Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
Michael Jennings on Scum?
Jackie D on Plan as energy
Drone Misfits on Van – grey but very interesting
Drone Misfits on Droneverts
Michael Thomas on The art of taxi advertising
Mark Rousell on Views from Waterlow Park
6000 on Some more lighthouses for 6k
Michael Jennings on Don't be fooled by the smallness of the building
Gerry on I never thought that we could win
Brian Micklethwait on Strand Palace Hotel footbridge
Most recent entries
- I am knackered
- Packaging that is too good
- Tidying up
- To Tottenham (1): A fine day (especially for scaffolding)
- Quota Citroen DS
- Plan as energy
- One mobile phone photoer now
- Somebody needs to invent electronically changeable paint
- Clocking clocks
- What indeed?
- Sunlight on sea
- Some more lighthouses for 6k
- Views from Waterlow Park
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Category archive: Business
Friday is the day here for cats and other creatures, so here, among other things, is a panda:
What this photo illustrates is the perennial problem of trying to chuck stuff out, which is that all too often, stuff is just too nice to chuck out.
I recall, a year or two after the Berlin Wall was dismantled, meeting an Eastern European lady, who complained about how the packages and pots and bottles in which produce was suddenly now sold was too good to chuck out. Bloody capitalism. Capitalist rubbish was better than what they had previously had as actual stuff.
In a modified form, I now suffer from this syndrome. It has crept up on me more gradually, but throughout my lifetime, packaging has been getting ever better, probably because it is the sort of industry that politicians disapprove of, and have hence left to its own devices, an industry’s own devices invariably being better than any devices devised by politicians and superimposed upon it. The packaging industry, not having been “helped”, has thrived.
Beer bottles (the one in the picture still has beer in it so that will be consumed first), I have learned not to miss. But even they are sometimes so artfully designed that it seems wrong to throw them away.
The coffee jar I will keep, because coffee jars are so structurally impressive.
But that panda has got to go.
The first of my two trips earlier this week to Tottenham was on Monday, and, as soon as I stepped beyond the front door that I share with my neighbours, the weather put me in very a good mood. It was exactly as had been prophesied, namely: perfect. Sky, fifty shades of blue, depending on what else you put next to it, thus:
All of these photos involve scaffolding, which is a thing I love, along with cranes. (Also bridges.) Scaffolding says that Men Are Working, building a better future for us all. Scaffolding says that Men With Money think that here, there is more money to be made, selling or renting new or newly refurbished places. Cranes say the same. (Bridges say: here are two places worth connecting.)
On a day such as Monday was, scaffolding can look especially fine, because Monday was the kind of day when just about anything was looking fine.
1.1 is of some home improvement going on as seen from just outside my front door. 1.2 and 2.1 are both of the building going on across my courtyard, where they are turning a posh office into posh flats. And 2.2 is of some scaffolding to be seen in Vauxhall Bridge Road. (Although there seems to be disagreement between the sign in my photo and the only relevant website I could find, concerning what number to ring to get Superior Access Scaffolding.)
And all of this before I had even arrived at Pimlico Tube. It was an auspicious start. The rest of the day did not disappoint.
From the BBC updates on the Scotland v Georgia rugby game at Murrayfield this afternoon:
Scotland have really struggled against the Georgian scum in the second-half.
Hastily corrected to “scrum”. Should have done a screen capture. As it is, you just have to take my word for it.
Actually Georgia is a great place. It recently came sixth in the world in one of those economic freedom charts, as I mentioned in passing in this posting
LATER: Oh dear. Not Murrayfield. Kilmarnock. Whenever you moan about someone else’s error, you make an error. It’s inevitable.
A shop in Victoria Street, ten days ago.
I’m going to a Bonfire Night thing next weekend. But, not so many commercial opportunities in Bonfire Night. So, at any rate in London, Halloween is on the up and up and Bonfire Night is fizzling out. I can’t say I mourn its passing. All those random bangs that will happen this week strike me as just annoying. I prefer the Germanic fireworks we now have, to bring in the New Year, if only because they all explode at the exact same time.
Also, Halloween probably now makes more sense because of all the movies there have been on those kind of themes. How many Guy Fawkes movies have their been lately? Most Young People These Days have probably never heard of the Gunpowder Plot.
Music is in the category list because of all those miniature guitars in the shop window. They aren’t Halloweeny. They’re there all the time.
Incoming from Michael Jennings: One for you.
It certainly is. Apparently, in Mexico, Uber is using drones to advertise itself, by having them hover, with signs, over traffic jams:
Drones to carry adverts, or signs. But of course. The possibilities are endless, and the probability is: lots of complaining, drone destruction, car crashes blamed on drones carrying adverts or signs, etc.
Imagine it. You are going at a speed considered too fast by the Big Computer in the Sky, so it sends a drone out to fly out in front of you, telling you to slow down or be fined. Or more probably, just telling you that you have already have been fined. Ah, modern life. Science fiction just never sees it coming.
By the way, what is that sign saying?
Well, for some, maybe they are. But not for many. Like I said, they’re a business.
Further evidence: University of North Dakota Offers Class on Starting Your Own Drone Business.
Further confirmation. My TV screen takes a while to warm up, so I often leave it on and just switch off the sound. And a moment ago, while listening to the radio, I was also watching daytime TV silently selling quite complicated looking drones at giveaway prices. A lot of money got poured into these things, to sell at around five hundred quid, in the highstreet, to people, to play around with. But these drones were today on sale for less than fifty. As individual things to have, they just haven’t caught on.
See also: 3D printers. Also not toys.
Click at will, to get bigger, less square pictures.
Displayed in chronological order. Taken between May 2011 and August 2014. When I took that last one, of the bikini-wearing bottle openers, that got me collecting all the others. That last one is definitely the one where the Union Jacks are having the most fun.
I’ve spent all my blogging time today trying to write a couple of things for Samizdata, so once again it’s quota photo time, this time in the form of a photo of Tom Cruise that I photoed recently, just a few minutes before I took this footbridge photo. To be more exact, it is a photo of a photo, of Tom Cruise:
That photo that you see in my photo is to be seen outside the Duchess Theatre in the West End, where the play being shown Goes Wrong, every night, without, although this may not be quite the way to describe things, fail.
I assume that you can only exhibit a picture of Tom Cruise like that if Tom Cruise gives his permission. If that’s right, Tom Cruise proves himself to be a good sport. Or, perhaps, a greedy bastard. But for now, I’m going with good sport, if only because if he got greedy, they couldn’t afford it.
Yesterday I was reminding myself that we live in an age when pub quiz questions have instant answers. So when, soon after posting that posting, I came across this photo I took a while back, of a boat, …:
… with the words “THAMES RIB EXPERIENCE” written on it, I set to work to find out what the “RIB” bit means. I had vaguely supposed that this was some sort of steakhouse sponsorship deal. The world is now full of ridiculous arrangements of that sort, sponsored by commercial enterprises whose only way to sell more of their stuff is to cause even more people to have heard of it. The mere merits of the product being irrelevant, for their purposes. “Yes it’s bad for you but it tastes really nice” not being a message they want to be too publicly and explicitly associated with, because then they’d have the health fascists all over them.
So “Thames Rib Experience” as an exercise is boosting meat consumption? But which ribs should we be consuming. Just ribs generally? The British Rib Council, a combined consortium of ribbers, combining to boost ribs in general? It didn’t seem very plausible. So, what does RIB really mean?
It turns out that RIB means rigid inflatable boat.
This is a triviality, of course, unless you are in life-threateningly urgent need of a rigid inflatable boat trip on the Thames. But the change in the world towards a state where it is much easier to find things out is not trivial. The story that lots of people mention in this connection, and lots of people are not wrong, is the ease with which a formerly dirt poor farmer now can, in the depths of the African countryside, keep himself informed about the prices he can expect to get for his products, when he takes them to market.
Quicker and better answers to questions is all part of why all this stuff has been happening lately.
The Evolution of Everything, pp. 181-184:
Evolutionary reform of education is happening. James Tooley, Professor of Education at Newcastle University, has catalogued - ‘discovered’ might be a better word - the fact that the poorest slums of cities, and the remotest villages, in countries such as India, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and even China abound in low-cost private schools. He first began studying this phenomenon for the World Bank in 2000 in Hyderabad in India, and has more recently followed it through Africa. In the cramped and sewage-infested slums of the old city of Hyderabad he stumbled upon an association of five hundred private schools catering to the poor. In one of them, the Peace High School, he found doorless classrooms with unglazed windows and stained walls, where children of rickshaw-pullers and day labourers paid sixty to a hundred rupees a month (about 90p-£1.50), depending on age, for their education. Yet the quality of the education was impressive. In another, St Maaz High School, he found a charismatic head teacher with mathematical flair who in twenty years had built up a school with nearly a thousand students, taught by a group of largely unqualified (but often graduate) teachers, on three rented sites, from which he made a reasonable profit. State schools existed, with state-certificated teachers in them, but many of Hyderabad’s parents were exasperated by the poor quality of the education they provided, and many of the private-school teachers were exasperated by the poor quality of the teacher training. ‘Government teacher training,’ one told Tooley, ‘is like learning to swim without ever going near a swimming pool.’
When Tooley told these stories to his colleagues at the World Bank, he was told that he had uncovered examples of businessmen ripping off the poor, or that most of the private schools were creaming off the wealthier parents in a district, which was bad for those left behind. But this proved demonstrably untrue: the Peace High School in Hyderabad gave concessions, or even free tuition, to the children of extremely poor and illiterate people: one parent was a cleaner in a mosque earning less than £10 a month. Why would such people send their children to private schools rather than to the free state schools, which provided uniforms, books and even some free food? Because, Tooley was told by parents, in the state schools teachers did not show up, or taught badly when they did. He visited some state schools and confirmed the truth of these allegations.
Tooley soon realised that the existence of these low-cost private schools in poor neighbourhoods was not unknown, but that it was largely ignored by the establishment, which continued to argue that only an expansion of state education could help the poor. The inadequate state of public education in low-income countries is well recognised; but the answer that everybody agrees on is more money, rather than a different approach. Amartya Sen, for instance, called for more government spending and dismissed private education as the preserve of the elite, while elsewhere in the same paper admitting that the poor were increasingly sending their children to private schools, ‘especially in areas where public schools are in bad shape’. This bad shape, he thought, was due to the siphoning off of the vocal middle classes by private schools - rather than the fact that teachers were accountable to bureaucrats, and not to parents. Yet the poor were deserting the state sector at least as much as the middle class. The lesson that schooling can be encouraged to emerge from below was ignored in favour of the theory that it must be imposed from above.
India was just the start for Tooley. He visited country after country, always being assured that there were no low-cost private schools there, always finding the opposite. In Ghana he found a teacher who had built up a school with four branches teaching 3,400 children, charging $50 a term, with scholarships for those who could not afford it. In Somaliland he found a city with no water supply, paved roads or street lights, but two private schools for every state one. In Lagos, where government officials and the representatives of Western aid agencies all but denied the existence of low-cost private schools, he found that 75 per cent of all schoolchildren in the poor areas of Lagos state were in private schools, many not registered with the government. In all the areas he visited, both urban and rural, in India and Africa, Tooley found that low-cost private schools enrolled more students than state schools, and that people were spending 5-10 per cent of their earnings on educating their children. When he asked a British government aid agency official why his agency could not consider supporting these schools with loans instead of pouring money into the official educational bureaucracy in Ghana, he was told that money could not go to for-profit institutions.
Suppose you are the parent of a child in a Lagos slum. The teacher at the school she attends is often absent, frequently asleep during lessons, and provides a poor standard when awake. This being a public-sector school, however, withdrawing your child goes unnoticed. Your only other redress is to complain to the teacher’s boss, who is a distant official in a part of the city you do not often visit; or you can wait for the next election and vote for a politician who will appoint officials who will do a better job of sending inspectors to check on the attendance and quality of teachers, and then do something about it. Good luck with that. A World Bank report cited by Tooley states despairingly that pay-for-performance cannot work in public-sector schools, and ‘dysfunctional bureaucracies cascade into a morass of corruption, as upward payments from those at lower levels buy good assignments or ratings from superiors’.
If your teacher is in a private, for-profit school, however, and you withdraw your child, then the owner of the school will quickly feel the effect in his pocket, and the bad teacher will be fired. In a free system the parent, the consumer, is the boss. Tooley found that private-school proprietors constantly monitor their teachers and follow up parents’ complaints. His team visited classrooms in various parts of India and Africa, and found teachers actually teaching in fewer of the government classrooms they visited than in private classrooms – sometimes little more than half as many. Despite having no public funds or aid money, the unrecognised private schools had better facilities such as toilets, electricity and blackboards. Their pupils also get better results, especially in English and mathematics.
Earlier, in 2014, I posting another bit from a Matt Ridley book, this time from The Rational Optimist. I entitled that posting Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science.
Here is another Matt Ridley book bit, on this same subject, of how technology leads science. And it is also from The Evolution of Everything (pp. 135-137):
Technology comes from technology far more often than from science. And science comes from technology too. Of course, science may from time to time return the favour to technology. Biotechnology would not have been possible without the science of molecular biology, for example. But the Baconian model with its one-way flow from science to technology, from philosophy to practice, is nonsense. There’s a much stronger flow the other way: new technologies give academics things to study.
An example: in recent years it has become fashionable to argue that the hydraulic fracturing technology that made the shale-gas revolution possible originated in government-sponsored research, and was handed on a plate to industry. A report by California’s Breakthrough Institute noted that microseismic imaging was developed by the federal Sandia National Laboratory, and ‘proved absolutely essential for drillers to navigate and site their boreholes’, which led Nick Steinsberger, an engineer at Mitchell Energy, to develop the technique called ‘slickwater fracking’.
To find out if this was true, I spoke to one of hydraulic fracturing’s principal pioneers, Chris Wright, whose company Pinnacle Technologies reinvented fracking in the late 1990s in a way that unlocked the vast gas resources in the Barnett shale, in and around Forth Worth, Texas. Utilised by George Mitchell, who was pursuing a long and determined obsession with getting the gas to flow out of the Barnett shale to which he had rights, Pinnacle’s recipe - slick water rather than thick gel, under just the right pressure and with sand to prop open the fractures through multi-stage fracturing - proved revolutionary. It was seeing a presentation by Wright that persuaded Mitchell’s Steinsberger to try slickwater fracking. But where did Pinnacle get the idea? Wright had hired Norm Wapinski from Sandia, a federal laboratory. But who had funded Wapinksi to work on the project at Sandia? The Gas Research Institute, an entirely privately funded gas-industry research coalition, whose money came from a voluntary levy on interstate gas pipelines. So the only federal involvement was to provide a space in which to work. As Wright comments: ‘If I had not hired Norm from Sandia there would have been no government involvement.’ This was just the start. Fracking still took many years and huge sums of money to bring to fruition as a workable technology. Most of that was done by industry. Government laboratories beat a path to Wright’s door once he had begun to crack the problem, offering their services and their public money to his efforts to improve fracking still further, and to study just how fractures propagate in rocks a mile beneath the surface. They climbed on the bandwagon, and got some science to do as a result of the technology developed in industry - as they should. But government was not the wellspring.
As Adam Smith, looking around the factories of eighteenth-century Scotland, reported in The Wealth of Nations: ‘a great part of the machines made use in manufactures ... were originally the inventions of common workmen’, and many improvements had been made ‘by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines’. Smith dismissed universities even as a source of advances in philosophy. I am sorry to say this to my friends in academic ivory towers, whose work I greatly value, but if you think your cogitations are the source of most practical innovation, you are badly mistaken.
Recently I came upon another for the collection:
This is a footbridge at the back of the Strand Palace Hotel. I could find nothing about this footbridge on the www, but luckily I had already taken the precaution of asking someone local, just after I had taken my photos. This local was entering an office in the same street with the air of doing this regularly, and who therefore seemed like someone who might know. And he did. What about that bridge? - I asked him.
Yes, he said. That used to be the bridge that conveyed the servants from the Strand Palace Hotel, on the left in the above photo, to the servants quarters, which is what the dwellings on the right in my photo, behind the scaffolding, used to be. These servants quarters had, quite a while back, been turned into mere quarters, for regular people to live in. So, the bridge then got blocked off at the right hand end as we here look at it. But, the bridge continued to be used by the Strand Palace Hotel as an elongated cupboard. These old servants quarters are now being turned into luxury flats, which is why the scaffolding. But the bridge stays.
That the original purpose of the bridge was to convey servants, as opposed to people, is presumably why the bridge has no windows. Wouldn’t want to see servants going to and fro, would we. Fair dos, actually. A hotel of this sort – this one being just across the Strand from the Savoy - is a lot like a theatre, and the point of a theatre is not to see all the backstage staff wandering hither and thither. So, I do get it. And I doubt the servants minded that there were no windows. I bet they minded lots of other things, but not that.
I will now expand on the matter of the exact location of this obscure footbridge. As you can see from the square to the right, it is in Exeter Street, London WC2. I took other photos of this Exeter Street street sign, because I have a rule about photoing information about interesting things that I photo, as well as photoing the interesting thing itself, which is that I do. Sometimes, as on the day I took this photo, I even follow this rule. But I thought I’d try extricating a detail from the above photo, and see how I did. I blew the original up to maximum size, and sliced out a rectangle, tall and thin, with the street name in it. I then expanded (see the first sentence of this paragraph) what I had, sideways, lightened it, contrasted it, sharpened it, blah blah blah, and I think you will agree that the result is unambiguous. My point here is (a): Exeter Street, WC2, and (b): that such photomanipulation is not merely now possible. My point (b) is that it is now very easy. Even I can do all of this photomanipulation, really quickly and confidently.
I can remember when the only people who could work this sort of magic were spooks in movies, and then a bit later, detectives on the television.
Talking of spookiness, I included the surveillance camera in that little detail. In London, these things are now everywhere. Because of my sideways expanding of the photo, this camera looks like it sticks out more than it really does.
The directory with all the snaps I took in Quimper and surrounding places, ten years ago, contains some fine images.
And some rather weird ones:
Okay, Citroens made of wood is not that weird. Certainly not in France.
But those really rather realistic black baby dolls is something we surely don’t do nearly so much over here. I’m guessing we have too much of a history of what you might call derogatory black dolls, unrealistically racist dolls, and that means that all black dolls are now tainted in our eyes, even much more realistic ones like the ones in that picture. They evoke a tradition and a way of thinking we would prefer not to be reminded of, or worse, to be thought to be perpetuating. When the British are being sentimental about black babies, they do it in those (I think) ghastly charity fundraising telly adverts.
But what do I know? I’m just thinking aloud. Maybe we do have lots of dolls like these in British shop windows, and I merely haven’t noticed them. But, my first reaction when I say these black babies was, as I say: weird. Certainly striking enough to take several photos of.
In this earlier posting, I speculated that someone living in Roupell Street, which is near Waterloo Station, has been collecting vintage Citroen’s. This guy came upon the same Citroens as I did, in the same place, and made the same guess.
But this evening, I dined out with friends, mentioned the above posting, and was informed that the explanation for this clutch of Citroens is that there is a man who restores or repairs them, who lives or at any rate works, in that locality. Makes sense. And it means that Roupell Street may not have become quite as posh as I originally said.
I love all the paraphernalia, big and small, of London tourism. And with my digital camera, and more to the point with my habit of having my digital camera with me and keeping a lookout for things to photo with it, I don’t have to buy any of it. I can just photo it.
Today, for instance, from inside the laundrette that I have been frequenting lately, for my end of summer clothes washes, I spied this bus (I think there is only one such) going past. This is one of London’s more diverting sights. And I managed to get a zoom-snap of it before it got too far away:
Not bad, considering how gloomy the light was today.
That back window is actually quite a good detail to focus on. If you look a bit carefully (enlarge with a click), you can see that it is also the EMERGENCY EXIT.