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Category archive: Travel
Something a lot of people don’t get about rather small and incremental improvements is that even if they don’t mean anything to you (by which I mean to them) they can definitely mean something to someone, and potentially a great deal, and to quite a lot of someones. My understanding of economics is that this is one of the most basic ideas embodied in it. (The notion even has its own intellectual revolution: the Marginal Revolution.)
A price increase of around fifty pence for something costing, say, thirty quid may not seem much, and it may not change your behaviour. But for some people this will be the proverbial straw that changes a light bulb to parsnips, the difference that makes all the difference.
Consider these slightly new, slightly snazzier trains, that have been announced by Eurostar, to replace their existing trains, next year. Their front ends, so we are now being told, will look like this:
The Evening Standard (where I found all these pictures) tells us that these new trains will slash the journey time from London to Paris, but it neglects to reveal by how much. Google google. Here we go. The Daily Mail supplies the answer to this obvious question. It turns out that the journey time from London to Paris will be “slashed” (their word too) by … fifteen minutes.
But this posting is not (see above) a rant about how little difference this will make to most people. It is a rant about how much difference it will make to some people. For some people this fifteen minute reduction will make the difference between being able to go to Paris in the morning, get the job done, and then return to London that same day in time to read a story to a daughter. Or … not. Connections just missed will turn into connections just made, and fifteen minutes (doubled for the two journeys) will stretch out into something more like two hours.
Not for most people. Just for some people. And when you consider how many people might or might not choose to use Eurostar, depending on considerations like the above, that “some” people turns out to be really quite a lot of people.
In short, fifteen minutes does make a difference.
Or consider another small improvement that these new trains will involve, this time an improvement measured not in minutes but in inches.
Here is how the new trains will look on the inside:
Now that may not seem very interesting. But it interests me greatly. It’s been a while since I travelled on Eurostar, but my abiding memory is of how small and cramped and dreary the interior of the carriage was. For such a supposedly twenty first century experience, the whole thing had a very twentieth century feel to it, in a bad way. The above picture immediately makes me think that these new trains will be a significantly more spacious and less soul-destroying experience than the old ones, the old ones that I will still be partaking of when I journey to France and back, just after Christmas.
Judging by this photo ...:
… it would appear that they have done to the design of the Eurostar what they have also been doing to some of the trains in the London Underground. These new London tube trains now bulge outwards, over the platforms. Not by much, but by just a bit, just enough to make a real difference to the inside.
A few days ago, I overheard a conversation between some out-of-towners who were enthusing about the new and wider tube trains that were recently introduced on London’s Circle Line. They were rhapsodising. It was like listening to the scripted pseudo-public babbling away on a TV advert, so delighted were these truly regular members of the public about the new train that they and I were travelling on. And I agree with them. Whenever a train that I am awaiting emerges from its tunnel and reveals itself to be one of these new and slightly wider trains, my spirits are lifted.
And that was just inside a tube train. When it comes to Eurostar, we are talking about two hours. Two hours stuck in a dreary little tube, or in a rather less dreary, rather less constricted sort of tube. That is quite a difference. I can easily imagine, when some future decision about a cross-Channel journey presents itself to me, that these extra few inches ("cramped" is all about inches) could be the difference that will be all the difference, to me. At the very least, I will try to give the new carriages at least one try, when they do finally appear.
See number 4 of these mistranslations. See also, number 2: “RACIST PARK”; number 9: “BAG OF SHIT”; number 16: “Deformity Toilet”; and number 19 (which I have seen before I’m almost sure): “Translate server error”.
Got this via here, of all places, the one he chose being number 6: “Entrance only with Herr Hitler”.
I departed for France on Tuesday August 5th.
My flight from London City Airport to Quimper in Brittany was due for lift off at 11.40am, so I obviously had to leave home at about 9.20am, thereby reaching City Airport as early as I could without having to pay for the journey. (Old Git passes only cut in at 9.30am, or such is my understanding.) We infrequent flyers can’t be too careful. I would far rather wait two hours at an airport while reading a good book than endure any fear of missing my flight at any point on my journey to the airport, still less actually risk missing it.
One way to get to London City Airport would have been to take the District Line to Tower Hill, and then the D(ocklands) L(ight) R(ailway) from then onwards, with just the one (somewhat complicated) change. But my computer said it would be quicker to change twice, first at Westminster from the District Line to the Jubilee Line, and then again at Canning Town to the DLR. The Jubilee Line is quicker than the trundlingly antique District Line and quicker than the relatively new but cautiously robotic DLR, and it may also have realised that both these changes are far easier than the one change from Tower Hill (District) to Tower Gateway (?) (DLR). So, I changed at Westminster, and again at Canning Town.
All of which explains why, when I got to Canning Town, and was awaiting the DLR train on to City Airport, I got to see this:
I couldn’t believe my luck. I hadn’t even left London, yet already I was beholding once-in-a-lifetime wonders! For yes, your eyes do not deceive you. That is a crane, holding a bridge. I love cranes, especially when they are doing something interesting. I love bridges, especially new ones and especially when they are still being built. So you can imagine my delight at observing a bridge being craned into position, by a crane. And all of this presented to me as if by a performer who is determined to communicate to the maximum effect with his audience, assembled on the top deck of Canning Town Tube/DLR station.
On the left there, the first picture I took. On the right, a later picture which shows where the bridge was about to be deposited. There are two bright red bits, the same bright red as the bridge itself, clearly at each end of where the bridge would shortly be.
All of this happened on Tuesday August 5th. A day earlier and it would not have started. A day later and it would have been a fait accompli, with the installed bridge presumably looking exactly as it looks now. Only by being there exactly on August 5th, and only by choosing the exactly correct railway journey combination, was I able to observe this delight.
(Imagine if I had happened to sale past this, on August 14th 1999.)
My week in Brittany had got off to a great start.
Yes, I’ve been in France, and now I’m back. Have been for several days actually, but I spent my recent blogging time doing this, which is a photo-decorated ramble on various things I saw in France, or thought I did, for Samizdata.
I really want to get back into the swim of things over there, after a recent dry spell, and was accordingly determined to finish that ramble before I resumed rambling here.
Since this is Friday, here are some French cats.
Cat number one stands outside Vannes town hall:
Cat number two is impressively perched on an impressively high ledge, somewhere or other. Cat number three, the cat of the friends I was staying with, is shown here, not being very impressed with cat number two:
This photo was taken by Tony, to whom thanks, and to whom thanks also for emailing it to me.
Here, on the other hand are two further photos that I did take of cat number three:
No, I don’t know why his right ear is green on the inside. I only noticed this when I got home.
His name is Caesar (sp?), and he actually does answer to that name. It’s not tone of voice, it’s the name, because when I said this to him for the first time, he immediately looked up to see what I had in mind.
There is another cat, Basil, who drops by at the home of Tony et famille from time to time, but he is more shy. He was otherwise engaged, on my last day there which was when I finally decided I wanted to photo the two cats. Caesar showed up, but not Basil. Another time, maybe.
Caesar is now very old, and I may never meet with him again. We got on well.
Taken by? No prizes for guessing who. Country? “Poland/Georgia”. Date? “Jan/Feb” of this year. That’s what it said in the email.
Mick Hartley writes about England’s loss to Italy last night in their opening World Cup game:
Much football punditry has always seemed to me to be an effort to provide a plausible post-hoc storyline for what was to a considerable extent a matter of chance. … as though the whole enterprise must be made sense of by virtue of the winning team being the team that deserved to win.
Very true. (I’m guessing that, with luck (ho ho), this book will have a lot more to say about this tendency.) Actually, much of the appeal of football (to those to whom it appeals) is that the “best” team on the day often doesn’t win. This means that the supporters of bad teams can live in constant hope of upsets.
This also explains why, at the early stages of a season, surprising teams are often at the top of the table. Later, the law of averages asserts itself inexorably, and the best teams arrange themselves in logical order at the top, and the surprise early leaders sink back into the pack where they belong.
All of which makes something like the World Cup quite good fun. All you have to do to win it is win five or six of your first six games. All the best teams have to do not to win is lose one or two of their first six games. One of the great moments of all World Cups is the one when a Much Fancied Team gets on its Early Plane Home.
What the pundits seem to have been saying about England is that, because the “expectation level” is low, they might do quite well. The expectation level is low so it’s high, in other words. My take on England is that they are a fairly bad team, who played fairly well against Italy, and lost, and that they will probably do fairly badly, but you never know, because there are only half a dozen games for each team to play. I will video-record all of England’s games, such as they are, just in case. I live in hope of a small series of upsets.
I also video-recorded the Spain Netherlands game, by far the most remarkable one so far. Will Spain be this time around’s Much Fancied Team early departure home?
And I also videoed the first game, between Brazil and Croatia, with its truly dire opening ceremony. This was a real collector’s item of awfulness. What is it about these terrible opening ceremonies, with their meaningless costumes and absurd dance moves? Witnessing them is like listening to someone talking in a language has only recently been invented - for aliens to speak in a movie, for instance - which consists of no actual words, only meaningless sounds.
The opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London contained many things I disagreed with, and I continue to disagree with the entire principle of me and all other anti-Olympickers having to pay for the damn thing for the next thousand years. But at least that ceremony contained stuff that meant something. Although come to think of it, maybe the only people who understood it was us Brits, and for countless mllions elsewhere, that was also the gibbering of aliens.
I went on a photo-expedition to Erith, last Tuesday. Well, strictly speaking, from Erith. What I did was go to Erith by train, and then walk back along the south side of the river, to Woolwich.
I took about a thousand photos, truly about a thousand, of which the one below was one of the first. My journey to Erith by train started at London Bridge Station, and this photo was taken at that station, while I awaited my train to Erith.
This guy has the full story of this strange circumstance.
First off, he notes, it’s not a V2. It’s a sixties vintage Atlas booster. So, what gives? Someone, he pointed out, is looking after this object, so it must be there for a reason. But, what reason?
A commenter explains:
It’s advertising the Britain at War experience below London Bridge Station.
And all is explained. That link no longer works, on account of the Britain at War Experience having now been closed down, on account of the redevelopment around London Bridge Station. But advertising the Britain at War Experience is how it got to be there.
Maybe the Not-V2 will soon start to look at bit tatty. It may even vanish altogether. All the more reason to photo it now.
I plan to be going to the land of the foreign people. Quite soon. Early August. The air tickets are already bought. But, have just discovered that my passport needs renewing. It gave up the ghost in about February.
Bugger. Passports are just now being particularly delayed. Questions are being Asked In The House about it. So I guess they are now throwing money at the problem.
There is also a throw money at it option for us punters, about an extra hundred quid, which I have in mind to use, just to make sure that all goes well. But first I have to get a haircut and then I have to get some “passport photos” done. I know how to take photos of myself. I do not know how to take “passport photos”. This is why God invented shops.
September 18th 2013, Stanford-Le-Hope, late afternoon:
I was thinking that this blog is becoming a bit like another, substitute London Daily Photo. But that isn’t right. Ham used to report on lots of different London things and London stories. I keep on photoing the same kinds of things again and again. Besides which, Stanford-Le-Hope is a bit too far from London to be London. It’s about an hour out of here by train.
I went looking, of course, for cranes, but the north bank of the Thames Estuary is also pylon spotter heaven.
Goddaughter 2 is at the very early, tadpole stage of becoming an opera star. She has already been identified as possessing operatic superpowers, but there are, of course, many obstacles for her still to overcome. So, fingers crossed.
This summer she will be performing at a Festival in Belle-Île, which is off the south coast of Brittany. Her family, who live in Brittany, are kindly including me in their expedition to see and hear GD2 in action.
Obviously, there is a Festival website, and equally obviously it is basically a French thing, but it also supplies an English translation:
Welcome to the Festival lyrique international de Belle-Île-en-Mer.
With much excitement, the preparations for our 2014 season are well underway, with artists from all over the world preparing to travel to Belle-Île to rehearse and perform two dramatic masterpieces, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Meanwhile the Festival Choir is busy rehearsing Haydn’s sublime oratorio The Creation, heard for the first time on the island. There will be an orchestral Mozart evening, the ever-popular Ad Libitum gala concert, early-evening recitals by our young artists at the Café Bleu in Sauzon, and a series of masterclasses.
As the excitement builds, we hope you will join our festival family, and be a part of this rich, unique and inspiring season.
Which is fine. But before reading that, on account of having not at first realised that they offered their own English version of the above, I accepted an offer from a little window at the top right of my screen to do a translation of the French original of the above, with some sort of mechanised-computerised process.
It went like this:
Welcome to the International Opera Festival of Belle-Ile-en-Mer.
The preparations for the 2014 season are progressing well, with joyful excitement. Artists from around the world are preparing to come to Belle-Ile to rehearse and perform two masterpieces lyric, Leoncavallo Pagliacci and Gianni Schicchi by Puccini which will be donated to Arletty room. Meanwhile the choir festival works and repeats Creation, sublime oratorio by Haydn, which will be given for the first time on the island, in the churches and the Cathedral of Vannes. Also on the program, the Citadelle Vauban, an orchestral concert of Mozart and the ever popular concert Ad Libitum. Finally, two concerts of our talents in the late afternoon at Café Bleu in Sauzon and a week of master classes.
While riding the excitement, we hope you will join the family of opera festival and be this rich season unique and exciting.
Which I prefer. It’s actually not that bad. Most of the mistakes seem to consist of getting words in the order wrong.
The Salle Arletty is mentioned in the original French version, so it also gets a mention in the mechanised English version as a place to which musical performances will be donated.
For the original French version, go here.
My family used to go on holidays to the southern coast of Brittany when I was small, to a place from which you could see Belle-Île, but we never actually visited it. Expect Belle-Île photos here, when all this happens. Are you already riding the excitement?
The speaker I had previously arranged had to cancel, hence the delay in me telling the world about it, but … my speaker at my last Friday of the Month meeting on April 25th, i.e. this coming Friday, will be my good friend (and frequent commenter here) Michael Jennings, talking about Russia. Russia is lways an important topic of discussion, but it is of course now also a particularly timely and newsworthy one.
Here is what Michael has just emailed me about what he will be talking about.
On the 21st of last month, I arrived in Moscow. This was my first trip to Russia. That this was my first trip to Russia was somewhat curious. I have been a frequent traveller for twenty five years and a compulsive one for the last ten years, and throughout that time I would have always put Russia in the top few countries that I wanted to visit, and yet I never did.
This was not, however, remotely, my first trip to the lands of the former Soviet Union. I had previously been to Latvia and Estonia (twice). I had previously been to Ukraine (five times). I had previously been to Moldova (twice). I had previously been to Georgia (four times). I had previously been to Armenia (twice). The former Warsaw Pact countries further west than that, I have been to many times - around 20 times in the case of Poland, half a dozen times to Romania, and multiple times to all the others.
My reasons for visiting these countries have always been private. I go where my curiosity takes me. I go where my financial resources can take me. And I go where other, bureaucratic and practical obstacles are relatively easy.
What factors led to my choice of destinations? Well, two practical factors. One was the ease or difficulty of obtaining a visa. The other was the ease, of difficulty of physically travelling there. The rise of discount airlines was a key factor in all of this, also. Their presence in markets not only makes it easier and cheaper to get there, but is at least an indicator in how open to the west the country is trying to be.
Going east, there has long been a psychological boundary between places looking east to Moscow and places looking west to, well, no particular city or place, but western Europe in general. The business with the visas and discount airlines has made it easy to go up to that boundary, if you will, as it moves around. At times, it has allowed me to go over that boundary, sometimes to slightly hairy places such as Transnistria and Abkhazia - breakaway regions of Moldova and Georgia respectively. More commonly, though, what I mean by this is the drabber regions of Ukraine or Moldova.
However, it was time to bite the bullet, and go completely to the other side. So, Moscow. As it happened, the wall appeared to be permeable. The western discount airlines have started flying to Russia, at least in a small way. The visa process was baroque and Soviet, but the customer service was with a smile. I had Russian contacts who were happy to catch up for a beer in one of the many English pubs in Moscow and St Petersburg. Even when they worked for the Russian government, they were happy to talk pretty frankly about what was going on.
And yet, in the couple of weeks before I arrived, Russia had been asserting its power over Crimea. On the day I arrived, (according to Russia, at least) Russia formally annexed Crimea. (I got to see a lovely fireworks display over the Moskva river in the evening.) The places I could go on a discount airline without a visa retreated that day, possibly for the first time since 1991.
And that was the overall impression I got of Moscow and St Petersburg. There is a feel of modern cities in both places, but certain things are askew. And certain things are absent. (Soviet style customer service still exists in many places. But in others it doesn’t.) Middle class life feels like middle class life in many places, although if you are poorer, I suspect life is very different. On Friday I will describe some of this, and if I am bold I will try to draw some conclusions.
Excellent. And to Michael, my gratitude for having got me out of a small bind with what will, I am sure, be an excellent talk at rather short notice. Not that the short notice will affect its quality. If it is as good as the talk he gave at my home last year about globalisation, all those who attend this Friday will be much educated and much entertained.
I’m guessing that the mood of the meeting will be a lot like this Samizdata QotD from Michael Totten. But that’s only a guess.
Yes, I’m afraid I’ve been doing rather a lot of quota posting of late.
So anyway, here’s the link.
And here is the quota photo:
That’s actually one of my more favourite recent photos. It was taken just before Christmas, in Twickenham, where Patrick Crozier lives, through the window of a shop where they sell … things like that.
I like the water on the window.
The other day, I stuck up a couple of pictures I took in Paris, in February 2012. Here are three more Paris pictures, taken a few days later, from one of the upper floors of the mighty Montparnasse Tower, which is just about the only very tall, modern tower block anywhere very near to the centre of Paris. My host for the week, Antoine Clarke, had a mate who worked in this building.
I love the photo at the other end of that link, a classic in the Lined Up Big Things genre, the Big Things in this case being the Montparnasse and Eiffel Towers, and behind them, we see, once again the distant Big Things of La Defense.
On the left, I’me looking in the same direction, but instead of photoing the Montparnasse Tower, I am photoing from the Montparnasse Tower, thereby lining up the two things that were in the two separate pictures in the earlier posting, namely the Eiffel Tower and La Défense:
In the middle of the middle picture is the Big Thing from which my earlier two photos were taken, the Pompidou Centre. This is not a view I have seen very much. Usually the Pompidou seems to be photoed from below. Very impressive roof clutter, even if a bit arty and self-conscious.
On the right, we see the Sacré Coeur in the far distance, and in between, how Paris looks, on a very cold but sunny day. Paris, untouched during WW2, looks a lot different to London, doesn’t it?
The sky is so dark because actually, the city itself was so bright.
Much humour is to be had by modifying a cliché, and something similar applies to photography. The Eiffel Tower features in many photos. The chimney pots of Paris, not quite so much.
That was taken on February 2nd 2012, from the Pompidou Centre.
I an still stunned by how brilliant my new, cheap computer screen is. Pictures like this one become hugely better than I remember them first time around, and wandering around in my photo-archives is more enjoyable than ever before.
Here is another picture taken at the same time from the same place. Also lots of chimneys, though you have to look a bit more closely this time. But in the background there, La Défense, Paris’s Big New Thing district.
What that big dome is in the foreground, I don’t know. I was staying with Antoine Clarke when I took these snaps, and in fact he was up there with me when I took these. Maybe he can tell us what that big curvey thing is. When you take pictures of some big thing, there is a presumption that you do care what it is, but personally, in this case, I don’t really care. There are more than enough mysterious buildings like this in London to keep me wondering, without me fretting about mystery buildings in Paris. But maybe you would like to know.
And yes, I am almost certain that is a crane.
One other thing. This new screen has me thinking that maybe the size of pictures I am putting up here may be a bit wrong. When you click on the above two, you’ll get them at 1200x900, which is bigger than I usually do, because now my own screen is bigger. Is this either too big, or too small? I’d welcome anyone’s opinion on that.
As I said in the previous post, my talk about digital photography at Christian Michel’s last night went well, in the sense of me feeling it went well, and it seeming to be well received. I occasionally put my sheets of paper down and extemporised upon some point I was making, but mostly, this was it. No links, no photos, no extras. (They may come later, I hope, but I promise nothing.) Just the bare text that I read out, complete with all the errors of grammar and spelling, of fact and interpretation, that may or may not be present:
I have given several talks in this 6/20 series, but until now this has been because I have had both questions and answers to offer to the assembled throng. I have had theses to present, clutches of facts to pass on.
This time I don’t know the answers. I merely want to know the answers. What is the impact of digital photography? What is it doing to us? Since fixing this subject matter with Christian I have made, I think, some progress in arriving at answers, but only some. Tonight I expect to make further progress.
Luckily, for my purposes, we have all been alive throughout the period of digital photography’s mass use, and have observed it in action, even if we may not always have wanted to. Has anyone here not taken a digital photo? Just as I thought. (It actually says that here. And this.)
I will start my remarks by quoting a remark made by an American whom I overheard about fifty years ago, on the Acropolis in Athens, the place where what is left of the Parthenon stands. I was there trying to do some sketching, a skill I never got any good at but spent a few years attempting. He was doing pictures with his seriously pre-digital camera. As soon as he had finished photoing, he wanted to leave, presumably to get to his next photoing place. But his family were enjoying the Acropolis in the morning sunshine. Said he to his family: “Come on, come on! We’ll look at it when we get home!”
This outburst captures a great deal about what people object to about digital photography, but it also reminds us that photography, by Everyman as opposed to by professionals, is nothing new. Digital photography is partly just the intensification of a process that has been in place in our culture for well over a century. But it is more than that.
Even setting the scale of the phenomenon aside, digital photography is different from the old sort. It was first applied to the real world by NASA, to solve the problem not so much of taking photographs, but of communicating them, from robot spaceships back to earth, without the vast additional expense of getting the robots to fly back home themselves, like World War 2 photo reconnaissance planes. Central to digital photography is that digital photographs are easy to communicate. It is no accident that digital photography has only now become ubiquitous in our culture with the arrival and mass success of the smartphone, which can, just like those first NASA digital space cameras, both take pictures and communicate them. When we speak of “digital photography”, what are the boundaries of the concept? The “digital” bit means that this is photography that goes beyond merely being photography in the sense experienced by that American on the Acropolis all those years ago. Digital photography, as computer insiders have long understood, is only a part of a bigger multi-media picture, and that was always the idea.
One of the ways I have prepared for this talk has simply been to talk with people, both friends and people I just happened recently to bump into. How do you use digital photography? What do you think its impact is?
In the answers I have so far garnered, a number of themes recurred.
Only a tiny few did not use digital photography at all. In one case, this was because he had suffered a particularly painful digital camera robbery, and he just couldn’t make himself resume the activity. All the others who refrained were old, little-rolls-of-film photography devotees. They loved this technology and consequently hated the successor technology that had destroyed the object of their love, in rather the same way that some devotees of vinyl gramophone records hate CDs. This was exceptional.
In all other cases, my respondents used digital cameras with enthusiasm, and often downright joy. They used them in some or all of the regular ways, to take holiday snaps, to take photos at weddings, family reunions, parties, and so on. But another recurring theme also asserted itself. This is the digital photography killer app, different for each person. Everyone does particular work, has particular hobbies, and in almost every case of such a personal angle on the world, digital photography was making a contribution, to their effectiveness or their pleasure or both.
A fine example is a killer app described to me by a gentleman at the previous 6/20 meeting, on the 6th of this month. He regretted being unable to attend tonight, but I will try to recall what he said, briefly but accurately. Basically, he is a butterfly fan. He likes to scrutinise the patterns on the wings of butterflies, which, to him, are of extraordinary beauty and interest. I am sure you can understand.
But he has a problem. Butterflies are notoriously unwilling to stay for any length of time in the same spot. Their wings will often repay long minutes and ever hours of attention, but your typical butterfly only hangs around for a few seconds and certainly cannot be relied upon to stay longer. No problem. Snap. He can then scrutinise the beautiful creature’s wings at his leisure. He can, you might say, look at it when he gets home.
It’s an aside, but I recall the days when butterfly “lovers” could only contemplate the objects of their devotion for any big length of time by killing them. They used to catch butterflies in nets, and pin them onto boards and keep vast collections of dead butterflies in trays with glass tops. I remember such gruesome collections, perpetrated by male relatives long dead, in my grandmother’s house when as a boy I visited her vast home. That the weapon of choice of an ever higher proportion of human hunters of animals – entirely so in the case of rare or endangered animals - is now the camera, rather than the rifle, is surely a step in the right direction for civilisation. Taken literally, my butterfly man’s use of digital photography to immobilise his butterflies was the very opposite of a killer app. It was a let them live app.
Other killer apps spring to mind. My own digital camera killer app, the app that got me started with digital photography, was contriving computer printable photographs of authors whose writings I was engaged in publishing, for the Libertarian Alliance. One of these authors was Christian, as I recall. About fifteen short years ago, using desktop computers to print photographs was as slow and unwieldy as using computers to display photographs on computer screens is easy now, but I was very happy about that. I could do it. All I needed was quite crude black and white pictures, which were not nearly as slow as better pictures would have been to play with, and anyway, all that slowness deterred the competition and made my products look far less domestic in origin than they really were. Later, I used and still use pictures of prominent libertarian personalities to spice up my blog postings, and to boost their prestige and raise their morale.
Intrinsic to digital photography is that digital photographs can be easily processed. This was also why NASA was so keen to develop this technology. Remember those videos of a hopeless image being slowly but miraculously transformed into a miraculous image. I used to muck about with my author photos to make them more photocopier-friendly. Many of my interviewees have talked about how they create images, rather than merely snap them.
Tonight I hope that I will hear of many more killer apps.
One of my favourite digital photography apps is the photographing of other information. An example of this was told to me by Simon Gibbs of Libertarian Home, who works in computers, in some capacity or other. He and his colleagues, in the course of their collective deliberations, are in the habit of covering white boards with verbiage and diagrams and such, often including yellow stick-on notes with further cleverness. And, before the meeting adjourns, photos of all this cleverness are taken, for later pondering. Simon and his colleagues are definitely not the only ones behaving like this, and nor are they the only ones who photograph the resulting writing on the wall, so to speak, for later reflection. A merely temporary piece of scribbled brainstorming becomes as permanent as anyone wants it to be.
Time was when the only people in the world using small cameras to photograph complicated verbiage and complicated diagrams were spies in movies, and presumably spies for real. And to anyone who says that photocopiers have been around for decades, I say, true, but good luck photocopying a vertical surface several yards wide. Digital cameras are actually now better than photocopiers were. Notice, however, that this was not nearly so true just a few years back, because cheap digital cameras couldn’t then handle the detail. Now, they can.
The more people tell me about their personal, particular, digital photography apps, and about the other apps they have heard about other people using, the more I think that digital photography is like literacy, something that is capable of contributing, always significantly and often crucially, to pretty much any project you care to think of. Of course it has to be done right, used intelligently. Any tool can be misused, applied stupidly or excessively. But seriously, is there any area of work or play to which a bit of shrewdly deployed digital photography can not now contribute?
The pleasure that people get from digital photography is obvious, and often highly visible. But the impact of digital photography on work is just as dramatic if not more so, which is one of the reasons I so like Simon’s photoed brainstorm boards. Where would internet selling be without digital photography? How many pictures are taken per day by the construction industry, to record progress, satisfactory or not? Think of all those Russian cars with their permanently active video cameras, ready to record accidents, and incidentally recording meteor strikes for the evening news.
As for the more conventional uses of digital cameras, to take snaps when on holiday or out of hours when on business trips, at weddings and at funerals and school reunions and at Christmas, well, hear this. Several people volunteered that, were they to suffer a computer calamity and lose all their data, the only losses that would really hurt – really, really hurt – would be the loss of their photo archives.
There were grumbles. Just now a big grumble about digital photography, if my recent conversations are anything to go by, concerns people using tablet cameras (a very recent arrival on the scene) to make bad video recordings of live events, thereby spoiling the view for everyone else. This does not mean that it is silly to photograph Big Ben using a tablet, as I myself have had the pleasure of photographing many people do. On the contrary, a tablet is a very sensible way to take photographs or make videos, because with such a big screen, you know, as never before, the kind of picture you are going to get. But yes, tablets can be used in a way that is annoying to others. More fundamentally, what is the point of going to an event, and then not experiencing it, on account of instead making a bad video of it?
More generally, the grumble is that digital photography does not so much record experience as postpone, diminish, and not infrequently utterly destroy it.
But such grumbles are not new. I would say that they are a consequence of the fact that technology is always now developing, which means that at any particular moment mistakes are going to be made. We are all familiar with the nouveau riche phenomenon, which is people who need to learn how to handle money in quantities they are not familiar with, and in particular not to spend it all. Constantly progressing technology gives rise to a similar effect. At any given technological moment there will be people overdoing it with this or that latest piece of kit. Just now tablet computers are being overused at public events. Suddenly people can record absolutely everything, and some do, excessively and inconsiderately, not even maximising their own pleasure let alone anyone else’s. In the eighties, you may recall, the complaints concerned mobile phones, being misused in trains by people shouting endless gushes of banality into them, concerning the progress of their train journeys, in a way that enraged other passengers. But people learned not to behave like this. The tablet wavers at concerts will likewise learn to mend their manners.
As for the claim that photography is an alternative to visual experience rather than an enhancement of it, my own personal experience has been the exact opposite. I have seen far more of London in the last decade than I would have done had there been no digital photography. And thanks to my photo archives I remember far more of what I have seen, with past photos often vividly triggering past visual memories that would otherwise have gone utterly. My most vivid visual recollection of 2013 was seeing, in the far distance, the first few giant cranes of London Gateway, London’s new container port now being constructed on the north bank of the Thames Estuary. They reminded me of my first sighting of Chartres Cathedral from a similarly great distance, which I spied on one of my sketching expeditions in my teens. Had there been no digital photography, I would never have gone anywhere near London Gateway, let alone now have had such vivid mental (as well as digital) pictures of it. My experience is that digital photography is not a substitute for seeing things. It is an intensification of seeing things.
And as I often like to joke, my camera has better eyesight than I do. One of the most pleasurable moments of my photographic expeditions is when I get home, and fling my pictures up on my big home computer screen. I see all sorts of things in them that I did not see at the time, as perhaps my friend Simon sees in his photos of meetings notes. Just as the butterfly man does not have time to see everything he can later see in his photos, I do not have the eyesight to see what I later see in my photos. Ah, the joy of looking at them when I get home! And yes, I am a bit nouveau riche about digital photography myself. Guilty as charged. But far better to be nouveau riche than not riche at all!
It is because of all the varied pleasures to be had from digital photography that it has become such a mass enthusiasm. All mass enthusiasms give rise to grumbles and sneers, from people who accentuate the negative and prefer to ignore or take for granted the positive.
Some negatives, concerning the impact of digital photography and the new media in general on old school journalism have been much complained about, mostly by old school photographers and journalists. Daily news has been replaced by instant news. Boo. Many people prefer looking at each other’s bad photos instead of looking at good photos taken by the old school photographer complaining in his old school newspaper article. I will not spend time on these grumbles, if only because so many others have done nothing but write about such things. Suffice it to say that the news hasn’t ended. The means of communicating it has changed a lot lately, just as it always has.
One of the many plusses of digital photography is that, by supplying an endless stream of humdrum photos of humdrum people doing humdrum things all over the world, it corrects the impression given by the news that the rest of the world is a crazy place inhabited only by crazy people doing crazily newsworthy and disastrous things, all the time.
One of the bigger negatives associated with digital photography is surely surveillance, both by big organisations like governments and the owners of shopping centres and amusement parks and transport networks, and by individuals, just taking photos, moving or still, of friends or strangers, and then internetting them. And of course the latter activity, as Edward Snowden has now confirmed, feeds massively back into the former one. There was a recent 6/20 talk devoted entirely to this topic a few months back, just before it suddenly became a hot news story.
Surveillance has caught on in the rich world, I am convinced, because it really does do a lot of good, in deterring crime and in supplying evidence for prosecution in crimes that it fails to deter. It also, surely, really does diminish speedy and dangerous driving. The question is not whether there are any benefits to mass surveillance, but whether those benefits are worth the potentially horrible costs. It has been much discussed that Britain has the largest population of surveillance cameras in the world, per head of population being surveilled. I think that one reason for this is that in Britain we have (again: many of my libertarian friends will be disgusted by this claim) some of the – quite possibly the - most trusted public officials in the world. (If my libertarian friends would prefer “least distrusted”, I am happy to let them have that concession, but only that.) Trust in public officials everywhere is probably in decline, including in Britain, but in Britain it still remains very high. There is a lot of ruin in a civil service that started out genuinely civil. Thus, the costs in Britain of public surveillance are considered less burdensome than elsewhere, and the cameras escalate, both in number and in effectiveness.
The Guardian’s Laurie Penny agrees with me. Unlike me, Penny travels a lot to many other cities besides London, and she notes that London – especially London’s trains – are now remarkably free of graffiti, compared to other major cities, and in particular compared to the trains in other major cities. She gives surveillance cameras much of the credit for this. Which makes sense to me. Although, as usual, we have to say that just shoving up surveillance cameras and not paying any attention to their output is utterly insufficient. As with all other digital camera apps, surveillance cameras can be deployed both excessively and incompetently. Cameras only work if part of an effective (and uncorrupt) system of crime prosecution and prevention.
But what if the definition of crime gets expanded? What if British public officials are now becoming less trustworthy so fast that the British public, now so supportive of surveillance cameras, later changes its mind?
And what else are all these surveillance cameras already deterring? Penny speculates that we have entered a new age of self-censorship, of stuffy social decorum, of watching what we say to anyone, not unlike the one that was abandoned in the 1960s by the Beatles generation, i.e. mine. I think I agree about that also, although another big part of the reason for that is that the economy is not what it was. Would young people now fret about pictures of themselves behaving rowdily in the street, or for that matter at private parties where privately owned smartphones are hoovering up pictures and showing the worst of them to the whole world, if jobs for young people were as easy to come by as they were in the 1960s? Personally I don’t think such pictures are much of a reason to not employ someone, but they do make a fine excuse if you are looking for one.
Going back to that graffiti that Laurie Penny observes the lack of in London (and she is rather regretful), I think I observe another impact of digital photography on graffiti, at any rate in London. Yes, surveillance cameras may have diminished the quantity of low grade graffiti, the sort that is hardly better than dogs pissing on lamp-posts to mark their territory, and which is done – or feels as if it is done - to maximise annoyance to property owners, and urban dread in the minds of more sober and timid and elderly citizens like me. But at the top end of the graffiti food chain, at any rate to my eye, things have greatly improved. The quality of the best graffiti art is now dramatically better than it has ever been before, so much so that art galleries now fall over themselves to sign up street artists, instead of patronising the more usual sort of artists, who are now being left behind by their more populist competitors with their defiantly realistic and demagogicly communicative imagery.
Digital photography is definitely part of this story, in fact I think somewhere in my photo archives I have pictures to prove it, of street artists photoing their works in progress. Think about it. If you have just done an elaborate work of street art, in a place where you know from experience you are allowed to do it, and won’t be prosecuted for doing it, and you can immediately record an approximate likeness of it for posterity, that has to gain you more kudos and social media attention than if you couldn’t do that. Street art is all too temporary, replaced almost at once by more street art. A digital photo of a piece of street art is far more permanent. Does anyone here present think that digital photography means less high quality street art?
The weekend before last, there was another art event in London which surely also owed much to digital photography, which was a festival of ice sculpture. How demoralising it must be to sculpt a masterpiece, and then immediately watch it melt, in London’s demoralisingly moderate “winter” climate. How much more fun if you can photo it in all its temporary glory. That fact has resulted in a deluge of photos in recent years of such ice sculptures, and that results (it certainly did the weekend before last) in a whole new mob of people who have never seen such a thing before (because before, nobody in London bothered) assembling themselves to witness these miraculously kitchy objects. And to photo them with their cameras. I actually went to this ice sculpture exhibition, which was held in Docklands. I had hoped for a decent number of ice sculptures and a decent number of photographers, some of them the artists themselves, for me to photograph photoing them. Alas for my hopes. I only got as far as photoing the truly gigantic and (to me) totally offputting queue of people who had all had the same idea about where to go as me.
I’ll end this very soon. Melting sculptures and excessive crowds of people wanting to see them and to photo them may seem like a pretty downbeat conclusion to this talk, but actually it isn’t really my conclusion. That will come when I finally sort out in mind what that is. Meanwhile, I am greatly enjoying the process. Talking with people about how they use digital photography, and about what they think its impact has been and is and will be, as opposed to merely reading about this on the internet and musing about how I use digital photography myself, has also been, quite aside (I hope) from being somewhat informative, great fun. Asking someone how they use digital photography is a great conversation starter, I have found. And I intend to continue with my investigations.
If forced to offer a conclusion now, I think I would describe digital photography historically, by talking about how future historians might choose to describe the little episode of technological history that we happen to be living through. And I think, like me, that they will emphasise the multi-media nature of digital photography, the way that it operates in combination with other methods of information storage and communication. When will they date the beginning of this story? Perhaps a date they will mention is May 11th 1844, which was the day when the first Morse Code message was transmitted between two different cities, Washington and Baltimore.
Or, they may go back to the origins of the printing press, or even of literacy, or even of talking itself. I have already emphasised the way that digital photography, among many other things, adds a dose of turbo-charging to old fashioned writing, by photographing it. For this is a story with no very fixed moment of beginning, and as of now there is no end in sight. It is a story of the gradual and accelerating increase in the power of us humans to interact with our world, to remember things, and to communicate things. In almost no time, from the evolutionary point of view, we have gone from creatures who struggled to make noises that communicated different kinds of danger to the tribe, to creatures who may very soon be making elaborate objects simply by thinking about them and emitting telepathic waves to magic machines, telepathy being a word I used in the title of a recent blog posting about the kinds of things I would be talking about this evening. Future historians will talk of shared experience, and gaze at our absurdly flat photographs, perhaps on an antique “computer screen”, with the same impressed but slightly patronising amusement and bemusement that we now bestow upon stained glass windows.
But enough. Thanks for listening, and please tell me more.