Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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- To Covent Garden (2): Rough roofs – smooth roof
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- Was Guy’s Tower a key building in the architectural history of London?
- Photo-drone wars to come
- A link and a photo of a photographer
- Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
- Sign blocked by surveillance camera
- My digital photos on his TV
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- Photoing at the ASI party
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Category archive: Business
Another Bit from a Book, and once again I accompany it with a warning that this Bit could vanish at any moment, for the reasons described in this earlier posting.
This particular Bit is from The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (pp. 255-258):
Much as I love science for its own sake, I find it hard to argue that discovery necessarily precedes invention and that most new practical applications flow from the minting of esoteric insights by natural philosophers. Francis Bacon was the first to make the case that inventors are applying the work of discoverers, and that science is the father of invention. As the scientist Terence Kealey has observed, modern politicians are in thrall to Bacon. They believe that the recipe for making new ideas is easy: pour public money into science, which is a public good, because nobody will pay for the generation of ideas if the taxpayer does not, and watch new technologies emerge from the downstream end of the pipe. Trouble is, there are two false premises here: first, science is much more like the daughter than the mother of technology; and second, it does not follow that only the taxpayer will pay for ideas in science.
It used to be popular to argue that the European scientific revolution of the seventeenth century unleashed the rational curiosity of the educated classes, whose theories were then applied in the form of new technologies, which in turn allowed standards of living to rise. China, on this theory, somehow lacked this leap to scientific curiosity and philosophical discipline, so it failed to build on its technological lead. But history shows that this is back-to-front. Few of the inventions that made the industrial revolution owed anything to scientific theory.
It is, of course, true that England had a scientific revolution in the late 1600s, personified in people like Harvey, Hooke and Halley, not to mention Boyle, Petty and Newton, but their influence on what happened in England’s manufacturing industry in the following century was negligible. Newton had more influence on Voltaire than he did on James Hargreaves. The industry that was transformed first and most, cotton spinning and weaving, was of little interest to scientists and vice versa. The jennies, gins, frames, mules and looms that revolutionised the working of cotton were invented by tinkering businessmen, not thinking boffins: by ‘hard heads and clever fingers’. It has been said that nothing in their designs would have puzzled Archimedes.
Likewise, of the four men who made the biggest advances in the steam engine - Thomas Newcomen, James Watt, Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson - three were utterly ignorant of scientific theories, and historians disagree about whether the fourth, Watt, derived any influence from theory at all. It was they who made possible the theories of the vacuum and the laws of thermodynamics, not vice versa. Denis Papin, their French-born forerunner, was a scientist, but he got his insights from building an engine rather than the other way round. Heroic efforts by eighteenth-century scientists to prove that Newcomen got his chief insights from Papin’s theories proved wholly unsuccessful.
Throughout the industrial revolution, scientists were the beneficiaries of new technology, much more than they were the benefactors. Even at the famous Lunar Society, where the industrial entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood liked to rub shoulders with natural philosophers like Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley, he got his best idea - the ‘rose-turning’ lathe - from a fellow factory owner, Matthew Boulton. And although Benjamin Franklin’s fertile mind generated many inventions based on principles, from lightning rods to bifocal spectacles, none led to the founding of industries.
So top-down science played little part in the early years of the industrial revolution. In any case, English scientific virtuosity dries up at the key moment. Can you name a single great English scientific discovery of the first half of the eighteenth century? It was an especially barren time for natural philosophers, even in Britain. No, the industrial revolution was not sparked by some deus ex machina of scientific inspiration. Later science did contribute to the gathering pace of invention and the line between discovery and invention became increasingly blurred as the nineteenth century wore on. Thus only when the principles of electrical transmission were understood could the telegraph be perfected; once coal miners understood the succession of geological strata, they knew better where to sink new mines; once benzene’s ring structure was known, manufacturers could design dyes rather than serendipitously stumble on them. And so on. But even most of this was, in Joel Mokyr’s words, ‘a semi-directed, groping, bumbling process of trial and error by clever, dexterous professionals with a vague but gradually clearer notion of the processes at work’. It is a stretch to call most of this science, however. It is what happens today in the garages and cafes of Silicon Valley, but not in the labs of Stanford University.
The twentieth century, too, is replete with technologies that owe just as little to philosophy and to universities as the cotton industry did: flight, solid-state electronics, software. To which scientist would you give credit for the mobile telephone or the search engine or the blog? In a lecture on serendipity in 2007, the Cambridge physicist Sir Richard Friend, citing the example of high-temperature superconductivity - which was stumbled upon in the 1980s and explained afterwards - admitted that even today scientists’ job is really to come along and explain the empirical findings of technological tinkerers after they have discovered something.
The inescapable fact is that most technological change comes from attempts to improve existing technology. It happens on the shop floor among apprentices and mechanicals, or in the workplace among the users of computer programs, and only rarely as a result of the application and transfer of knowledge from the ivory towers of the intelligentsia. This is not to condemn science as useless. The seventeenth-century discoveries of gravity and the circulation of the blood were splendid additions to the sum of human knowledge. But they did less to raise standards of living than the cotton gin and the steam engine. And even the later stages of the industrial revolution are replete with examples of technologies that were developed in remarkable ignorance of why they worked. This was especially true in the biological world. Aspirin was curing headaches for more than a century before anybody had the faintest idea of how. Penicillin’s ability to kill bacteria was finally understood around the time bacteria learnt to defeat it. Lime juice was preventing scurvy centuries before the discovery of vitamin C. Food was being preserved by canning long before anybody had any germ theory to explain why it helped.
As discussed in this earlier posting, here is a chunk of Frisby, from his book Bitcoin: The Future of Money? (pp. 197-201 – the chunk entitled “Beware the hype cycle"). And for the reasons stated in that earlier posting, this posting might rather suddenly disappear, so if you feel inclined to read it, do so now. And then when you have, buy the book and tell me that you have done this in the comments, because this might cheer up any passing authors or publishers:
There is a cycle that a new technology passes through as it goes from conception to widespread adoption. The research company Gartner has dubbed it the ‘hype cycle’. It has five phases: the technology trigger, the peak of inflated expectations, the trough of disappointment, the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity.
In the first phase the new technology is invented. There is research and development and some early investment is found. The first products are brought to market. They are expensive and will need a lot of improvement, but they find some early users. The technology clearly has something special about it and people start getting excited. This is the ‘technology trigger’. The internet in the early 1990s is a good example.
As this excitement grows, we move into the second phase. The media start talking about this amazing new technology. Speculative money piles in. All sorts of new companies spring up to operate in this new sector. Many of them are just chasing hot money and have no real product to offer. They are sometimes fraudulent. This new technology is going to change the world. The possibilities are endless. We’re going to cure diseases. We’re going to solve energy problems. We’re going to build houses on the moon. This is the ‘peak of inflated expectations’. This was the internet in 2000.
But at some point, the needle of reality punctures the bubble of expectation, and we move into the third phase. Actually, this technology might not be quite as good as we thought it was; it’s going to take a lot of work to get it right and to make it succeed on a commercial scale. A great deal of not particularly rewarding hard work, time and investment lies ahead. Forget the ideas men – now we need the water-carriers. Suddenly, the excitement has gone.
Negative press starts to creep in. Now there are more sellers than buyers. Investment is harder to come by. Many companies start going bust. People are losing money. The hype cycle has reversed and we have descended into the ‘trough of disappointment.’ This was the internet between 2000 and 2003.
But now that the hot money has left, we can move into phase four. The incompetent or fraudulent companies have died. The sector has been purged. Most of those that remain are serious players. Investors now demand better practice and the survivors deliver it. They release the second and third generation products, and they work quite well. More and more people start to use the technology and it is finally finding mainstream adoption. This was the internet in 2004. It climbed the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’, the fourth phase of the hype cycle, and entered the ‘Plateau of Productivity’ - phase five - which is where the likes of Google, Amazon and eBay are today.
Of course, cycles like this are arbitrary. Reality is never quite so simple. But it’s easy to make the case that crypto-currencies in late 2013 reached a ‘peak of inflated expectations’.
Perhaps it was not the. It wasn’t Bitcoin’s dotcom 2000 moment – just a peak on a larger journey up. Many Bitcoin companies, for example, are not even listed on the stock market. Greater manias could lie ahead.
But it’s also easy to make the case that it ws the peak of inflated expectations. In the space of three or four years, Bitcoin went from an understated mention on an obscure mailing list to declarations that it was not only going to become the preferred money system of the world, but also the usurper of the existing world order. At $1,000 a coin, some early adopters had made a million times their original investment. Speculators marvelled at the colossal amount of money they were making. The media were crazy for it. Bitcoin was discussed all over television.
It caught the imagination of the left, the right and the in-between. Computer boffins marvelled at the impossibly resilient code. Economists and libertarians marvelled at the politics of a money without government or border. There were early adopters, from the tech savvy to the black markets (black markets are usually quick to embrace new technology - pornography was the first business sector to actually make money on the internet, for example).
Every Tom, Dick and Harry you met under the age of 30 with an interest in IT was involved in some Bircoin start-up or other. Either that or he was designing some new alt currency - some altcoins were rising at over a thousand per cent per day. ‘Banks, governments, they’re irrelevant now,’ these upstarts declared.
I suggest that in late 2013 we hit the peak of the hype cycle - the peak of inflated expectations. Now Bitcoin is somewhere in the ‘trough of disillusionment,’ just like the internet in 2001. The price has fallen. There have been thefts. Some of the companies involved have gone bankrupt.
The challenge now is for all those start-ups to make their product or service work. They have to take Bitcoin from a great idea and a technology that works to something with much wider ‘real world’ use. They have to find investment and get more and more people to start using the coins. This is a long process.
There are many who will disagree with this interpretation. And, with investment, it is dangerous to have rigid opinions – I reserve the right to change my mind as events unfold.
It’s one thing to see a photo-drone reviewed in DPReview, and costing the best part of a thousand quid. It’s quite another to see one in the flesh, in a London shop window, on sale for less than four hundred:
Photoed by me through the window of Maplin’s in the Strand, late this afternoon.
Here are the details of this gizmo, at the Maplin’s website.
Okay, that must be a very cheap camera, but even so, this feels to me like a breakthrough moment for this technology, if not exactly now, then Real Soon Now. Note that you can store the output in real time, on your mobile phone. Something tells me that this gadget is going to generate some contentious news stories about nightmare neighbours, privacy violations, and who knows what other fights and furores.
What might the paps do with such toys? And how soon before two of these things crash into each other?
A few days ago, my beloved Panasonic Lumix FZ150 started misbehaving. An immobile black blob, the same blob every time, started inserting itself into all the pictures. Disaster. I shook the camera to see if it might be a superficial problem like a bit of gunk which further shaking might move to a harmless spot, but the black blob never moved, not by one pixel. I am sure this could be mended, but I didn’t have time for that, because last night I was about to attend that Libertarian Home cost of living debate, for free, on the clear understanding that I would take lots of photos.
Besides which, I hate not having a camera on me at all times. Who knows what unimortalisable dramas I might have to endure while being bereft of the ability to photograph them?
So, I immediately went out and bought another camera, from a shop. I chose the FZ150’s smarter younger brother, the Panasonic Lumix FZ200. This camera was a bit costly, yes, but, having been around for a while, not as costly as it might have been. And, it works better than the FZ150 in low light, or so everyone who cares has been saying. At indoor meetings, for instance.
I had hoped that the FZ200, being so very similar to and merely a bit better than the FZ150, would use an identical battery, which would mean that I would then have two spare batteries for the FZ200, in addition to the one it came with, on account of me having bought a spare for the FZ150 when I bought that. Alas, not. The FZ200 has its own somewhat different battery, and that meant I needed yet another spare battery. Now that SD card space is infinite, it is batteries that are now liable to run out, what with all the snaps you can now put on your infinite SD card. One battery, for a big event or expedition, is not now enough.
So, I ordered an FZ200 battery via Amazon, and paid extra for it to arrive yesterday, instead of just whenever.
And it did arrive yesterday. Once again, just as happened with that book that reached me the day before yesterday, the fundamentally important thing got done. I wanted the book and I got it. I wanted a new back-up battery, pronto, and I got it. Good.
An email arrived first thing yesterday morning, saying that the battery would arrive between 11.54 and 12.54, and that I should be in at that time, to sign for the package when I received it. Excellent. This email was identical in format to the ones telling me about how Macmillan Distribution (MDL) would be delivering the book that they had been promising, but I recognised the email about the battery as genuine, because it had lots of Amazon verbiage at the top of a sort that always signifies genuine Amazon business. Again, good. I was all set to write an admiring blog posting about this latest delivery service, the one that delivered the battery, an enterprise called DPD.
Saying when a delivery will be made, to the nearest hour, is a huge step forward, when the receiver is householder in a household rather than an office worker in an office. An office can have someone present throughout any given day, to receive incoming items and generally communicate with the outside world on behalf of all workers based there, present or absent. But the idea that a householder should be expected to wait around all day just to sign for one incoming delivery is, frankly, contemptible. As soon as a delivery person knows approximately when he’ll be arriving, and the chances are he will know this first thing in the morning, that information should be communicated to the householder. This used not to happen, but with these two delivery enterprises, it did. As I say, this is a big step in the right direction.
In both of these cases I did get this message. The book was promised between 8.30 and 9.30, and it arrived then, by which time I just about believed that the book emails were genuine. This battery was promised between 11.54 and 12.54, and it arrived then, just as I expected it to.
But all this fuss and palaver about timing becomes rather superfluous if all that the delivery person actually does when he arrives is leave the thing, unsigned for, in whatever place near to the householder he considers sufficiently near. The whole point, as insisted upon in both emails about this, of stating a specified time of arrival, is to make sure that I, the householder, was present in person, to sign for the thing. But in neither of these two cases was my presence, as it turned out, actually required. My buzzer, the one outside the front door of all the flats where my flat is, is working fine. I checked, using a visiting friend to hear it when I myself went downstairs and buzzed. Yet neither of these two delivery persons deigned to use this buzzer. They knew the number. The book deliverer even found his way right to my own personal door. But, no buzzing.
Let me spell it out. Both delivery companies told me I had to be there during the hours they each specified. Failure by me to sign would mean no delivery and further palaver while re-delivery was negotiated. These proclamations may have been offered in good faith, but they were false. I did not have to be there.
I got what I wanted. But if the original supplier wanted proof that I had received the items in the form of my signature, then DPD and MDL, in the form of the two delivery persons, would be unable to supply this proof without faking it. Were my signatures forged on little electronic devices, I wonder?
In the case of the DPD person, the person who did not even try to get my signature had, according to the DPD email, a name: “Mark”. I had been anticipating something better from “Mark”. Sadly, not.
The basic problem here, I think, is that the service supply chain is too long and is out of control. Suppliers of products promise in all sincerity that products will be delivered in exactly the manner they promise. But the person they are depending on to keep that promise doesn’t care about that promise, or not about all of it. He knows that, so long as the punter gets his hands on his precious thing, then whether any signing happens is, as far as the punter is concerned, a secondary matter. Being commanded to be somewhere you didn’t actually need to be is annoying, yes, and this is what happened to me, twice. But not getting the thing is something else again. Had one of these items (especially the battery) not arrived when stated, then you can be sure that I would have been complaining. But complaining as in trying to get my hands on the damn battery, not complaining as in just marking the whole scenario out of ten, after my basic problem (getting the battery) had been entirely solved.
By the way, when I enabled the graphic decoration of one of the Macmillan Deliveries (MDL) emails, the email then proceeded show me a picture of a DPD van. Either Macmillan are all mixed up with DPD, or else Macmillan stole the DPD email and neglected to expunge DPD from it. Or something. I really do not care.
But that’s typical. Who the hell was I dealing with here? Who, in the event that either of these items had not turned up at all, would I have had to direct my seriously angry complaints? As opposed to these mere grumbles about a basically satisfactory state of affairs, underneath all the crap.
When you have a major complaint to aim at one of these complicated supply chains, then you could well be screwed. It may take you many hours or even days to find out even who to complain to, let alone how to gouge satisfaction out of them. (Although, to be fair to Amazon, they take responsibility for everything that they do or that anyone unleashed via them does, for and to you, which is all part of why I bought that battery through Amazon rather than by some other cheaper but less dependable means. (The previous sentence is a short explanation of why Amazon now rules the world.))
But (and to get back to my point before all the brackets), when it comes to lesser complaints, complaints about blemishes on a system that basically works pretty well, well, this is why blogs were invented. With a blog posting, you can slag off the entire universe. You don’t have to be bothered with which exact bit of the universe it was that did you wrong. You can just tell your story. Then, instead of you begging the universe to correct things, the universe, if any of it cares, has to convince you that there was no problem and to convince you to stop saying it.
In case you are wondering why I have gone on at such length about a basically rather minor problem, the answer is that I am optimistic about problems like this actually being solved. A business often does a basically good thing, but rather crappily, while they struggle to get it totally organised and running totally smoothly. People buy whatever it is, but sneer at the crap, because it is crappy and because they can. The businesses then hears all the sneering and gets it sorted and gets even better. Compare and contrast: the government.
This is a point I have made here before. Follow that link, as you now don’t need to, and you will read me deriding a plan to refer to a Big London Thing as the “Safesforce Tower”. Salesforce is a perfectly decent business, which does whatever it does. But it had a silly plan to change the name of a Big London Thing from something sensible to something very stupid. And guess what, what with all the complaints about this plan from me and from multitudes of others, that ridiculous circumstance has now been corrected. Not in the way I would have liked. Salesforce has still not been shamed into civility. But nearby politicians have forced civility down Salesforce’s throat. And the Heron Tower will not now be officially called the “Salesforce Tower”.
Although, London being London, this tower might now actually be called the Salesforce Tower, unofficially, in perpetuity, as a joke, given that no other joke name now obviously suggests itself for this rather ungainly erection.
By the way, it turned out that one battery sufficed for last night’s meeting. But, I did not know that this would be the case beforehand, and had I only had one battery I would not have felt free to take as many photographs as I did feel free to take. With public meetings, it’s a numbers game. The light is bad and people are constantly moving about, so half your pictures will be rubbish right off, if only because someone was blinking at the time. The trick is for the other half of your pictures still to be a large enough collection for you to be able to pick out a few truly good ones. So, the spare battery was useful, even if I didn’t make any actual physical use of it.
I realise that very few readers indeed will have read right to the end of this ridiculously long-winded and repetitious posting. But, having written it and having posted it, I feel better.
It’s that time of the year when I go into one of my local supermarkets and immediately start taking photos, like that, or like this:
Yes it’s Halloween. And the shops, in this case Sainsbury’s, are full of Halloween crap. And I photo it. I wouldn’t buy any of it. Oh no. I am far above that sort of thing. But, I photo it.
Except, how about these rather cute buckets? Just the thing for my Last Friday of the Month meetings, to put crappy food in:
Only 50p per bucket! I got two. And I just might go back for more.
Not that. I wouldn’t want one of them. That’s my picture of Sainsbury’s, having the last laugh.
Yes, there I was, relaxing in one of the big old armchairs that Mr Gramex reckons have made him so much money over the years, and this guy shows up at the door wanting to photo the CDs.
Mr Gramex has no objection, so, he does. And I photo him. This is what this looked like:
I thought I was the only one who did things like photo CDs in CD shops. Why was he doing this? He was evasive. My guess is some kind of project photoing lots of different stuff in lots of different London shops. Or, maybe wherever he goes, in life, he photos stuff in shops, the way I photo photographers. He said he was from Turkey.
Mr Gramex was very keen that Mr Turkey should also go outside and photo the window display, which he did. Even if he actually cared nothing for this window display the marginal cost of digital photography is zero and if that was how to keep in with Mr Gramex, fine, he’d do it. Which is when I took the photo on the right. Click on that photo, and, in the event that you care at all, you can see me photoing, reflected in the shop window, bottom right.
The bike in the middle picture belongs to Mr Gramex. As you can see from the reviews here, Gramex does not suit everyone. But it suits the people it suits very well.
Yes, dezeen (Dezeen?) continues to be a favourite wwwspot for me. Here are some recent dezeen postings that got my attention, for this or that reason.
First, news that there will be a viewing platform on top of the Walkie Talkie:
The Walkie Talkie Skygarden has yet to open and will, I’m sure, come with a catchier name. But already it is in obvious competition with the Shard – pricey versus free, ascetic steel and glass versus sylvan repose, supreme height versus not being able to see the Walkie Talkie. ...
Very droll. The original was about how you couldn’t see the National Theatre from the National Theatre. But me, I am warming to the Walkie Talkie, and I don’t just mean I’m standing under it and being fried. I especially like how it looks from a distance. The point being: it looks like the Walkie Talkie. Not just some anonymous rectangular London lump, no, that particular Big Thing. Yes it is not properly beautiful. But neither is London. Besides which, anything that just might compete down the price of going to the top of the Shard has my vote. I’ll definitely make my way up there, as soon as they’ll let me
Next up, isn’t fun when someone hitherto impeccably cool suddenly turns into Grumpy Old Man:
Speaking to Dezeen, the 85-year-old English designer said tech products like the iPhone and Apple Watch were turning people into zombies, adding: “I’ve got a certain cynicism of Apple and their motives. It’s a bit of a monster.”
“It’s a game they’re playing and it’s an absolutely straightforward, commercial, ruthless game, and it’s dressed up nicely because they’ve got some talented people in their employ,” he said.
Grange, who was knighted in 2013 for services to design, believes that the tech giant has successfully turned Modernism into “good commerce”, using aesthetics to dress up a self-perpetuating product cycle.
“There are probably few companies around now that absolutely answer the prospect that Modernism is good commerce,” he said. ...
Modernism is good commerce? Can’t have that.
… “They’ve been so bloody ruthless that you almost get no choice in the matter.”
“Almost” there means “not”. (See also: essentially, basically, fundamentally, etc. etc. etc.) Because actually, you get plenty of choice about whether to buy Apple stuff or not. Apart from one rather nice keyboard, I never have.
People always talk about the behemoths of capitalism like this, just as they are starting their long slide down into moderate size and moderate success, into business as usual. How do I know Apple is now at the top of that slide? Easy, they are building a custom-designed headquarters. It absolutely yells: from now on, all Apple-persons will talk to each other and keep everyone else out. And what they will be talking about, to an appalling degree, will be their own living arrangements inside this huge circular corporate burial chamber. They’re doomed, I tell you, doomed. Someone tell Sir Grumpy (above) that he can relax.
Next: what a driverless car might look like. Not. But, it looks very pretty. The basic point, that driverless cars will in the longer run utterly transform the look of the outdoors is, I think, a very good one. Maybe that is how some of them will look.
I really do not like the way this floating bikeway along the River Thames looks, in the pictures there. At the very least, I say, find a way to avoid having those obtrusive shapes above the level of the track, which makes it look like an infinitely extended item of tasteless garden furniture. I get it, that crap is there to enable it to float up and down on the tide. Well, find another way to do that.
Next, some excellent photos of the High Line, in New York. I especially like the distant aerial view of it curving its way over the Rail Yards, with the spontaneous architectural order of Manhattan’s towers in the background.
I do like this rectangular block of a house, but with one end lifted up. Usually the rectangular block houses featured at dezeen are impeccably, terminally tedious. But this one, I like. Apart from the fact that whenever the damn architect called round, you’d have to tidy up all your domestic crap all over everywhere, and turn the place back into the dreary corporate office it resembles in the photos. What is it with architects not wanting homes to look, inside, like homes, but instead like some kind of dystopian hell with nothing in it besides a wooden floor?
Here are some impeccably, terminally tedious rectangular type houses, in Japan. To me, by far, by several hundred miles, the most interesting thing about these photos of them is the amazing amount of electrical crap in the sky over the street outside. If I was photoing in Japan, I would be all over that. More Japanese sky clutter here, in photos of another impeccably, terminally tedious block house with an interior that also looked like a corporate office reception area when the photos were taken.
Google drones. Spooky.
Parisian blocks become wavey.
Finally what with this being Friday, some black cats with bronze bollocks. I kid you not.
Indeed. Photoed by me this afternoon:
I don’t know what went wrong with this one.
Googling reminds me that there were a lot of complaints, the summer before last, about Boris buses getting too hot. Has that been sorted?
In general, I am suspicious of these new buses, on two grounds. First, as its nickname makes clear, this is a very political sort of bus, being the Boris Johnson answer to Ken Livingstone’s Bendy Bus. When politicians push technology, expect trouble. I’m not saying they always get things wrong, because they don’t want to look like prunes, and when they push things that go wrong, they do. But, they are still tempted to push, because, in defiance of what you often hear, politicians are typically very short-termist, being unable to look beyond their next election. Businessmen, at any rate businessmen of the sort who preside over the design of buses, tend to look further ahead, and not unleash their buses until their are truly ready.
Second, it was designed by a “designer”. By Thomas Heatherwick, who designed that cute roly-poly bridge in Paddington and also the bridge Joanna Lumley wants to have built across the Thames. If you want a bus not to malfunction too much, the kind of designer you want designing it is a bus designer, who is thoroughly familiar with the particular problems that buses can get engulfed by and knows all the tried-and-tested recipes for avoiding such problems. This Heatherwick bus smells to me of change for the sake of it. This is okay if you are designing something small enough to fail without too much expense, like a chair or a spoon or an iPhone case, or a rather pointless roly-poly bridge. But buses are serious. When they go wrong it can cost millions.
And when a “designer” is involved, mistakes do tend to happen, because designers are brought in precisely to design everything. And when you try to do everything anew, you make mistakes.
And if that happens to a politicised design, such as this bus, other political things cut in. Politicians and their supporters don’t suffer financially when their pet projects go wrong. They can start fighting the wrongness by just chucking money at it, and just pass the bill on to the rest of us. If unlimited money doesn’t sort out the mess and instead becomes part of the mess, then their next impulse is to try to cover things up. If that fails, Plan C (we’ve reached about C, I’m guessing) is to find someone or something else to blame. Does that also fail? Plan D: just walk away from the mess, refuse to talk about it, and insist on talking about something else, anything else, everything else. Change the subject. In politics, in the end, all there is is “the subject”. If politicians keep winning, then they “succeed”, no matter how much havoc in the form of things like crappy buses they leave in their wake.
I’m not saying that these Boris Buses are guaranteed to fail. New designs, of the sort driven by politicians, can be a triumph. Sometimes, they even triumph economically. Look at the Volkswagen Beetle. And nor am I saying that one bus attached to a tow-truck is evidence of complete failure. I’m just saying that this particular bus has a lot of bear traps to get past.
LATER: By pure coincidence, favorite blogger of mine 6k right now also has things to say about Boris.
He’s a law unto himself, but if you believe that there’s nothing behind the apparent buffoonery of his outward image, I think you’re mistaken. You don’t get where Boris is by being a buffoon. Acting one, perhaps – being one, no.
Spot on. The British toff classes are full of people like this. I had an uncle who behaved exactly this way.
My interest in what will be happening next in London, architecturally, is intense, but erratic. It switches on and off. Occasionally I go looking to see, but neglect to do this for weeks at a time. Google sends me emails about “new architecture london”, but the results are seldom as dramatic as they ought to be. Also, I have been in the rather bad habit of filing these emails in a special email file, and then neglecting to return to them, which is a habit I need to change.
So today, I went into that email file and cranked up the latest “new architecture london” email, and found my way to this place, where I learned something I did not know until now. Apparently the Helter Skelter Tower, the one that looked like (as in: the tallest pointy thing in the very middle of) this, …:
... having been stalled for ages when the money ran out, has finally been scrapped. It will be replaced with an entirely new design.
Interestingly, if you click on the first of the above links, you will, if you persevere within the somewhat unwieldy virtual place that it is (in this case by scrolling sideways), you may manage to find your way to this, concerning “The Pinnacle”:
Designed as the centrepiece of the City cluster
Plans for a tower on-site have been active since 2002
Initial planning application was submitted in June 2005.
Revised application with 19m height reduction approved April 2006.
Current status: Undergoing a redesign, with possible height increase.
Possible height increase. Something quite bland looking (compared to the Helter Skelter I mean) but still very high (like the new World Trade Centre for instance) might work rather well, aesthetically, because it would put the present muddle of the City in its place, if you get my meaning. Anyway, we shall see.
Just about to go to bed following a very satisfactory Last Friday meeting, addressed by Priya Dutta, on the subject of education and libertarianism. Priya, many thanks for an excellent talk, and for attracting such a large and intelligent throng to listen to it. Although I don’t want to definitely promise anything, I will try to say something more about what you said than that, Real Soon Now. But right now, I am too tired to attempt anything.
Something I often forget to do at these things is take photos, probably because the photos I take are usually not very good. Tonight, Rob Fisher took photos, and I of course photoed him doing this ...:
... and then I took other photos. But the really good news is that Rob’s camera is much better than mine, especially in bad light. He has promised to send me his best, and I look forward to seeing what he got.
For something rather more substantial from me, about libertarianism if not about education, try this recent Samizdata posting.
Here comes another flying car ...:
… which I found out about at dezeen. They put this above their report:
Creators of the AeroMobil flying car propose moving road traffic to the skies
I don’t see this solving any obvious existing traffic problems. And I see regulators regarding it as a whole new bunch of problems, rather than any sort of solution to anything.
My prejudice is that something which is basically fun is instead being sold as environmentally positive, a solution to traffic problems, blah blah blah. A few will want flying cars, because they do, money and economic irrationality no object. Most people, and especially most regulators, will regard flying cars, in any but trivial numbers, as accidents waiting to happen.
I get regular google emails about robot cars. A point that comes up from time to time in the stuff these emails link to is the idea that flying cars may eventually materialise, but only after robot cars are in regular use. The point being that machines like the one above will only ever be accepted in the numbers envisaged by the makers of flying cars if these flying cars are driven and flown by robots. Cars will eventually take to the air, but only when cars have become robot cars, because only robot driven flying cars will be safe enough for flying cars to be allowed to fly in significant numbers. (If regular cars were being proposed only now, they too would have to be driven by robots to be allowed.) Flying cars driven by humans will just unleash a whole new world of fear and grief, and they won’t be allowed other than as ludicrously expensive curiosities.
If such curiosities as this one ever do fly, driven by mere people, they will be fun, to those to whom such things are fun, but very little else.
Chippendale most of us have heard of. But Rannie? Who is, or was, Rannie? Exactly.
Seven years ago now, I wrote a Samizdata piece about two-man teams. It still, I think, reads well, and it contained the following assertions:
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. Time and again, the famous period of apparently individual creativity coincides precisely with the time when that anonymous partner was also but less obtrusively beavering away, contributing crucially to the outcome, and often crucially saying boo to the goose when the goose laid a duff egg. If deprived, for some reason, of his back-up man, the Lone Genius falls silent, or mysteriously fails at everything else he attempts. ...
Now read this, from At Home, the Bill Bryson book I am currently reading. On pages 234-5, concerning Thomas Chippendale, the noted furniture maker, Bryson writes:
He was an outstanding furniture maker but hopeless at running a business, a deficiency that became acutely evident upon the death of his business partner, James Rannie, in 1766. Rannie was the brains of the operation and without him Chippendale lurched from crisis to crisis for the rest of his life. All this was painfully ironic, for as he struggled to pay his men and keep himself out of a debtor’s cell, Chippendale was producing items of the highest quality for some of England’s richest households, and working closely with the leading architects and designers - Robert Adam, James Wyatt, Sir William Chambers and others. Yet his personal trajectory was relentlessly downwards.
It was not an easy age in which to do business. Customers were routinely slow in paying. Chippendale had to threaten David Garrick, the actor and impresario, with legal action for chronic unpaid bills, and stopped work at Nostell Priory, a stately home in Yorkshire, when the debt there reached £6,838 - a whopping liability. ‘I have not a single guinea to pay my men with tomorrow: he wrote in despair at one point. It is clear that Chippendale spent much of his life in a froth of anxiety, scarcely for a moment enjoying any sense of security at all. At his death in 1779, his personal worth had sunk to just £28 2s 9d - not enough to buy a modest piece of ormolu from his own showrooms. ...
Rannie did not make the actual furniture, but he was essential to Chippendale in exactly the sort of way I describe.
It feels good to be so right.
I’ve been reading Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and very entertaining and informative it is too. Strangely, one of the best things about it for me was that he explained, briefly and persuasively, both the rise to global stardom and the fall from global stardom of British agriculture. The rise was a lot to do with the idea of crop rotation. I remember vaguely being told about this in a prep school history class, but although I did remember the phrase “crop rotation”, I didn’t care about it or about what it made possible.
Here is Bryson’s description of this key discovery:
The discovery was merely this: land didn’t have to be rested regularly to retain its fertility. It was not the most scinitillatingof insights, but it changed the world.
Traditionally, most English farmland was divided into long strips called furlongs and each furlong was left fallow for one season in every three - sometimes one season in two - to recover its ability to produce healthy crops. This meant that in any year at least one-third of farmland stood idle. In consequence, there wasn’t sufficient feed to keep large numbers of animals alive through the winter, so landowners had no choice but to slaughter most of their stock each autumn and face a long, lean period till spring.
Then English farmers discovered something that Dutch farmers had known for a long time: if turnips, clover or one or two other suitable crops were sown on the idle fields, they miraculously refreshed the soil and produced a bounty of winter fodder into the bargain. It was the infusion of nitrogen that did it, though no one would understand that for nearly two hundred years. What was understood, and very much appreciated, was that it transformed agricultural fortunes dramatically. Moreover, because more animals lived through the winter, they produced heaps of additional manure, and these glorious, gratis ploppings enriched the soil even further.
It is hard to exaggerate what a miracle all this seemed. Before the eighteenth century, agriculture in Britain lurched from crisis to crisis. An academic named W. G. Hoskins calculated (in 1964) that between 1480 and 1700, one harvest in four was bad, and almost one in five was catastrophically bad. Now, thanks to the simple expedient of crop rotation, agriculture was able to settle into a continuous, more or less reliable prosperity. It was this long golden age that gave so much of the countryside the air of prosperous comeliness it enjoys still today, ...
The fall of British agriculture was all mixed up with refrigeration, which enabled the wide open spaces of the late nineteenth century world to make masses of food and to transport it to hungry urban mouths everywhere before it went bad. Prices fell below what the farmers of Britain (where there were no wide open spaces by global standards) could match.
The weather in London today was particularly fine. The light was bright and washed clean by recent rain, and the atmosphere was neither too hot nor too humid. There was bright blue sky, but there were also plenty of clouds. I had a bank to visit and electrical items to obtain, all doable on Sunday if you are in Tottenham Court Road, and then I and my companion went south towards the river.
I photoed tourist stuff, hereinafter termed touristuff. I love to photo touristuff. It changes from year to year, and it is arranged in hightly photogenic clumps such as you could never enjoy if you merely bought a single touristuff item:
Those queens seem now to be very popular, but popes less so. But those decapitated lady bottle openers are a new siting, for me. It’s amazing what can look sexy, even after being guillotined.
I photoed books, under Waterloo Bridge. Books in large and sunlit clumps, and particular books, with particular titles:
It seems that the Conan The Barbarian books were written not by just the one writer, but by a team of writers. I did not know this. I wonder how that was organised.
I photoed Art. I photoed a lady all in white, photoing Art under the Queen Elizabeth Hall. That’s if you reckon middle of the range graffiti to be Art. Is this a possible future for brutalist architecture? Painting such concrete relics would surely make sense.
And I photoed people sitting on Art, in the form of giant green chairs, next to the Imax Cinema roundabout near Waterloo station
Apparently these big green chairs used to be down in that strange circle of pedestrian space that surrounds the bottom of the Imax Cinema, inside the roundabout.
If my walkabout this afternoon is anything to go by, Art is becoming less about Deep Significance (of the sort that has to be explained with Art Bollocks essays next to the Deeply Significant Art), and more about fun. Bring it on.
And bring on the day when they have exhibitions of Touristuff in Tate Modern. I hardly ever go inside Tate Modern, but I bet that would be more fun than what they put there now. And it might also be more Significant.