core skill of my generation, watching television, would end up having huge economic impacts.

Sunday May 03 2015

In the early, at first brightly sunlit evening I went walking by the river, over Vauxhall Bridge and then turning right on the other side, towards Battersea.

I noted progress on the new flats.  The sky was a beautiful colour.  The flats are not a beautiful colour:

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The river was adorned by bright reflections off the buildings on the far side.

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The evening sun also lit up the bright green wall that keeps the river in its correct place:

image

There is a new US Embassy taking shape, …:

image

… although it will not be a very interesting shape:

image

Battersea Power Station is missing one of its chimneys:

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This is probably something to do with the fact that it is having dwellings built in it:

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And, when I looked inland, towards the south, over the railway, I saw some world class roof clutter:

image

So I was in a good mood.  Until, on my way back home, I saw this:

image

Yes, there is an election coming, and we will all vote in such a way as to try to deny office to the political party we most hate, which in my case is the Labour Party.  Which means I will probably vote for the bastards advertising themselves with the signs above.

As you can see, by then it had become rather gloomy.  As had I.

Friday April 24 2015

I’d been meaning to check out that big Shiny Thing outside in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, ever since Mick Hartley gave it a mention at his blog, with a photo, way back on April 8th.  Earlier this week I finally got around to doing this, and I took lots of the usual photographs that you would expect me to have taken, of which these are two:

imageimage

Click on the left, and that shows what this Shiny Thing is like, in its present context.  I loved the Shiny Thing itself, as my picture on the right illustrates.  In there I see things like Darth Vader.  And, rather smaller, I think I also see a naked woman there.  Also, there is something vaguely feline about this shape, with its pointing ear-like attachments.  Endless photographic fun, especially with the evening light warming up the colours of the surrounding courtyard buildings.

But, I found the rest of this agglomeration rather less interesting.  If the idea was to create some interesting reflections, then blander shapes next to the Shiny Thing would have worked better.  As it is, the wooden pointy thing, in itself nice enough, is by comparison rather mundane and the black frame that the wooden pointy thing and the Shiny Thing are held up by is ungainly, obtrusive and, to me, when I actually saw it, downright ugly.  I mean, did the creator of the equally shiny Chicago Bean feel the need to stick a lot of other crap right next to it to be reflected in it, given that there was already a city there?  No he did not.

But I guess if you are Frank Stella Hon RA, one of the most important living American artists, you feel the need to do something arbitrary.  Mere Platonic symmetry doesn’t do it.  A merely beautiful Shiny Thing won’t serve your purpose.  It would dilute your brand.  Anyone could have done that.  There had to be something there which would get people saying: Why did he do that?  Come to that, who the hell is he?  So that they can be told that it was done by Frank Stella Hon RA, one of the most important living American artists, and so that Frank Stella Hon RA, one of the most important living American artists, can supply an answer about what he thought he was doing when he, Frank Stella Hon RA, one of the most important living American artists, did what he did, like this:

The contrasting materials employed in the sculpture, the natural wood against the highly finished metal, the differing treatments of space in the line-drawn star and the round curves of the solid star, create a tension and sense of the works being both repelled and attracted to each other at a fixed distance by an invisible force field.

Maybe if I go back and take some more snaps of this Shiny Thing, I will decide that I find the other crap next to it not so crappy after all.  The other crap certainly looks better in the shots at the other end of the link above than it did to me, on the spot. And, if it was necessary for Frank Stella Hon RA to ponder the contrasts between a wooden thing and a shiny thing and black metal stuff to get Frank Stella Hon RA, one of the most important living American artists, to have made a very entertaining Shiny Thing, then fine. Whatever it took.

Friday April 17 2015

Abusive internet comments are usually very tedious.  But, having never heard this gag before, I liked this one.

Following the alleged threat by US politician John McCain to kick the s*** out of another US politician, Harry Reid, a commenter commented (April 16 12:43am):

(Harry Reid) – s*** = 0

Here in the UK, our politicians seldom issue such threats to one another.  They are, alas, almost all of them on the same side.

Monday April 13 2015

So, I googled aircraft coming in to land over closed civilian roads, and to my surprise I came across another use for a drone:

image

This one looks like it might be spraying stuff on the crop below.  Obvious, I know, but I am collecting these things.  The drone is yet another gadget that the banning classes would love to ban, but it’s just too useful.

But you can see how this will mean a whole new sort of newsworthy accident.  Or, even better, of newsworthy malevolence.

Friday March 27 2015

It started with this picture, which I took at the home of some friends a while back.  I know exactly how you probably feel about this cushion, but on the other hand, I don’t care:

image

I love how the TV remote is there next to it.  I had no idea at the time, or I would have made a point of including all of it.

But now the www-journey begins.  At the bottom right hand corner of the cusion are the words “Susan Herbert”.

I google susan herbert cushion, and enter a world of cushion kitsch.  Mostly it’s more cats on more cushions, as you can see, but one of the pictures is this:

image

Obviously, I click where it says “visit page”, and arrive here.  I scroll down, looking for the picture of Bill Murray and the artistic nude girl.  I don’t ever find the picture of Bill Murray and the artistic nude girl, but I do encounter this, which is a posting about a big blue horse at Denver Airport.  Clicking on “Denver Public Art Program” merely gets me to useless crap about Denver, but googling “luis jimenez mustang” gets me to pictures like this ...:

image

… and to an article in the Wall Street Journal from February 2009, which says things like this about the Blue Denver Horse:

Anatomically correct - eye-poppingly so - the 32-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture makes quite a statement at the gateway to Denver International Airport.

But that begs the question: What kind of statement, exactly?

“It looks like it’s possessed,” says Denver resident Samantha Horoschak. “I have a huge fear of flying anyway, and to be greeted at the airport by a demon horse - it’s not a soothing experience.”

Many people here agree, calling the muscular steed a terrifying welcome to the Mile High City.

Samantha Horoschak was not wrong.  Because, it gets better:

Mr. Jimenez was killed working on the sculpture. In 2006, while he was hoisting pieces of the mustang for final assembly in his New Mexico studio, the horse’s massive torso swung out of control and crushed the 65-year-old artist.

Ah, that magic moment in the creative process when a work of art escapes from the control of its creator and carves out a life of its own, independent of its creator.  And kills him.

Is it still there?  How many more victims has it claimed?  Has it caused any crashes?

I love the internet.  And not just because I am quickly able to look up the proper spelling of such words as “posthumous” (which was in the original version of the title of this) and “kitsch”.  It’s the mad journeys it takes you on.  Who needs stupid holidays when you can go on a crazy trip like this without getting out of your kitchen chair?

Wednesday March 25 2015

As usual, there’s lots of fun stuff at Colossal, of which a piece about the Chicago Bean attacking a tourist by dumping a lump of snow on them, is my recent favourite.

image

Go here to see the whole wonderful thing.

I like how people in Chicago call The Bean The Bean, rather than “Cloud Gate”.  I feel the same way about how The Wheel in London is The Wheel, rather than the “London Eye”.

Tuesday March 24 2015

I’ve been reading Paul Kennedy’s Engineers of Victory, which is about how WW2 was won, by us good guys.  Kennedy, like many others, identifies the Battle of the Atlantic as the allied victory which made all the other victories over Germany by the Anglo-American alliance possible.  I agree with the Amazon reviewers who say things like “good overview, not much engineering”.  But this actually suited me quite well.  At least I now know what I want to know more about the engineering of.  And thanks to Kennedy, I certainly want to know more about how centimetric radar was engineered.

Centimetric radar was even more of a breakthrough, arguably the greatest. HF-DF might have identified a U-boat’s radio emissions 20 miles from the convoy, but the corvette or plane dispatched in that direction still needed to locate a small target such as a conning tower, perhaps in the dark or in fog.  The giant radar towers erected along the coast of southeast England to alert Fighter Command of Luftwaffe attacks during the Battle of Britain could never be replicated in the mid-Atlantic, simply because the structures were far too large.  What was needed was a miniaturized version, but creating one had defied all British and American efforts for basic physical and technical reasons: there seemed to be no device that could hold the power necessary to generate the microwave pulses needed to locate objects much smaller than, say, a squadron of Junkers bombers coming across the English Channel, yet still made small enough to be put on a small escort vessel or in the nose of a long-range aircraft.  There had been early air-to-surface vessel (ASV) sets in Allied aircraft, but by 1942 the German Metox detectors provided the U-boats with early warning of them.  Another breakthrough was needed, and by late spring of 1943 that problem had been solved with the steady introduction of 10-centimeter (later 9.1-centimeter) radar into Allied reconnaissance aircraft and even humble Flower-class corvettes; equipped with this facility, they could spot a U-boat’s conning tower miles away, day or night.  In calm waters, the radar set could even pick up a periscope. From the Allies’ viewpoint, the additional beauty of it was that none of the German systems could detect centimetric radar working against them.

Where did this centimetric radar come from?  In many accounts of the war, it simply “pops up”; Liddell Hart is no worse than many others in noting, “But radar, on the new 10cm wavelength that the U-boats could not intercept, was certainly a very important factor.” Hitherto, all scientists’ efforts to create miniaturized radar with sufficient power had failed, and Doenitz’s advisors believed it was impossible, which is why German warships were limited to a primitive gunnery-direction radar, not a proper detection system.  The breakthrough came in spring 1940 at Birmingham University, in the labs of Mark Oliphant (himself a student of the great physicist Ernest Rutherford), when the junior scientists John Randall and Harry Boot, working in a modest wooden building, finally put together the cavity magnetron.

This saucer-sized object possessed an amazing capacity to detect small metal objects, such as a U-boat’s conning tower, and it needed a much smaller antenna for such detection.  Most important of all, the device’s case did not crack or melt because of the extreme energy exuded.  Later in the year important tests took place at the Telecommunications Research Establishment on the Dorset coast.  In midsummer the radar picked up an echo from a man cycling in the distance along the cliff, and in November it tracked the conning tower of a Royal Navy submarine steaming along the shore. Ironically, Oliphant’s team had found their first clue in papers published sixty years earlier by the great German physicist and engineer Adolf Herz, who had set out the original theory for a metal casement sturdy enough to hold a machine sending out very large energy pulses.  Randall had studied radio physics in Germany during the 1930s and had read Herz’s articles during that time.  Back in Birmingham, he and another young scholar simply picked up the raw parts from a scrap metal dealer and assembled the device.

Almost inevitably, development of this novel gadget ran into a few problems: low budgets, inadequate research facilities, and an understandable concentration of most of Britain’s scientific efforts at finding better ways of detecting German air attacks on the home islands. But in September 1940 (at the height of the Battle of Britain, and well before the United States formally entered the war) the Tizard Mission arrived in the United States to discuss scientific cooperation.  This mission brought with it a prototype cavity magnetron, among many other devices, and handed it to the astonished Americans, who quickly recognized that this far surpassed all their own approaches to the miniature-radar problem.  Production and test improvements went into full gear, both at Bell Labs and at the newly created Radiation Laboratory (Rad Lab) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Even so, there were all sorts of delays - where could they fit the equipment and operator in a Liberator?  Where could they install the antennae? - so it was not until the crisis months of March and April 1943 that squadrons of fully equipped aircraft began to join the Allied forces in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Soon everyone was clamoring for centimetric radar - for the escorts, for the carrier aircraft, for gunnery control on the battleships.  The destruction of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst off the North Cape on Boxing Day 1943, when the vessel was first shadowed by the centimetric radar of British cruisers and then crushed by the radar-controlled gunnery of the battleship HMS Duke of York, was an apt demonstration of the value of a machine that initially had been put together in a Birmingham shed.  By the close of the war, American industry had produced more than a million cavity magnetrons, and in his Scientists Against Time (1946) James Baxter called them “the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores” and “the single most important item in reverse lease-lend.” As a small though nice bonus, the ships using it could pick out life rafts and lifeboats in the darkest night and foggiest day.  Many Allied and Axis sailors were to be rescued this way.

Thursday March 12 2015

I have been reading Peter Thiel‘s book Zero to One.  It abounds with pithily and strongly expressed wisdoms.

Here (pp. 143-5) is how Thiel explains the difference between humans and computers, and how they complement one another in doing business together:

To understand the scale of this variance, consider another of Google’s computer-for-human substitution projects.  In 2012, one of their supercomputers made headlines when, after scanning 10 million thumbnails of YouTube videos, it learned to identify a cat with 75% accuracy.  That seems impressive-until you remember that an average four-year-old can do it flawlessly.  When a cheap laptop beats the smartest mathematicians at some tasks but even a supercomputer with 16,000 CPUs can’t beat a child at others, you can tell that humans and computers are not just more or less powerful than each other - they’re categorically different.

The stark differences between man and machine mean that gains from working with computers are much higher than gains from trade with other people. We don’t trade with computers any more than we trade with livestock or lamps.  And that’s the point: computers are tools, not rivals.

Thiel then writes about how he learned about the above truths when he and his pals at Paypal solved one of their biggest problems:

In mid-2000 we had survived the dot-com crash and we were growing fast, but we faced one huge problem: we were losing upwards of $10 million to credit card fraud every month.  Since we were processing hundreds or even thousands of transactions per minute, we couldn’t possibly review each one - no human quality control team could work that fast.

So we did what any group of engineers would do: we tried to automate a solution.  First, Max Levchin assembled an elite team of mathematicians to study the fraudulent transfers in detail.  Then we took what we learned and wrote software to automatically identify and cancel bogus transactions in real time. But it quickly became clear that this approach wouldn’t work either: after an hour or two, the thieves would catch on and change their tactics. We were dealing with an adaptive enemy, and our software couldn’t adapt in response.

The fraudsters’ adaptive evasions fooled our automatic detection algorithms, but we found that they didn’t fool our human analysts as easily.  So Max and his engineers rewrote the software to take a hybrid approach: the computer would flag the most suspicious transactions on a well-designed user interface, and human operators would make the final judgment as to their legitimacy.  Thanks to this hybrid system - we named it “Igor,” after the Russian fraudster who bragged that we’d never be able to stop him - we turned our first quarterly profit in the first quarter of 2002 (as opposed to a quarterly loss of $29.3 million one year before).

There then follow these sentences.

The FBI asked us if we’d let them use Igor to help detect financial crime. And Max was able to boast, grandiosely but truthfully, that he was “the Sherlock Holmes of the Internet Underground.”

The answer was yes.

Thus did the self-declared libertarian Peter Thiel, who had founded Paypal in order to replace the dollar with a free market currency, switch to another career, as a servant of the state, using government-collected data to chase criminals.  But that’s another story.