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: Business

Thursday June 11 2015

I love learning about two-man teams, and in Paul Johnson’s short, excellent biography of Mozart (see also this earlier bit) I have been learning more about just such a team, although a very temporary and unequal one:

In the meantime, Mozart had met his great partner, the Abate Lorenzo Da Ponte.  The letter (May 7, 1783) in which he tells his father, “I have looked through at least a hundred libretti and more, but I have hardly found a single one with which I am satisfied,” also says he has met the new fashionable poet in Vienna, Da Ponte, who “has promised ... to write a new libretto for me.” The emperor had decided to abandon singspiel in 1783 and embrace Italian opera again, and he put Da Ponte in charge of the words.  Da Ponte was a converted Jew, the son of a tanner, who had embraced Christianity in 1763.  He had led a bohemian life, as a teacher, a priest, a lascivious escort of married women in the Venetian fashion, a friend of Casanova, expelled from Venice for sexual depravity, and thereafter making his living as a translator and writer in the theatrical world.  He had an extraordinary gift for languages, rather like Mozart himself but on a much more comprehensive scale, and seemed to think multilingually.

Da Ponte wrote the librettos for three Mozart operas, The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492, presented May 1,1786), Don Giovanni (K. 527, October 29, 1787), and Cosi fan tutte (K. 588, January 26, 1790), and the collaboration between the two men must be accounted one of the most successful in the history of opera.  By almost universal agreement, Figaro and Giovanni are Mozart’s two best operas, though a small minority argues that Cosi contains the best music and superb staging and that a first-class production can make it the best evening’s entertainment.

The two men worked successfuly together for two reasons. First, they both understood that creating an opera was collaboration and that composer and librettist both had to know when to give way; sometimes words must yield and sometimes notes. The truth is, of course, that Mozart was extremely adept at words as well as music, and often he took over as librettist, Da Ponte acquiescing. This raises the second point: Both men were good tempered, used to hard knocks, nasty words, and intense arguments.  They had the admirable habit, essential to success in the theater, of drawing a firm line over a disagreement, once it was resolved, and moving on quickly to the next problem.  Mozart’s good nature was absolutely genuine and went to the root of his being.  He was incapable of real malice or the desire to wound (the one exception was the archbishop, and there, too, hatred was expressed in words rather than deeds). Da Ponte was a much more flawed creature.  He was a fearful liar, to begin with, and his various volumes of memories are not to be trusted at all. His subsequent career after he left Vienna and went to New York, becoming a trader, a bookseller, a bankrupt, a poet, and other things, shows that his commitment to the stage and to music - drama, particularly - was not total.

Moreover, it is not clear that he recognized quality in opera. He thought the best composer he worked with was Vicente Martin y Soler, and he had the most fulsome praise for Antonio Salieri.  The implication was that both were Mozart’s superiors as musicians.  Both were more successful commercially at the time, and their operas were performed more frequently than Mozart’s - so were those of many other composers, at least eleven by my reckoning.  But both were so inferior to Mozart by any conceivable artistic criteria as to cast doubt on Da Ponte’s musical understanding.  And it is a significant fact that his three Mozart operas are the only ones whose libretto he wrote that have remained in the repertoire or that anyone has heard of today.

Hence the inescapable conclusion is that Mozart was the dominant figure in the collaboration.  Da Ponte understood or learned from Mozart the need to keep the drama moving by varying the musical encounters and groupings, by altering the rhythms of vocal speech, and by switching the moods.  He may even have understood the great discovery in the writing of opera that we owe to Mozart - the way in which character can be created, transformed, altered, and emphasized by entirely musical means taking possession of the sense of words.  But the magic touch is always provided by Mozart as music dramatist.

Wednesday June 10 2015

I continue to photo white vans.  The poshest white van so far is one I photoed today.  Here’s the basic photo:

image

But, this being a posh enterprise, the graphics are a bit thin and polite, and my photo doesn’t help.  So here’s a close up what it is:

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And here are the services they offer.

Earlier in the day, I also photoed this white van, which also seemed rather posh:

image

Again, for the same sorts of reasons, here’s a close-up of what it is:

image

But, although “piano people” suggests people who play pianos, or at the very least tune them, all that these piano people do is move them from place to place, carefully.

There really are a lot of white vans out there.

Thursday June 04 2015

My favourite shop in London is Gramex, which sells second hand classical CDs in the basement of 104 Lower Marsh, underneath the Book Warehouse.

Below is a picture I took this afternoon of a would-be purchaser of a classical CD patiently waiting for the attention of Gramex proprietor Roger Hewland, seated:

image

His gaff.  His rules.

Today, he had some cardboard boxes out from which we were invited to select items to purchase, for nothing.  (He had bought them for nothing and he was passing on the good news.) I selected over a dozen really good CDs, some of the sort I usually buy.  Which was good.  And others of the sort I don’t usually buy.  Ditto.

Tuesday June 02 2015

Today I attended an event at the office of the ASI, at which Tim Worstall spoke about his latest book.

I took photos, but almost everything I took was terrible.  This one, much cropped and enhanced, was one of the least worst ones:

image

That’s Sam Bowman in the middle there, with his back to the window, and on the right, Worstall, holding his glasses, waiting for Sam to finish his intro.  That almost everyone had their backs to the windows didn’t help me photo their faces.

The only half decent photo I took was when I got outside, and photoed people who were saying those prolonged goodbyes that happen at these kinds of events.

image

Through the upstairs window you can see the party continuing.

The gist of Worstall’s talk was that the Green claim that the earth’s resources are about to run out is based on a failure to understand the meaning of the word “reserve”.  Reserves are not all the resources they even know about or know how to go looking for; they are the resources that they already have lined up to be extracted, given current market conditions and current technological ability.  The entire point of “reserves” is that they are already on the warehouse shelf, metaphorically speaking, and are indeed about to “run out”, aka be consumed.  That these “reserves” are about to be consumed does not mean that all the earth’s resources, known and unknown, easily obtainable at today’s prices and with today’s technology or difficult, are all about to vanish, any more than the fact that all the food now in warehouses will soon disappear and then immediately be replaced means that we are all about to starve.

I have long suspected-stroke-assumed something along these lines.  Good to hear it spelt out in detail.

Monday April 27 2015

One of my favourite buildings that I’ve never seen is the recently completed (quite recently completed - 2008) Oslo Opera House, which looks like this:

image

Sooner or later, some big public building was bound to be built like this, with a roof that doubles up as a big public open space, where you can walk to the highest spot on the building’s roof, without once having to go indoors.

Oslo Opera has become a new landmark for the city and proved an instant success with both locals and tourists.

And of course, that roof doesn’t have to be the bland and featureless desert that this one is, in this picture.  Sooner or later, it will acquire roof clutter!  Perhaps it already has.

As entire cities compete with one another for tourists, buildings like this, with walkabout roofs, will surely become ever more common, as ever more tourists search, as I search, for places up in the sky from which to take tourist snaps.  It is no accident that I found the above picture and quote at a site called Visit Norway.  (Although sadly, this Visit Norway site fucks with the links and causes them not to work, and these fucked links also fuck with subsequent links which are none of Visit Norway’s damn business. This caused me major problems, until I just stripped out all Visit Norway linkage, at which point sanity was restored.  So if you care, you’ll have to find the damn place for yourself.  I think Visit Norway was trying to help. It failed.  Norway, sort this out.)

Even as I praise this building, I make no judgement about what goes on inside it.  The point of these “iconic” buildings - horizontal Big Things - you might say, is that they are fun to visit, regardless of their mere indoor contents.  See also: Tate Modern.  After all, one of the advantages of a roof like this is that the roof can be enjoyed even as the inside of the building can be entirely ignored.

What got me writing about this Oslo building was a recent posting at Dezeen, featuring another proposed building by the same architects, Snohetta (which has a forward slash through the “o") which uses the same trick, of people being able to walk up to the top in a big zig zag.  This time it is a museum in Budapest:

image

And oh look, I went to the Sn o-with-forward-slash hetta website, and here is another Snohetta proposal, using the same trick, for another opera house, this time in Busan, South Korea:

image

With the design of the Busan Opera, the opera is no longer a passive playground for the elite but becomes interactive, democratic space, responding to the public’s ambitions and interests.

This is architect speak for:

People can walk about on the roof and take photos without having to sit through some stupid damn opera.

And oh look, again.  Snohetta have also proposed that a new media centre in Vienna should look like this:

image

Look again, and you encounter the Barack Obama Presidential Center:

image

These last two are not so zig zag, but the principle is the same.

London awaits you, Snohettans.

Monday April 20 2015

It is more important to me that I get to bed at a sensible hour than it is that I do some sensible blogging before getting to bed.  So, another sign:

image

But this time, instead of them doing something a bit strange, it’s me doing something very silly.

Photographed by me in Walthamstow, yesterday.

Good night, and I’ll try to do better tomorrow.

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.

Monday March 23 2015

First, an outstanding White Van photo snapped from what looks like the inside of a cafe, by Simon Gibbs, to whom profuse thanks:

image

I’ve been photoing White Vans for a month and more, but have never got three of them in one go like that.  That arrived chez moi first thing this morning.

And then, to my amazement, this was this at Guido, also today:

image

That’s right.  Labour have launched there very own White Van!  You wouldn’t dare make that up.  I knew I was onto something with all this White Vannery.

The problem for the Labour Party here is that Essex White Van Man, the original beast, doesn’t work as an employee driver for Wellocks, or for Office Revival or for Yate Supplies (these being the enterprises who own and whose glory is proclaimed by Simon’s three White Vans above), and certainly not for the Labour Party.  He has his own White Van, which is entirely white, as you can see when you peruse that original tweet that got all this fuss started:

image

That snap being a recent one of mine.  And, as Guido points out, a proper Essex White Van is not a Merc, as the Labour White Van is.  He doesn’t go on to say that it should be a Ford Transit, as above, but it should.  The White Van in the original tweet is a Transit.

This new Labour White Van is supposed to separate Labour from the la-di-da world of London and to assert its connection to the common (i.e. non-rich-London) man.  But it fails to do this, because, as these recent White Van postings of mine have been explaining, White Vans covered in poncey graphics are now quintessentially London.  I assume that they have also become quintessentially Wigan and quintessentially Rotherham and for that matter quintessential Dagenham.  But I further assume that when true-blue Wiganians and Rotherhamians and Dagenhamians look at them, they see, not their local culture, but cultural imperialism by bloody London.

(Damn.  I did everything to this posting put actually post it “today”, so I’m leaving the date I originally attached to it.  Cheating I know but it talks about Monday as today, so Monday it is.)

Friday March 20 2015

Yesterday I visited a shop called Tiger in Tottenham Court Road.  Here is the sign about it that sticks out into the road, even though what I thought I was photoing at the time was the Wheel:

image

That’s actually one of my favourite views of the Wheel, because it is so weird and unexpected.  We’re looking south along Tottenham Court Road, with Centre Point on the left as we look.  You hear people seeing this, and saying: Oh look, the Wheel.  Wow.

Tiger has lots of stuff in it, which I haven’t time to tell you about now but will hope to do Real Soon Now.  But what I will say (today) is that, after a bit of searching, I found cats, in the shapes of: a cat mat, some cat suitcases, and some tigers:

image image image

Too knackered to say more now.  Suffice it to say that Tiger is a veritable cornucopia of cheap and cheerful stuff.

Thursday March 19 2015

Following on from yesterday’s White Van, here is another White Van, which marks the moment when I first started really noticing these things.  It was parked outside an office just round the corner from my front door:

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Let’s take a closer look at the driver’s door of this White Van.  Because the exact moment when the whole White Van thing clicked inside my head was when I saw, and photoed, this:

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There you go.  They’re having a laugh about White Van Man.  I told you it was a thing.

This happened on December 17th of last year, which was about a month after the Shadow Ministress did her tweet that cost her her shadow job.  But they’ve been driving around in that joke since well before all that, as this blog posting from April of last year proves.

And I know this got me thinking about White Vans, because the very next photos I took were of this:

image

I had been noticing this other White Van hanging around near my home, but until that moment I had not considered it something worth photoing.  Then, I did.  And, off an on, I’ve been photoing such vans ever since, although few of them as lavishly decorated as that one.

Wednesday March 18 2015

Ever since that ruckus when a Labour Shadow Cabinet Ministress got into hot water with a tweet which involved a White Van, I’ve been photoing White Vans.  And, in fact, I think I have been doing this since before that little drama.  This White Van, photoed by me today in the Covent Garden area, is one of my favourites so far:

image

The point is, White Vans have rather gone up in the world.  Lots of them now come with much carefully designed décor and info.  London now abounds with fleets of White Vans thus decorated, white being the preferred colour by far.  It’s like an automotive uniform.

It’s as if White Vans have a sort of macho-stroke-ironic appeal to those who drive them, and to the rest of us.  The drivers, when asked what they do for a living, can say: I drive a White Van.  Oh, ha ha ha!  But no, not one of those White Vans, the sort they have in Essex.  Oh no.

Or alternatively, if the driver is a genuine White Van Man, with no irony involved, of the sort that lady politician was having a go at, he’s happy too, even if he would probably prefer plain white, rather than all that poncey verbiage.  And he’d rather have sacks of cement or tubs of plaster in the back there, rather than nerdy SF stuff.

Well, not sure about that.  But White Vans are definitely, as they say nowadays, a thing.

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.

Friday March 06 2015

Libertarian Home have been having their meetings in several different venues of late.  Last night’s event was in the Prince of Wales, Covent Garden, which is on the corner of Long Acre and Drury Lane.  I got there a bit early, and filled the time by strolling along Long Acre towards where the old Alternative Bookshop once was, hoping for photoable diversion, and I was not disappointed.  Through a window, just across the road from Covent Garden tube, I spied, and photoed, this:

image image imageimage image image

I’m pretty sure I don’t like it, but it’s definitely a Thing worth photoing.  This time I remembered to photo enough information about the place to be able later to identify it.  The outside didn’t actually say what the place is, merely the address.  But that was enough for googling purposes.  It turns out this is a Fred Perry place, where Fred Perry and Co ... does things.  And this wooden Thing is a combination of reception desk, seating and window logo.  The Fred Perry enterprise makes, I assume sporty stuff and in particular sporty clothing, although that’s only a guess.  That Fred Perry website is all design but bizarrely little information.

It would be a lot more logical to have a reception desk, some seating, and a company logo in the window, each separate, each doing their own job, each replaceable as and when, or if decreed to be imperfect in some way.  Why do all these things need to be connected?  They don’t.  They need not to be connected.  And the reception desk bit must be very inconvenient actually to do receptioning on.

Thinking about this some more, this Thing makes me think that the Fred Perry enterprise is all about “design”, way beyond the bounds of intelligence or sanity or usefulness.  The website exudes the same atmosphere.  It tells you almost nothing, very prettily.  The whole company seems like one of those arrogantly stylish twats whose attitude is: I don’t have to explain myself.  I have your attention.  I am not going to deign to use it by actually talking to you.  I am wonderful and wonderfully stylish me.  That is enough for mere you.  Consider yourself lucky to be even seeing me.

But then, I guess that I am not their target demographic.  I am neither sporty (as in actually doing sport), nor stylish (as in myself wanting to look stylish).

While trying to find some kind of link to this enterprise, I learned that Fred Perry, the man himself, Wimbledon tennis champion in the year whenever it was, was also the 1929 world champion at ping pong.  Blog and learn.

Saturday February 28 2015

I just googled “3D printing” and clicked on “images”.  One of the more interesting images I encountered was this one ...:

image

… which I found here.  The point being that this is one of those technologies which lots of people are getting excited about, perhaps as something they might be able to do themselves, for fun but also for profit.  But most of the significant early applications of 3D printing seem now to be by businesses which were already making stuff, and now have another way to make it.  Regular thing makers (for those not inclined to follow links that’s a link to pieces about the use of 3D printing by the aerospace industry) have a huge advantage over “home” 3D printers, which is that they already know what would be worth making.

And making in quite large quantities, which means that they can acquire or construct highly specialised 3D printers for those particular items, which use their own very particular material inputs.  3D printers, if they are to pay their way, must surely specialise.  Which means they’ll be applied first by businessmen, rather than by mere people in their homes.

I have yet to hear about any 3D printing killer app which will kick off the much talked-of but yet-to-occur home 3D printing revolution.  It will come, I’m sure.  But it hasn’t come yet.

Tuesday February 17 2015

I just posted a Samizdata piece about Peter Thiel, a most admirable man, if the video performance that got me interested in him is anything to go by, and of course it is.

I kept the Samizdata posting short, and there follow a couple of paragraphs I decided not to include, because … well, I just decided not to.  The posting, which was basically just saying how about this for a clever guy go and watch him was becoming too unwieldy and too full of ponderousness.  So, the rest of this is me recycling my cuts here.  I can’t really put what follows as a quote, but it sort of feels like maybe I should.  Anyway, here we go.

There are around a dozen or more fascinating notions expounded in Thiel’s talk.  One thing in particular interested me, because it is an argument that has always interested me.  Extreme pessimism, says Thiel, often causes people to think that there is nothing to be done, because whatever they do is bound to fail.  Very true.  But extreme optimism (optimism being my preferred stance when trying to do anything) is also dangerous, because it is liable to tell you that you don’t need to do anything.  Good things will happen automatically.  Says Thiel: avoid both extremes.  Steer a middle path.  Do of a bit of both.  All of which may seem very obvious to you, but I have never heard it put quite like that, and certainly not so succinctly.

Another nice and counter-consensual thing Thiel says is that failure is over-rated, because you generally only learn one of the reasons why you failed, when in fact there were probably about half a dozen.

See the early comments at Samizdata by Rob Fisher, for other bits of cleverness from this extremely clever man.

More Thiel spiel here.