Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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- Peter Foster on Robert Owen
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- Less heat and more light
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- Antony Flew on the Terrors of Islam
- Bell end?
- Couple photoing their own shadows
- Standing on boxes to interview Irfan
- What is this iceStone device?
- Filling in a Meaningless Triangle near Kensington High Street tube
- A Morris Minor advertising a ping pong night club
- Going to Kings Cross to see gas holders
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Category archive: USA
I have been reading Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism. And very good it is. Here are some of the things Foster says about Robert Owen (pp. 86-69, pp 92-95:
After he built Cromford, Arkwright became involved in the development of another even more spectacular water-driven venture, at New Lanark in Scotland. The fast-flowing river below the beautiful Falls of Clyde made the site ideal. Arkwright’s partner there was David Dale, a respected Glasgow merchant. The notoriously prickly Arkwright fell out with Dale, reportedly over a triviality, and withdrew. Dale took control and continued to expand, but the reason New Lanark is so well preserved today is not that it is seen as a monument to capitalism. Quite the contrary. Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, turned New Lanark into the promotional centre for a Utopian dream, where he nurtured anti-capitalist sentiment. A fair amount of anti-capitalist sentiment still seems to pervade the site today.
Owen’s New Lanark was very far from being an experiment in socialism understood as collective ownership and control. Workers had neither shares in the mill nor much - if any - say in how it was run. Nor was Owen a political revolutionary. What he did share in common with more radical socialists was opposition to religion; belief that human nature was an indeterminate clay ("blank slate"), there to be moulded by men such as himself; distaste for the “individual selfish” competitive system and private property (even though they enabled him to promote his muddled ideas); demonization of money; and a generally woolly notion of how economies - as opposed to individual businesses - work. Owen rejected Adam Smith’s idea of gradual improvement under a system of “natural liberty.” For him, cotton masters, the men who owned and ran the mills, were (except for himself) greedy and selfish, while workers were oppressed sheep to be led, with himself as the Good Shepherd.
Adam Smith had shrewdly noted that people by nature give far more deference to the ideas of the wealthy than they deserve. Of few people was this more true than Robert Owen.
Owen was born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown in Wales, five years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He received only a rudimentary education before being shipped off by his parents to work in the drapery business. He proved an assiduous employee and developed a keen interest in the then-booming textile industry. He started his own business but soon returned to employment as a mill manager in Manchester. Close to his 20th birthday, he was reportedly managing 500 workers, at the then substantial salary of £300 a year. Owen soon found investors to help him start his own mill. He also became interested in education and social reform (which was the rule rather than the exception for industrialists of the time). However, when he visited New Lanark he saw a place where he might indulge a nascent vision of industrial harmony, a New Jerusalem in which he would be the secular Messiah.
Owen courted David Dale’s daughter, Anne Caroline, married her on September 30, 1799, and took over New Lanark early in 1800 on what seemed generous terms, essentially promising to pay Dale out of the mill’s future profits. New Lanark was the basis for the fortune and reputation that enabled Robert Owen to indulge his ideas. The scale of New Lanark seems extraordinary even today, but to visitors from the present, if they could travel back to Owen’s time, the most arresting feature of the place would be that most of its employees were children, supplied by orphanages in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Child labour has become one of the great fixed images of the Industrial Revolution, but it is inappropriate to take our modern sensitivities back to earlier times. Child labour was common - as it still is in many poor countries - because it was, and is, necessary for the survival of both the children and their families. It was most necessary for orphans. Indeed, orphanages paid cotton manufacturers to take their charges off their hands. David Dale reportedly treated his young employees well. By 1796 he was employing 16 teachers at the site.
Owen’s desire to prevent children under 10 from working appears wholly admirable, until we remember that this might have led them to starve. His desire to educate children and provide an early equivalent of daycare was worthy but ultimately self-interested in business terms, since these measures increased the skills and contentment - and thus productivity - of the workforce, as did his organization of medical insurance, savings opportunities, food and other provisions. There was no conflict between good business and morality. Indeed, Owen himself constantly, at least in the early days, stressed the importance of these measures for increasing profitability.
The village shop that Owen set up at New Lanark was reportedly an inspiration for the modern cooperative movement, which was founded in the town of Rochdale in Lancashire. According to a potted history at the New Lanark site, when Owen arrived, there were lots of small traders in the village, “selling poor quality goods at high prices.” He was able to buy in bulk, lower the prices and still make a profit. But of course this is exactly what supermarkets and big-box stores do today, even as they are castigated for putting the “little guy” … out of business.
Robert Owen put the little guy out of business too. He also made sure that no other traders could survive in the village, by paying his workers with “tickets for wages,” which they could spend only at his village shop. Elsewhere such enforced commitment to the company store would be cited as evidence of corporate villainy, but Owen declared that his own motives weren’t “selfish.” The important thing was not what was good for him, but what was good for mankind, although he clearly expected a little kudos for showing mankind the way.
At New Lanark, Owen in fact displayed more of the enlightened capitalist than of the Utopian dreamer. One might not doubt his good intentions when it came to spreading education and advocating factory reform, but he seemed eager to bury the fact that many other cottom masters, and businessmen of the time more generally, were enlightened and reform-minded.
As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, both mill owners and authorities were disturbed by Luddite riots that resulted in the breaking of new machinery, which was seen as destroying jobs. Robert Owen claimed that what had brought about these awful, and worsening, conditions was economic liberalism and the competitive system, which, he declared, was based on “deception.” He came forward with a series of bold proposals for “villages of unity and co-operation,” which struck many as workhouses by a more glorified name.
Although the great and the good expressed polite interest in Owen’s solutions to what were, after all, pressing problems, many were profoundly skeptical. John Quincy Adams, then U.S. ambassador to Britain, described Owen in his memoirs as “crafty crazy ... a speculative, scheming, mischievous man.”
Owen managed to draw the ire of both radical reformers, the political economist heirs of Adam Smith, groups that rarely saw eye to eye. The radicals saw Owen’s communities as oppressive, while the economists viewed them as impractical and counterproductive. The reformer William Cobbett described them as “parallelograms of paupers.” The political economist Robert Torrens said it ws difficult to decide whether Owen was a “knave” or an enthusiast “in whose brain a copulation between vanity and benevolence has engendered madness.”
Owen welcomed a steady stream of “philanthropic tourists” at New Lanark. Their number included Grand Duke Nicholas, future czar of Russia. Some - although presumably not the grand duke - found disquieting authoritarian overtones to Owen’s operation. After watching Owen’s child labourers drill like little soldiers at the mill’s Institution for the Formation of Character (which has been lovingly restored with taxpayers’ money from the European Union), the poet Robert Southey compared the place to a slave plantation.
Parliament ultimately rejected Owen’s scheme. One member suggested that “this visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society.” Owen responded to criticism by making his schemes more grandiose. Undaunted, he set off to proselytize in the New World, and not merely to lecture but at last to put into effect his grand plan. He bought an existing cooperative community in Indiana, which he renamed New Harmony.
Owen attracted a large number of settlers, described by one of Owen’s sons, Robert Dale Owen, as a “heterogenous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle ... and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen Sr. soon went back to Britain to spread the word of his success. Another son, William, confided dolefully to his diary, “The enjoyment of a reformer, I would say, is much more in contemplation, than in reality.”
New Harmony soon started to fall apart. Skilled labour did not feel inclined to have its income, under Owen’s plan, “equalized” with the unskilled or, worse, with those who did not wish to work at all. A collectivist scheme such as Owen’s could in effect work only if powered by either religious conviction or forced labour, a lesson that would not be lost on Owen’s more revolutionary successors.
The abolition of money led to a bureaucratic nightmare. When even lettuce had to pass through the company store, it inevitably wilted before it reached the plate. (Moscow McDonald’s would encounter analogous problems in trying to get supplies through the collapsing Soviet system almost 200 years later.)
After an absence of two months, Owen returned to New Harmony, arriving by river with intellectual reinforcements dubbed the “boatload of knowledge.” He forced the community through numerous reorganizations, all the while churning out portentous exhortations such as the “Declaration of Mental Independence:’ which promised to free man from the “slavery” of private property, religion and marriage.
One visitor, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, wrote, “He looks forward to nothing else than to remodel the world entirely; to root out all crime; to abolish punishment; to create similar views and similar wants, and in this manner to abolish all dissension and warfare ... He was too unalterably convinced of the result to admit the slightest room for doubt!’ Every other member of the community to whom the duke spoke acknowledged that Owen was “deceived in his expectations!’ The final blow to the community was a falling-out between Owen and William Maclure, a wealthy emigre Scotsman, which led to the two men suing each other over property, the concept New Harmony was meant to transcend.
The one undoubted benefit Owen did bestow upon the former colonies was his children, who turned out to be a good deal more level-headed than their father and who would become prominent in American affairs. Owen then set off on an even more quixotic scheme: to persuade the government of Mexico to grant him a huge swath of land on which to test his theories. He required Mexico first to abandon Catholicism. Mexico demurred. Owen returned to London and embarked upon expansive new ventures. He became the first president of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an organization that lasted a year. Seeking to trump both the pecuniary root of all evil and “unnecessary” middlemen, he set up “labour exchanges,” whereby merchandise was exchanged for “labour notes,” whose value was meant to be calculated according to the hours of sweat embodied in each product. The administrators found that they could not possibly calculate values this way and were forced to copy market prices. The labour exchanges collapsed too.
Owen staunchly opposed the “superstition” of religion, and yet his own views were at root profoundly religious, based on a “New Moral World” set up in opposition to a demonic set of greedy capitalists. He founded the Rational Society, complete with Halls of Science instead of churches, and “social hymns.” Sample verse:
Outcasts in your native soil,
Doom’d to poverty and toil,
Strangers in your native land;
Come, and join the social band.
Owen’s acolytes founded another Utopian community, at an estate called Queenwood in Hampshire, whose collapse Owen hastened by spending it into the ground. One of his more clear-sighted disciples noted that “Mr. Owen was no financier, and had no idea of money.” Queenwood, like New Harmony, imploded amid lawsuits, yet again over property.
Robert Owen represented a psychological type that would persist throughout the business world. Although such businessmen have a good grasp of their own business, they fail to understand the nature of markets more generally and believe themselves to be morally exceptional in a world marked by short-sighted greed.
They’re playing an Old-Timers T20 in New York today. Here are the two squads, “Sachin’s Blasters” and “Warne’s Warriors”:
SR Tendulkar (Captain), CEL Ambrose, SC Ganguly, CL Hooper, DPMD Jayawardene, L Klusener, BC Lara, VVS Laxman, GD McGrath, Moin Khan†, M Muralitharan, SM Pollock, V Sehwag, Shoaib Akhtar, GP Swann.
SK Warne (Captain), AB Agarkar, AA Donald, ML Hayden, JH Kallis, RT Ponting, JN Rhodes, KC Sangakkara†, Saqlain Mushtaq, A Symonds, MP Vaughan, DL Vettori, CA Walsh, Wasim Akram.
It makes me think of these guys.
Find out what happened here, that also being where I found out about this remarkable enterprise.
Today, however, it’s practically in the air. I could flick through a copy of em>Wired magazine in a supermarket, or see the statue of James Watt in St Paul’s Cathedral. Innovation is unstoppable, but not because the Internet has innumerable nodes of useful information, as Ridley claims. It’s unstoppable because across the world, innovation is so deeply rooted in our speech, thought and culture. And we don’t even know it.
Innovation is, at root, the idea of innovation! And the idea that innovation is a good idea!
Anton Howes is making good progress as a scholar, his latest little victory being that he has been invited to present his findings at this event at Columbia University. My thanks to Simon Gibbs for alerting me to this latter happy circumstance.
It seems that I am not the only one reminiscing about photos taken nearly a decade ago. The Atlantic is now doing this, with the help of NASA and its Cassini orbiter, and the Cassini orbiter’s oresumably now rather obsolete camera:
Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus (504 kilometers or 313 miles across), is the subject of much scrutiny, in large part due to its spectacular active geysers and the likelihood of a subsurface ocean of liquid water. NASA’s Cassini orbiter has studied Enceladus, along with the rest of the Saturnian system, since entering orbit in 2004. Studying the composition of the ocean within is made easier by the constant eruptions of plumes from the surface, and on October 28, Cassini will be making its deepest-ever dive through the ocean spray from Enceladus - passing within a mere 30 miles of the icy surface. Collected here are some of the most powerful and revealing images of Enceladus made by Cassini over the past decade, with more to follow from this final close flyby as they arrive.
Here is a picture of Enceladus taken on June 10th 2006:
That is picture number 25, or rather, a horizontal slice of it.
Beyond Enceladus and Saturn’s rings, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is ringed by sunlight passing through its atmosphere. Enceladus passes between Titan and Cassini ...
That’s right. Those two horizontal, ever so slightly converging white lines and the edge of the Rings of Saturn.
Picture number 10 is even more horizontalisable:
A pair of Saturn’s moons appear insignificant compared to the immensity of the planet in this Cassini spacecraft view. Enceladus, the larger moon is visible as a small sphere, while tiny Epimetheus (70 miles, or 113 kilometers across) appears as a tiny black speck on the far left of the image, just below the thin line of the rings.
That one was taken on November 4th 2011.
From the Washington Post, yesterday:
The piece also asks if it is only a matter of time before regular driving is banned. I think this will happen in lots of places, and driving a car will become like riding a horse. It will be something you do only for fun. I probably won’t live to see this, but I probably will live to see it quite widely discussed.
Vanity Fair piece about Frank Gehry. Key paragraph:
Things progressed slowly from there, as the architect continued to work more audacious swooping and compound curves into his designs. Eventually he found himself hitting the outer limits of what was buildable. This frustration led Gehry on a search for a way to fulfill his most far-reaching creative desires. “I asked the guys in the office if there was any way they knew of to get where I wanted to go through computers, which I am still illiterate in the use of,” he explains. Gehry’s partner, Jim Glymph - “the office hippie,” in Gehry’s words - led the way, adapting for architecture a program used to design fighter planes. As Gehry began to harness technology, his work started to take on riotous, almost gravity-defying boldness. He dared to take the liberties with form he had always dreamed of, fashioning models out of sensuously pleated cardboard and crushed paper-towel tubes. He always works with models, using scraps of “whatever is lying around” - on one occasion a Perrier bottle. “I move a piece of paper and agonize over it for a week, but in the end it was a matter of getting the stuff built,” he tells me. “The computer is a tool that lets the architect parent the project to the end, because it allows you to make accurate, descriptive, and detailed drawings of complicated forms.”
“Frank still doesn’t know how to use a computer except to throw it at somebody,” ...
I smell a classic two-man team there. Gehry dreams it. And this guy called “Glymph” (ever heard of him? - me neither - I got very little about him by googling) works out how to actually get the damn thing built. To quote myself:
Even when a single creative genius seems to stand in isolated splendour, more often than not it turns out that there was or is a backroom toiler seeing to the money, minding the shop, cleaning up the mess, lining up the required resources, publishing and/or editing what the Great Man has merely written, quietly eliminating the blunders of, or, not infrequently, actually doing the work only fantasised and announced by, the Great Man.
Glymph now seems to be on his own, although you can’t tell from the merely institutional appearances.
In general, the role of the Other Sort of Architect, the one who turns whatever some Genius Gehry figure wants into something buildable, and which will not be a mechanical disaster, seems to be growing and growing.
I found that picture of Gehry’s epoch-making Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao here. The VF piece identifies this as the most “important” building of our time. Architects love it. The public does not hate it.
A house, said Modernist Architecture Le Corbusier famously, is a “machine for living in”. Something very similar can be said about all buildings. They are machines to do stuff in, and their number one requirement is that they should work properly. Do the job. Not break. Not leak. Not collapse. Not be a struggle to occupy, work in or live in. They should be nice for people to be in.
But merely working is not the only thing that this strange thing called “architecture” must do. It may also be required to decorate, excite attention, amaze, astonish. It may also be required to be, as they now say, an “icon”.
These two distinct sorts of working - working as a machine, working as a means of exciting admiration and awe - described in my two previous paragraphs, often conflict. If all that architecture had to do was tick over successfully, without problems, then building would evolve, cautiously. There would be no grand gestures, no new styles.
But new styles there are. And when they first get started, new styles often involve lots of dumb mechanical decisions. What can happen is that the architect is so concerned to make his icon look iconic that he forgets to, I don’t know, stop the windows leaking. New styles cause mundane stuff to go wrong.
Illustration, this piece of early post-modernism:
This iconic Thing is the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. But, it now faces demolition. Reason? It doesn’t work, as a machine for working in:
“This building is ineffective,” claimed governor Bruce Rauner in a news conference. “For the people who work here, all of whom are eager to move somewhere else, it’s noisy. It’s hard to meet with your colleagues. It’s hard to move through the building, very ineffective, noise from downstairs, smells from the food court all get into the offices.”
The 17-storey, nearly one-million-square-foot (92,903 square meters) government centre opened in 1985, and is known for its canted and curved glass exterior and massive interior atrium containing a food court and transit entrance with offices arrayed above.
“Hearkening back to the grand domes of earlier government structures, such as the state capitol in Springfield, the southeast profile is a slice of a hollow sphere, clad in curved blue glass and salmon-coloured steel,” said the Chicago Architecture Foundation in its listing for the building. “The populist Postmodernism continues inside.”
The structure serves as the state government’s Chicago headquarters – the Illinois state capital is Springfield. But maintenance problems, high operational costs, and functional issues have plagued the building since it opened.
Rauner estimates the building needs $100 million (£64.7 million) worth of deferred repairs. In 2009, a large granite panel fell off one of the pedestrian arcades, prompting the removal the remaining slabs. The building has also been infested with pests.
Libertarians often claim that cock-ups like these are a classic public sector problem, and that observation has merit. The public sector is notorious for overspending on the buildings themselves, and then imposing foot-shootingly false economies on maintenance. Public buildings where the political will to maintain, so to speak, has wavered, can end up looking very run-down, as does much publicly owned space generally. This is because no one person or organisation owns the thing. No individual or small group of individuals makes clear gains if the building continues to look its part and do its job. No individual or small group of individuals makes clear losses if maintenance is skimped on. No one is accountable, to use a word constantly used by political people, because they so regularly feel the lack of it in the arrangements they nevertheless keep on recommending.
Further evidence comes from industrial innovation, largely now done by the private sector (albeit often heavily regulated), where innovation is done with a combination of determination and caution, with an awareness that innovation must happen, yet is hazardous. But even there, this trade-off is often mismanaged. The private sector doesn’t avoid error. It is merely better at liquidating it than the public sector is.
There may be sufficient political will to preserve this Chicago Government Center, more than there might have been if it was privately owned and hence costing an owner a not-small fortune. But it if is preserved, will the will to maintain continue to be inadequate? Very probably.
A key question to be asked about this building is: If it must be preserved, is the building worth anything at all? If it isn’t then there will be no buyer for it if it must be preserved, and the Chicago taxpayers will have to go on maintaining it. And Chicago’s taxpayers right now face other and bigger problems.
Every so often I check out Jonathan Gewirtz’s photos, often because I am reminded to do this when I read Chicago Boyz, for which Jonathan writes. Yesterday, I found my way to this wonderful photo of the cranes of Miami. Because that photo has “Copyright 2013 Johathan Gewirtz” written across the middle of it, I looked for other Miami crane photos, and found this ( by “ozanablue"):
Then, I think my finger slipped. Anyway, something happened, and I found myself looking at another terrific Gewirtz Miami crane snap, also adorned with a Copyright notice, but from which I have sliced out this:
That slice is much smaller as well as much (vertically) thinner than the meteorologically imposing original. But, as is the rule here with anything I “borrow”, if JG sees this and wants even this small slice of his picture removed from here, it will be done pronto.
Those container ship cranes will surely be looked back at by historians as one of the great visual symbols of our time, to sum up all the peaceful material and trading progress that we as a species have been making in recent decades.
Shame our cranes of this sort are too far away from the centre of London for a picture of them to be able to include our Big Things as well. Because our Big Thing’s are better than Miami’s.
Talking of cranes, another English one attracting admiring attention is this one, who bowls leg spin for Hampshire. (Another spinner nearly won it for England today, in Abu Dhabi (where they also have cranes (they now have them everywhere important that’s next to the sea)).)
“Modern buildings, exemplified by the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge, are incredibly light and weight-efficient by virtue of their architectures,” commented Bill Carter, manager of the Architected Materials Group at HRL.
“We are revolutionising lightweight materials by bringing this concept to the materials level and designing their architectures at the nano- and micro-scales,” he added.
In the new film released by Boeing earlier this month, HRL research scientist Sophia Yang describes the metal as “the world’s lightest material”, and compares its 99.9 per cent air structure to the composition of human bones – rigid on the outside, but with an open cellular composition inside that keeps them lightweight.
All of which has obvious applications to airplanes:
Although the aerospace company hasn’t announced definite plans to use the microlattice, the film suggests that Boeing has been investigating possible applications for the material in aeroplanes, where it could be used for wall or floor panels to save weight and make aircraft more fuel efficient.
And it surely won’t stop with wall and floor panels.
These are the days of miracle and wonder.
Here he is in action:
Chandoha might be considered the forefather of the Internet’s now-ubiquitous cat photo; and while digital cameras and smartphones have certainly made it easier for people to document their feline friends, as Chandoha sees it, “All of this technology would be for naught if cats were not the sweet, lovable companions they are, and who are held in higher esteem today than those in ancient Egypt when they were worshipped as gods.”
“All of this technology” really has made it a whole lot easier to photo cats, though. That’s a big part of the cats on the internet thing. When cats do their funniest stuff, they tend to be moving about a lot, and now, that can all be captured.
One of the many fine things about the internet – and in particular that great internet business, Amazon – is that you can now easily get hold of books that seem interesting, even if they were published a decade and a half ago. Steven Johnson’s book, Emergence, for instance. This was published in 2001. I think it was some Amazon robot system that reckoned I might like it ("lots of people who bought this book you just bought also bought this one"). And I read some Amazon reviews, or whatever, and I did like it, or at least the sound of it, and I duly sent off for it. (I paid £0.01 plus postage.) And now I’m reading it.
Chapter one of Emergence is entitled “The Myth of the Ant Queen”. Here is the part of that chapter that describes the research then being done by Deborah Gordon, into ants:
At the heart of Gordon’s work is a mystery about how ant colonies develop, a mystery that has implications extending far beyond the parched earth of the Arizona desert to our cities, our brains, our immune systems - and increasingly, our technology. Gordon’s work focuses on the connection between the microbehavior of individual ants and the overall behavior of the colonies themselves, and part of that research involves tracking the life cycles of individual colonies, following them year after year as they scour the desert floor for food, competing with other colonies for territory, and - once a year - mating with them. She is a student, in other words, of a particular kind of emergent, self-organizing system.
Dig up a colony of native harvester ants and you’ll almost invariably find that the queen is missing. To track down the colony’s matriarch, you need to examine the bottom of the hole you’ve just dug to excavate the colony: you’ll find a narrow, almost invisible passageway that leads another two feet underground, to a tiny vestibule burrowed out of the earth. There you will find the queen. She will have been secreted there by a handful of ladies-in-waiting at the first sign of disturbance. That passageway, in other words, is an emergency escape hatch, not unlike a fallout shelter buried deep below the West Wing.
But despite the Secret Service-like behavior, and the regal nomenclature, there’s nothing hierarchical about the way an ant colony does its thinking. ‘’Although queen is a term that reminds us of human political systems,” Gordon explains, “the queen is not an authority figure. She lays eggs and is fed and cared for by the workers. She does not decide which worker does what. In a harvester ant colony, many feet of intricate tunnels and chambers and thousands of ants separate the queen, surrounded by interior workers, from the ants working outside the nest and using only the chambers near the surface. It would be physically impossible for the queen to direct every worker’s decision about which task to perform and when.” The harvester ants that carry the queen off to her escape hatch do so not because they’ve been ordered to by their leader; they do it because the queen ant is responsible for giving birth to all the members of the colony, and so it’s in the colony’s best interest - and the colony’s gene pool-to keep the queen safe. Their genes instruct them to protect their mother, the same way their genes instruct them to forage for food. In other words, the matriarch doesn’t train her servants to protect her, evolution does.
Popular culture trades in Stalinist ant stereotypes - witness the authoritarian colony regime in the animated film Antz - but in fact, colonies are the exact opposite of command economies. While they are capable of remarkably coordinated feats of task allocation, there are no Five-Year Plans in the ant kingdom. The colonies that Gordon studies display some of nature’s most mesmerizing decentralized behavior: intelligence and personality and learning that emerges from the bottom up.
I’m still gazing into the latticework of plastic tubing when Gordon directs my attention to the two expansive white boards attached to the main colony space, one stacked on top of the other and connected by a ramp. (Imagine a two-story parking garage built next to a subway stop.) A handful of ants meander across each plank, some porting crumblike objects on their back, others apparently just out for a stroll. If this is the Central Park of Cordon’s ant metropolis, I think, it must be a workday.
Gordon gestures to the near corner of the top board, four inches from the ramp to the lower level, where a pile of strangely textured dust - littered with tiny shells and husks-presses neatly against the wall. “That’s the midden,” she says. “It’s the town garbage dump.” She points to three ants marching up the ramp, each barely visible beneath a comically oversize shell. “These ants are on midden duty: they take the trash that’s left over from the food they’ve collected-in this case, the seeds from stalk grass-and deposit it in the midden pile.”
Gordon takes two quick steps down to the other side of the table, at the far end away from the ramp. She points to what looks like another pile of dust. “And this is the cemetery.” I look again, startled. She’s right: hundreds of ant carcasses are piled atop one another, all carefully wedged against the table’s corner. It looks brutal, and yet also strangely methodical.
I know enough about colony behavior to nod in amazement. “So they’ve somehow collectively decided to utilize these two areas as trash heap and cemetery,” I say. No individual ant defined those areas, no central planner zoned one area for trash, the other for the dead. “It just sort of happened, right?”
Cordon smiles, and it’s clear that I’ve missed something. “It’s better than that,” she says. “Look at what actually happened here: they’ve built the cemetery at exactly the point that’s furthest away from the colony. And the midden is even more interesting: they’ve put it at precisely the point that maximizes its distance from both the colony and the cemetery. It’s like there’s a rule they’re following: put the dead ants as far away as possible, and put the midden as far away as possible without putting it near the dead ants.” I have to take a few seconds to do the geometry myself, and sure enough, the ants have got it right. I find myself laughing out loud at the thought: it’s as though they’ve solved one of those spatial math tests that appear on standardized tests, conjuring up a solution that’s perfectly tailored to their environment, a solution that might easily stump an eight-year-old human. The question is, who’s doing the conjuring?
It’s a question with a long and august history, one that is scarcely limited to the collective behavior of ant colonies. We know the answer now because we have developed powerful tools for thinking about - and modeling - the emergent intelligence of self-organizing systems, but that answer was not always so clear. We know now that systems like ant colonies don’t have real leaders, that the very idea of an ant “queen” is misleading. But the desire to find pacemakers in such systems has always been powerful-in both the group behavior of the social insects, and in the collective human behavior that creates a living city.
It’s not much of a mystery why I like old cars, with round headlights. They date from the time of my childhood. The more closely an old car resembles the cars I was gazing at adoringly circa 1955, the better I like them.
This old car, which showed up in Tottenham Court Road late this afternoon, just when I happened to be there myself, looks like it dates from that exact time.
The light was dim and fading, but I got a few shots of it before it had vanished:
Click and enjoy. That’s if you enjoy old cars somewhere near as much as I do. If not, well, there’s the rest of the internet. There must be something in it today that you would enjoy.
What I particularly like is the way the rear wheels of this jolly green giant are encased down to ankle level, in line with the car body, if you get what I mean. That and all the chrome, which is in remarkably good nick. Some of it right on top of the headlights.
I don’t know what brand of car this is. It looks very American, but Brit cars of those times were very American-influenced. (Now the influence seems to go more the other way, from Europe to America. Or maybe it’s just everyone being influenced by Japan.) What settles it, for me, is (see the first two pictures) that the car is left hand drive. Got to be American. But what variety of American?
It looks like a coloured version of the sort of black cars that they had in the Godfather’s funeral, in The Godfather.
That’s not my punctuation. That’s their punctuation:
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: An actual exhibition about cats and the internet, just opened in New York.
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:
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.
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.
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.