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Category archive: Politics

Sunday September 20 2015

After my recent bout of picture archive trawling, I am convinced of two things.

First, that my pictures have got better and better.  I only now show you the best ones from a decade ago, but most of those taken then were pretty terrible.

Second, that much of the reason for this is that my cameras have got better and better.  I have got better too, but the cameras can do far more now, for the same money than they used to do.  (For another example of this, see a recent 6k posting, with a picture that features a bug (which means that the bug is a feature but still a bug (heh)).)

This recent picture of mine, for instance, would not have come out nearly so well a decade ago:


Photography is light.

For a chilling description of all the various creepy organisations who are or who have been based in this creepy building – political parties, regulators, the UN, even the World Bank - I recommend reading the Millbank Tower wikipedia entry, and going to Occupants.  My photo works perfectly for all that.  I think it looks rather like one of those hyper-realistic oil paintings that the hyper-realist oil painters paint.

Notice how all Millbank Tower photos at Wikipedia are taken from close-up and below, thereby rendering the classic (but creepy) Millbank Tower roof clutter invisible.

Saturday September 05 2015

One of the many fine things about the internet – and in particular that great internet business, Amazon – is that you can now easily get hold of books that seem interesting, even if they were published a decade and a half ago.  Steven Johnson’s book, Emergence, for instance.  This was published in 2001.  I think it was some Amazon robot system that reckoned I might like it ("lots of people who bought this book you just bought also bought this one").  And I read some Amazon reviews, or whatever, and I did like it, or at least the sound of it, and I duly sent off for it.  (I paid £0.01 plus postage.) And now I’m reading it.

Chapter one of Emergence is entitled “The Myth of the Ant Queen”.  Here is the part of that chapter that describes the research then being done by Deborah Gordon, into ants:

At the heart of Gordon’s work is a mystery about how ant colonies develop, a mystery that has implications extending far beyond the parched earth of the Arizona desert to our cities, our brains, our immune systems - and increasingly, our technology.  Gordon’s work focuses on the connection between the microbehavior of individual ants and the overall behavior of the colonies themselves, and part of that research involves tracking the life cycles of individual colonies, following them year after year as they scour the desert floor for food, competing with other colonies for territory, and - once a year - mating with them.  She is a student, in other words, of a particular kind of emergent, self-organizing system.

Dig up a colony of native harvester ants and you’ll almost invariably find that the queen is missing.  To track down the colony’s matriarch, you need to examine the bottom of the hole you’ve just dug to excavate the colony: you’ll find a narrow, almost invisible passageway that leads another two feet underground, to a tiny vestibule burrowed out of the earth. There you will find the queen.  She will have been secreted there by a handful of ladies-in-waiting at the first sign of disturbance.  That passageway, in other words, is an emergency escape hatch, not unlike a fallout shelter buried deep below the West Wing.

But despite the Secret Service-like behavior, and the regal nomenclature, there’s nothing hierarchical about the way an ant colony does its thinking. ‘’Although queen is a term that reminds us of human political systems,” Gordon explains, “the queen is not an authority figure. She lays eggs and is fed and cared for by the workers.  She does not decide which worker does what.  In a harvester ant colony, many feet of intricate tunnels and chambers and thousands of ants separate the queen, surrounded by interior workers, from the ants working outside the nest and using only the chambers near the surface.  It would be physically impossible for the queen to direct every worker’s decision about which task to perform and when.” The harvester ants that carry the queen off to her escape hatch do so not because they’ve been ordered to by their leader; they do it because the queen ant is responsible for giving birth to all the members of the colony, and so it’s in the colony’s best interest - and the colony’s gene pool-to keep the queen safe. Their genes instruct them to protect their mother, the same way their genes instruct them to forage for food. In other words, the matriarch doesn’t train her servants to protect her, evolution does.

Popular culture trades in Stalinist ant stereotypes - witness the authoritarian colony regime in the animated film Antz - but in fact, colonies are the exact opposite of command economies.  While they are capable of remarkably coordinated feats of task allocation, there are no Five-Year Plans in the ant kingdom.  The colonies that Gordon studies display some of nature’s most mesmerizing decentralized behavior: intelligence and personality and learning that emerges from the bottom up.

I’m still gazing into the latticework of plastic tubing when Gordon directs my attention to the two expansive white boards attached to the main colony space, one stacked on top of the other and connected by a ramp.  (Imagine a two-story parking garage built next to a subway stop.) A handful of ants meander across each plank, some porting crumblike objects on their back, others apparently just out for a stroll. If this is the Central Park of Cordon’s ant metropolis, I think, it must be a workday.

Gordon gestures to the near corner of the top board, four inches from the ramp to the lower level, where a pile of strangely textured dust - littered with tiny shells and husks-presses neatly against the wall.  “That’s the midden,” she says. “It’s the town garbage dump.” She points to three ants marching up the ramp, each barely visible beneath a comically oversize shell. “These ants are on midden duty: they take the trash that’s left over from the food they’ve collected-in this case, the seeds from stalk grass-and deposit it in the midden pile.”

Gordon takes two quick steps down to the other side of the table, at the far end away from the ramp. She points to what looks like another pile of dust. “And this is the cemetery.” I look again, startled.  She’s right: hundreds of ant carcasses are piled atop one another, all carefully wedged against the table’s corner.  It looks brutal, and yet also strangely methodical.

I know enough about colony behavior to nod in amazement. “So they’ve somehow collectively decided to utilize these two areas as trash heap and cemetery,” I say. No individual ant defined those areas, no central planner zoned one area for trash, the other for the dead. “It just sort of happened, right?”

Cordon smiles, and it’s clear that I’ve missed something. “It’s better than that,” she says. “Look at what actually happened here: they’ve built the cemetery at exactly the point that’s furthest away from the colony. And the midden is even more interesting: they’ve put it at precisely the point that maximizes its distance from both the colony and the cemetery. It’s like there’s a rule they’re following: put the dead ants as far away as possible, and put the midden as far away as possible without putting it near the dead ants.” I have to take a few seconds to do the geometry myself, and sure enough, the ants have got it right. I find myself laughing out loud at the thought: it’s as though they’ve solved one of those spatial math tests that appear on standardized tests, conjuring up a solution that’s perfectly tailored to their environment, a solution that might easily stump an eight-year-old human.  The question is, who’s doing the conjuring?

It’s a question with a long and august history, one that is scarcely limited to the collective behavior of ant colonies.  We know the answer now because we have developed powerful tools for thinking about - and modeling - the emergent intelligence of self-organizing systems, but that answer was not always so clear.  We know now that systems like ant colonies don’t have real leaders, that the very idea of an ant “queen” is misleading. But the desire to find pacemakers in such systems has always been powerful-in both the group behavior of the social insects, and in the collective human behavior that creates a living city.

Wednesday September 02 2015

What follows is one of the better commentaries on British politics that I have recently read.  It is pertinent to the current dramas involving Jeremy Corbyn and what appears now to be his likely victory in the Labour Party leadership election, because it focusses on something which I think has been somewhat neglected by other commentators, namely the weakness of Corbyn’s opponents.  It is by former Conservative Party Leader William Hague.

It is to be found at the Telegraph website.  I was alerted to it by Guido‘s invaluable “seen elsewhere” section.

But since the Telegraph only allows me to see thirty (I think it is) articles each month before it blocks me (for about half the month), and since I never blog about things that my readers can’t read just by clicking on a link, which means that I am actually not interested in things that readers can’t read just by clicking on a link, here is the piece, here, in full.  Now I am able to be interested in what follows, because here it is.

The original article contains links to other Telegraph pieces.  These I have reproduced.  But I have not checked if they work, because I don’t want to exhaust half my allotted Telegraph links with the month hardly having started.

If the Telegraph asks me to remove it from here, I will immediately remove it, and will instead replace what follows with smaller quotes and further commentary.  And then I will lose all interest in it, except perhaps as an interesting little event concerning the rights and wrongs of intellectual property.

In late 1997, having rather rashly taken on the job of Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I discussed with the new prime minister, Tony Blair, which of us had the most difficult job. “You have,” he said, without a moment’s doubt.

Blair was right. And that job was doubly more difficult because it was one pitched every day against him, the most formidable electoral opponent the Conservative Party has faced in its entire history. Before him, Labour had only twice since its foundation won a decisive majority; with him it did so three times in a row.

Although he is despised in Labour’s current leadership election, Blair was a Tory leader’s worst nightmare: appealing to the swing voter and reassuring to the Right-leaning, it was hard to find a square on the political chessboard on which he did not already sit.  When people told me I did well at Prime Minister’s Questions, I knew I had to, since I had very little else going for me at all – I had to raise the morale of Conservatives each Wednesday to get them through the frustration and impotence of every other day of the week.

Blair courted business leaders and Right-wing newspapers, often to great effect. He was a Labour leader who loved being thought to be a secret Tory, a pro-European who was fanatical in support for the United States, a big spender who kept income taxes down, an Anglican who let it be known he wanted to be a Catholic and regularly read the Koran. He could be tough or soft or determined or flexible as necessary and shed tears if needed, seemingly at will. To the political law that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time he added Blair’s law – that you can make a very serious attempt at it.

This was the human election-winning machine against which some of us dashed ourselves, making the Charge of the Light Brigade look like a promising manoeuvre by comparison. Yet now, only eight years after he left the scene he dominated, his party’s election is conducted with scorn for the most successful leader they ever had.

The first reason for this is the truly extraordinary rule allowing huge numbers of people to join up for the specific purpose of selecting the new leader. If there was an NVQ Level 1 in How To Run a Party, the crucial nature of the qualifying period to vote in a leadership election would be on the syllabus, possibly on the first page. Every student plotting to take over a university society knows that the shorter that period, the easier it is to mount an insurgency from outside. But this basic fact seems to have escaped Ed Miliband, along with every other possible consideration of what might happen after his own unnecessarily rapid departure.

The result of this is that Labour’s leader is being chosen by a largely new electorate, with correspondingly little sense of ownership of the party’s history, in which the desire to align the party with their own views outweighs any sense of duty to provide the country with an alternative government.

The second reason is the weakness of the mainstream candidates to an extent unprecedented in any election in a major party in British parliamentary history. Even in 1935, an even darker time for the Labour Party when it had far fewer MPs than today, the leadership election was between Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison: great names that are etched into our history. This is the first election of a Labour leader in which none of the candidates look like they could be prime minister five years later.

This weakness partly explains the third and most significant factor in what appears to be, in the form of Corbynmania, a sharp move to the pre-Blair, old-fashioned, Michael Foot-was-a-moderate, Seventies Left, which is that none of them has been able to articulate what a social democratic, centre-Left party should stand for in the first half of the 21st century.

Blair’s ability to win elections was not accompanied by a coherent philosophy. The seminars he held with Schroeder’s German SPD and Clinton Democrats on the “Third Way”, the ultimate attempt at government by triangulation, collapsed in ridicule. And the question neither Labour’s candidates nor their socialist colleagues abroad can now answer is – in a century in which markets dominate, more power passes to consumers, technology gives more choice by the day to individuals, working lives are more flexible than ever, and class-based voting is dying out, what is the role and purpose of the moderate Left?

You can scan in vain the speeches of Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham for a clear answer to this question, although I do not necessarily recommend it unless you find it hard to sleep. You might think there is a modern social democratic case to be made that some people – the less educated, unskilled, and immobile – could miss out on the benefits of the information revolution and that changing that is a new purpose of the centre-Left. Instead, in Britain and across Europe, it is left to fringe parties to prey on those dissatisfied with the vast and rapid changes in modern society.

And most revealing of all, those same speeches (yes, I really have read them), point to no model abroad of the Left in power, no hero to be admired or policy to be emulated. The main parties of the Left have turned into partners of conservatives in Germany, reformist liberals in Italy, back-pedalling socialists in France, catastrophes in Latin America, and been annihilated by extremists in Greece. There is still a Socialist International, but there is no longer a common ideology to underpin it.

Seen in this context, the agony of Labour’s leadership election is easier to understand. This is a tribe lost in a desert with no star to follow, and no inspirational leader to point to a new one. Across the world, parties that thrived on the socialist ideals of an industrialising society are losing their relevance, and what we are witnessing is a symptom and dramatic demonstration of that fact.

Faced with that awful reality, Labour is turning to something, anything, that seems authentic, passionate, and consistent. The failure, in Britain and abroad, to find the social democratic version of that is a failure of historic proportions.

Monday August 24 2015

I’m concocting a short Samizdata posting which will need, if and when it ever materialises, its readers to be able to read what it says in this:


Samizdata readers!  If you need this bigger to read it, click on it!

Friday August 14 2015

Here (thank you Instapundit) are twelve photos of the destruction that just hit the Chinese city of Tianjin.

This one (number 9) is among the most vivid:


What (I think) makes this such a remarkable image is that, by showing how totally the cars have all been wrecked, the nature of what hit them is, as it were, permanently recorded, the way it might not have been registered by mere empty ground.  And because they are cars rather than buildings, each one a regular and very small distance from the ground, every ruined car is clearly visible, the way wrecked buildings might not have been.  It’s as if each car is a fire-sensitive cell, like digital cameras have inside them for nailing down light.

Fireball.  Nothing else could have done that.

However much the government of China and its various offshoots and local manifestations might have wanted to keep this amazing event under wraps, modern media, including digital photography, still and video, meant that they had no chance.

Tuesday July 14 2015

Another of those Wicked Camper vans, from the same fleet as this one:


It was never a totally White Van, but someone has painted some white on it.

I recently saw another of these vans with something like “Chuck Norris is the only person who can slam a revolving door”, but my photoing reflexes were too slow to capture it.  When I do photo this, I’ll try to remember that I said I might put the picture up here.

I agree with you.  Yes, it is a good marketing strategy.  Both of us are right about that.  And I see that these arseholes have been helping.

Monday July 13 2015

imageMore Dezeen catching up.  And this time the news is that Paris is about to get its first truly Grand Chose since the Montparnasse Tower.

Paris is, in certain Parisian minds anyway, suffering from London Big Thing Envy, and they want to change the place.

“The change in regulations is a historic moment,” the architects told Dezeen. “Paris is cautiously allowing tall buildings back into the city.”

Like Ken Livingstone, who did so much to make London’s recent Big Things happen, some of the Parisians angling most powerfully for Grand Choses are socialists.

But Big Things fit right in in London.  In London the antiquarian tendency is weak when confronted by the We Want More Office Space tendency.  But in Paris, it is the other way around.  Paris already has a look that lots of people like, and scattering Grand Choses all over it will radically change that look.  London has always grown in big ugly bursts of money-making, which everyone then gets used to and decides they like, so Big Things are just the latest version of a regular London process.  Paris was kind of perfect in the late nineteenth century, and since then it has been half city, half museum.  It was then neither bombed nor redeveloped by socialist maniacs, as London was.  It will be interesting to see if this transformation of Paris can be made to stick or whether it will be stopped in its tracks once again.

The opposition is gathering.  This particular Grand Chose has already been dubbed a poor man’s Shard, and in truth it really does look like a cross between the Shard and this infamous North Korean structure.

See also this earlier posting about Paris here, here

Sunday July 12 2015

One of the great pleasures of having Godot back in business is that I can catch up on what’s been on Dezeen.  And on July 1st, Dezeen had news of the next London Big Thing.

The Helter Skelter began to rise up a couple of years or so back, but then it stopped.  Now, the Helter Skelter has been reborn, as the tallest Big Thing in this faked-up picture, in the middle:


The really good news:

At the top, London’s highest bar and restaurant will sit alongside a free public viewing gallery offering vistas over the smaller neighbouring towers, including Richard Rodger’s Cheesegrater, Rafael Viñoly’s Walkie Talkie and Foster + Partners’ Gherkin.

Eat your heart out Shard.  Free public viewing platform. You’ll probably have to check in on a website the night before.  But even so, good.

I promise nothing, but … expect pictures here of the Cheesegrater, the Walkie Talkie and the Gherkin, from above.

Wednesday June 24 2015

I like cricket.  And I like drones.  But which is best?

There’s only one way to find out.  Fight.

Actually, all the drone did there was hover, waiting to be clobbered, which, a minute and a half in, it duly was, by Chris Gayle.

What I want to see is a game where drones fight against each other.  Or a war.  Either would do.

Or, perhaps a demo.

Sunday June 07 2015

Today, two snaps taken in April 2012 from the top of the tower of Westminster Cathedral, this being the Roman Catholic cathedral in the middle of Victoria Street, not the regular CofE Abbey, at the Parliament end of Victoria Street:


On the left, the Gherkin, the Parliament tower that is Big Ben, and the above-mentioned Abbey.  And, in between the twin towers of the Abbey, we can also clearly see the tower of Tate Modern, and also the Stock Exchange Lloyds building.  On the right, the Shard (not yet finished) with its smaller elder brother Guy’s Hospital, and the Parliament tower that isn’t Big Ben.

It is possible that I have featured one or both of these views here before, but not lately, and anyway, my gaff my rules.

Lots of cranes.  Always, there are lots of cranes.

Thursday May 28 2015

I was out and about again today, and I have now got into the habit of photoing newspaper front pages, often in the shop where I usually buy my monthly copies of Gramophone and the BBC Music Magazine (by “music”, they mean classical music).  Which means that the guy in the shop doesn’t mind me photoing other stuff.

The big story just now is of course FIFA, and the badness of Blatter:


But, this front page story also got my attention:


I don’t mean the FIFA stuff flagged up in the big yellow bit at the top of the page.  I mean the bit below, where it says “Cameron cuts off labour funding”.  Although the Daily Telegraph itself now lives behind a paywall, I managed to find the story here.

This would appear to confirm what my friend Tim Evans says about Cameron.  He is a much more determined and focussed politician than he lets on, and much more “right wing”.  He is systematically destroying the Labour Party.  Trying to, at any rate.

But, and this is what pisses off many libertarians, he is a politician whose focus is on changing institutions (in this case destroying an institution) rather than in spreading ideas.  Also, he does things one at a time, which means he leaves a ton of bad stuff untouched, and often does other bad stuff, to protect the main task in hand.

All of the above flies in the face of the Samizdata orthodoxy, which is perhaps why I am thinking aloud about this stuff here, rather than there.  If I put anything there about this stuff, I will have to think it through better than I have so far.

Friday May 08 2015



Photoed by me yesterday.  Definitely one for the front page collection.  Can’t find a link to the story though.  Anyone?

Today, starting in the small hours of the morning, I’ve been rambling away at Samizdata about this election.  Which was, I found, intensely dramatic and interesting, not least because all the polls were wrong.  I was apathetic about voting, in a soporifically safe Conservative constituency.  But I stopped being apathetic as soon as the drama of it all started to play out on the telly.

But, how could I have missed the news of this manifesto for cats, until today?  Answer, today was the first time I tried googling “cats general election”.

Thursday May 07 2015

Following on from yesterday’s ruminations, in among lots of stuff that doesn’t fascinate me, including one posting about shit, is a report about Paris’ tallest building in over 40 years.

Presumably “Paris” doesn’t include La Défense, which is out on the edge of Paris.  Those Big Things are very big indeed.  What they’re talking about here is building Big Things in the centre of Paris. 

And the thing is, this Thing not very tall at all:


In London, this sort of thing would hardly be noticed.

But the fact that this new Thing is not that big is deliberate.

“This project is not a high-rise, but embodies a shift in attitude, and this gradual increase marks a willingness to reconsider the potential of height and will change the city landscape little by little,” said the architects.

They know that if they are to get any new truly Big Things anywhere near the centre of Paris, the first step is to make some things that are not Big, but just a tiny bit bigger.  First you get the opposition to concede the principle, with something that doesn’t arouse huge opposition.  Then you gradually increase the heights, until finally you get your Big Things, and the opposition unites too late.  And by then it’s too small, because lots of people actually like the new Big Things.  This is how politics is done.  And this is politics.

The last, and so far only new and truly Big Thing anywhere near the middle of Paris (other than the Eiffel Tower) is the Montparnasse Tower, which was completed in 1973.  Compared to almost everything else in central Paris, before or since, the Montparnasse Tower is very tall indeed.  It aroused a lot of opposition by embodying such an abrupt, even contemptuous, change of Paris skyscraper policy, and judging by what happened for the next forty years, that opposition was very successful.  This time around, those who want Big Parisian Things are going about it more carefully, as the above quote shows.

Speaking of politics, who is that geezer in the picture, in the picture?  A politician, I’ll bet.

Wednesday May 06 2015

I am working on a quite big and unwieldy architecture posting just now, but this probably won’t be ready to go any time today, or even soon, so I’ll instead write a little essay on a related matter.  Which is: Why I feel more comfortable writing about architecture, of the contemporary and hence controversial sort, than I do about contemporary interior design.  The contrast between how fascinated I am by the architectural stuff (this is the posting that got me going with the architectural posting that I am now working on) at one of my favourite internet sites, Dezeen, and the indifference I feel concerning Dezeenery about interior matters, is becoming ever more extreme.  I mean, designer X has designed a chair.  And what does it look like?  It looks like a chair.  Hoo ray.

It’s not that I dislike or oppose interior design.  It’s just that I feel that what I feel about it, or for that matter what anybody else feels about it, is of no public significance.  We can all just pick whatever interior designs and objects appeal to us, and let others do the same.  Interior design is not a political problem.  There is therefore nothing vitally important to be said about it.  Why argue, when there is no need to argue?

If you are one of those people who likes to tease out why you feel the way you do, about everything in general and interior design in particular, fine.  Blog away about wallpaper, tea kettles, tables, chairs, standard lamps, stoves and suchlike, all you like.  You’ll surely find plenty of readers, probably a great many more than I have.  You certainly will if you specialise, as I do not.  I write about such things myself, from time to time, when the mood takes me. 

But on the whole, it tends not to.  When the answer the question is: each to his own, and when that answer basically takes care of it, I generally don’t feel like adding very much.

You could say that this mood, of insignificant self-scrutiny, is upon me right now.  After all, who cares what I put on my blog?  If you don’t like it, don’t read it, problem solved.  Choosing a blog to read is like choosing a chair.  Nobody else need be consulted, or imposed upon.

But architecture is different.  We can’t each step outside into a city like London and each have exactly the London that we want.  If I am to have those new Big Things that I like so much, you also have to put up with them, even if you hate them.  It therefore feels right to me to be explaining, to the entire world (even if most of the world pays no attention), just what it is about these Big Things that I like so much.  It makes sense for me to say (even if I haven’t done much of this lately) why I came to hate most modernistical architecture when I was in my twenties, and why I think that modernistical architecture has improved so very, very much since that time, at any rate in the places I mostly walk about in and see in photos.

For the same reason, it also makes sense, to me, for me to be celebrating roof clutter, cranes, this or that piece of public or semi-public sculpture, these or those public signs.  It is because these are public issues.  Political issues, even.  Definitely political, in the case of those signs I just linked to.  Things like these have positive (mostly, in my case) or negative (perhaps in yours) externalities attached to them.

Actually, it is most unlikely that you hate all the publicly obtrusive things that I love, because you wouldn’t want to be reading such opinions, day after day.  But, you get my point.

Sunday May 03 2015

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

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


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


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


There is a new US Embassy taking shape, …:


… although it will not be a very interesting shape:


Battersea Power Station is missing one of its chimneys:


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


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


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


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

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