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Monday December 31 2007

I do like a deftly phrased insult, and there is a good one from Richard Morrison in the latest (January 2008) BBC Music Magazine:

… I thought the re-opening shenanigans for the Festival Hall in London were a disastrous mixture of political correctness and artistic ineptness.  Let’s hope that Jude Kelly can be persuaded that her unique talents are wasted in the musical world.

Luckily, openings don’t matter.  They can be both late and chaotic but who cares, unless it’s something that will close in a month like the World Cup or the Olympics?  The Wheel was late, but is a triumph.  The Dome opening was on time but famously ridiculous, yet all that matters now is that a way of keeping it in place be found.  (I’m told that it is now used for pop concerts, and works very well.  I think I recall snapping pop posters there when last I visited.) I’m sure that the Festival Hall first night back was indeed stupid, but the important thing about the refit is that it happened.

The great thing about the Festival Hall and surrounding parts now is that there is no longer a blanket hostility to commerce built into it all.  When the Festival Hall was built, in 1951, anti-capitalist animus was all-pervasive, with the result that all the public spaces in the area were just empty spaces, filled with nothing but puddles and rubbish.  Now there are shops and restaurants and bars all over the South Bank.  I’m sure all kinds of political deals got done and strings got pulled to acquire such trading privileges, but politicians influenced by capitalists are a great improvement on the previous and alternative regime on the South Bank.  Say what you like about New Labour and its creatures, but you can’t accuse them of being uninfluenced by businessmen.

There ought to be pictures of this, but I don’t have time for that.  Gotta rush off to Chateau Perry de Havilland for New Years Eve ... shenanigans.  Happy New Year to all, as will doubtless be said here again tomorrow, if I am in any fit state to say anything at all.

PS: Check out the comment from Mr Heinrich Photography.

Sunday December 30 2007


Hi Brian,

Was up Table Mountain last night (without a bloody camera!) and couldn’t help but think of you as sunset approached.

As the title says – this one‘s for you!


Best Regards,


Outstanding!  It also illustrates really nicely well how daft apartheid was, because look!  Pink and brown South Africans are all muddled together!  And nothing terrible is happening!  Although obviously people in South Africa don’t keep going on about such things.

I also like this one, of the people leaving when it got dark, which made a nice thin picture:


Although, as is usual with these thin pictures, it is actually better in the fat original.

One of the minor irritants of writing for other people and other websites that one does not control editorially, which you have to live with alongside the major non-irritant of having many more people reading your stuff, is irrational editorial whims.  At Samizdata, a year or two ago, the irrational whim concerned abbreviations.  It’s kept getting changed to it is, however weird and disrupted and sense-altering was the result.  (There was even an occasion when Michael Jennings had “St Paul’s” changed to “St Pauls”, even though St Paul’s was its name.  Another good writer became so irritated by this rule that he stopped contributing to Samizdata altogether.) Well, that whim has faded, although I suppose there is always the danger that me celebrating the fact will cause it to spring back to life again.

But another whim has now arisen to replace the verboten apostrophes, which is that complete sentences in brackets are not allowed, however weird the result of rearranging them.  The email about this said that complete sentences in brackets are weird.  I disagree.  They are a routine writing procedure.  (It is failing to put complete sentences in brackets when that is how they should be that is weird.)

For instance, what do you think of this change to something I posted at Samizdata last night?

This ...

The music profession will once more be a single (if huge and sprawling) entity, full of varieties of taste and of technique, but without that cavernous gulf that divided it during the twentieth century. (In this respect it resembled and resembles politics. Discuss.)

... got changed to this:

The music profession will once more be a single (if huge and sprawling) entity, full of varieties of taste and of technique, but without that cavernous gulf that divided it during the twentieth century (in this respect it resembled and resembles politics. Discuss).

The original contents of the second set of brackets in that paragraph contained, quite reasonably, two separate sentences, if you count “Discuss.” as a sentence, which I do.  Yet the new version still contains the end of the first sentence and beginning of the next one, just not the beginning of the first and the end of the second.  So we now have a mere phrase disfigured with a full stop and a subsequent capital letter, slap in the middle.  This is far more weird than the non-existent weirdness of complete sentences in brackets.

The point of putting complete sentences in brackets is that this procedure enables you to flag up an interesting tangent, but then not fly off at it, while keeping the tangent separate from the main thread, which you can then pick up again without confusion about what the next sentence after the brackets is following on from.  (As you can see, I have no problem with ending a sentence with a preposition, or, in fact, with several.  Mercifully, that is allowed at Samizdata.)

(There is also the further oddity that I was reproducing an email that had already been sent, which meant that the original email got changed, i.e. falsified.  But that’s less of a bother.  (Although maybe two sentences in a row in separate sets of brackets rather than both in the same set of brackets may not be so sensible.))

As the most annoying man I ever spent an entire day with said about three times every minute: Am I right or am I right?  (He should get a blog.)

Saturday December 29 2007

Adriana’s website doesn’t work properly with my version of Internet Explorer.  It centres everything, and the text goes across the lines at the edge.  But with Firefox it suddenly snaps into life and is very readable, and just now rather enjoyable, in an Arts & Letters Daily sort of way.  In among links to stuff I don’t understand is links to stuff I do.  Like a link to this:

Back in the Aussie summer of 2002, Liam Mulhall was ready to abandon the high-stress, high-tech business. He had put in his time at the local office of Red Hat, the big U.S.-based provider of open sourcing solutions, and now he and his two buddies had a new Plan A. They wanted to buy a pub in Sydney. The problem was, the price was more than the lads could afford. So they fell back on Plan B, which, in this case, was Plan Brew. With a nothing-to-lose attitude - “It was our money and not a lot of it,” Mulhall allows - they would make beer, but with a twist; they were going to tap the power of community.

Mulhall had stumbled onto the story of PK-35, a Finnish soccer club. The team’s coach invited fans to determine its recruiting, training, and even game tactics by allowing them to vote using their cell phones. The idea put the fizz in Mulhall’s lager. As he would later write, he had found “the best way to run a business - give the customers the reins.”

Luckily, Mulhall and his two friends didn’t know that the 2002 soccer season would be so disastrous that PK-35 would fire its coach and scrap its fan-driven ways. So they went ahead with their scheme, setting up a Web site,, and inviting 140 of their friends to describe their ideal beer. Within weeks, the community had built up a head of more than 10,000 people in 20 countries, and their votes determined everything from the beer’s style (lager), color (pale amber), and alcohol content (4.5 percent) to the shape of the bottle and the colors printed on the label.

The founders, however, were - and are - solely responsible for the beer’s name. For reasons comprehensible only to an Australian (let’s just say it has to do with sheep), they called it Blowfly.

And it worked.  They now have a pile of money, and are thinking about what to crowdise next.  Laptop computers?  Banking?  All kinds of serious and sober things might work if this way of working is applied to it.

But it had to start with silly things, like football and beer.  Because with things like that, people were willing to give it a go, what with it only being football and beer and stuff, rather than serious like banking.  And the football actually went tits up.  But who cares?  It was only football.  If this is right, then it would confirm this, wouldn’t it?

Friday December 28 2007

Tatiana acted her part as alpha predator:


“She was everything that a tiger is supposed to be,” said big-cat expert Ronald Tilson. “She was essentially shot and killed for being a tiger.”

Tilson was speaking about Tatiana, the 4-year-old Siberian who fatally attacked one zoo visitor and injured two others at the San Francisco Zoo late Christmas afternoon before police officers gunned her down.

A year ago, she mauled her keeper, devouring the flesh from her arm. Should Tatiana have been put down at that time?

“There was no reason whatsoever,” said Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo, who since 1987 has been overseeing the tiger species survival plan of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Louis Dorfman, an animal behaviorist with the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary in Boyd, Texas, agreed that Tatiana posed no greater danger than she had before Dec. 22, 2006 - when she reached under the bars of her cage and seized the arms of zoo employee Lori Komejan as dozens of people watched.

“We have 60 cats here,” Dorfman said. “Any one of them would have done the same thing. But they would forget about it 15 minutes later. They don’t dwell on things. The only thing they dwell on is if someone mistreated them.”

Manuel Mollinedo, executive director of the San Francisco Zoo, said, “There was never any consideration for putting her down - the tiger was acting like a normal tiger.”

Exactly.  Earlier reports said there was going to be an “enquiry” into why Tatiana did this.  But like the man says, she was a tiger.  Trouble is, humans also “dwell on it” if a tiger mistreats one of theirs.

I have been vaguely following the Blu-Ray HD DVD battle, because if a high definition DVD standard gets established, there may be a huge new surge of original DVD sales, and a sharp if temporary diminution of the amount of “informal” DVD copying that goes on.  Which will have relevance for me in the stuff I write here.

If my personal experience is anything to go by, when it comes to watching movies and listening to music, hardware is now trumping software.  I have spent a small fortune on TV hard discs, to avoid spending an indefinite string of small fortunes on movies, which I no longer buy at all.  The only DVDs I now buy are blanks.  For me, free digital TV is a permanent free DVD car boot sale.

Microsoft are supporting HD DVD, so if Blu-Ray wins, that will be further evidence that Microsoft isn’t “the environment” any more.  Microsoft is going the way of IBM.  It will still be a big and hugely profitable business.  It just won’t be the environment that everyone else works in.  It will just be another enterprise trying to make the best of an environment shaped by others.

Shaped by Google?  I read a book about Google that said that they have been building, without any great public fanfare, huge data warehouses here there and everywhere, which will turn them into “the environment”.  Individual punters won’t have to worry.  But our internet providers will all be Google supplicants.  If so, then again, the hardware will be trumping the software.  (Although, Google only got the money to buy all this hardware with the money it made from its search software.)

Is it in the nature of the IT/computers/internet business that somebody is “the environment”, or could the thing one day be just lots of different organisations swirling around, with none of them having the kind of determining influence that IBM had and then Microsoft has (or had)?

By the same token, could it be that the Blu-Ray versus HD DVD spat will never be settled and just dribble on for ever?  Ultimate horror: might the politicians start involving themselves in this contest?

Thursday December 27 2007

The weather out there in leafy Surrey over Christmas was grey and dreary, but the great exception was dusk on Christmas Day itself.


That’s the view of it from my brother’s garden, which is surrounded not by other people’s equally small gardens and houses, but, as you can see, by huge fields, trees and suchlike.  It was the perfect spot.  Anywhere else, and we probably wouldn’t have realised what the sky was up to.

Wednesday December 26 2007

Just added to my blogroll: Quotations Weblog.

I had to do a bit of rootling around, but eventually I came upon this, from Eric Hoffer, which I like a lot:

We are more ready to try the untried when what we do is inconsequential. Hence the fact that many inventions had their birth as toys.

The opposite of that idea is that the way to make invention happen is to plan to make it happen.

An appropriate quotation for the day after Christmas, I hope you agree.

Tuesday December 25 2007

Happy Christmas everybody.  I should have said this a week ago, when you regular readers, such as you are, were regularly reading this, in your offices and at your desks.  But, I hope you had one anyway.  This is why Christmas cards get sent out a fortnight too soon: to make sure that the message gets through in time.  Oh well.  Happy New Year, if you ever read this.

Christmas makes me think of Christmas carols, which my family used to sing around the piano, played very well by my eldest brother, whom I’ll be dining with today.

I suspect that people don’t do Christmas carols so much any more.  They have been replaced in popular affection by an accumulation of Christmas Number Ones.  Which is fine, I say.  Eventually, the two traditions, the one invented in the mid nineteenth century, and the one invented during the last forty years or so, will merge into one.  We three kings of orient are.  All I want for Christmas is you.  While shepherds watch their flocks by night.  Here it is Merry Christmas.  ("The old ones are the best!” says granny.  Carols, presumably.) Stop the cavalry.  Silent night holy night.  I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.  Away in a manger.  When a child is born.  Santa baby.  (Kylie does that last one a treat, I think.  All I want for Christmas is a blue Cadillac, I think I heard her say.  Hurry down the chimney and give me a “duplex”, which I take to be a swank apartment.  Yes?  Seems like a fair swap.)

I’ve been hoovering up (on that hard disc machine I was writing about yesterday in connection with movies) Christmas Number Ones from the Hits channel (free digital number 18) and on the occasional outbursts of TOTP2 (never mind) that you get at this time of year.  It doesn’t matter how much crap you accumulate like this.  You just edit it out.  (Take That, Boney M.  Hah!) I now have the videos of All I Want for Christmas by Mariah Carey, and Santa Baby.  Merry Christmas indeed.

Monday December 24 2007

I have taken to recording movies onto a TV hard disc machine and then sticking them on a DVD.  This costs just about nothing, so (just as with Naxos CDs) I take risks.  If in doubt, record it!  And every so often I strike gold, in the form of a movie that: I haven’t every heard of before; that gets no big write-up and no four or five stars in the Radio Times and sometimes a mere two or even one; but which turns out to be great.

Holiday, shown in the small hours of last Saturday morning on BBC 2 (so convenient – no adverts to edit out) starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, doesn’t quite qualify.  The RT gives it five stars.  But I had never heard of it before, and even sampling the thing after it has been recorded, just to check that the copy onto DVD has worked, I can tell that it is indeed just as superb as the RT says it is.

It’s the usual tale of a fine young man, Grant, engulfed in stuffy High Society by his stuffy fiancée, but then rescued by the Interesting Sister, Hepburn.  As with so much art, everything about something can be merely average, except for the way it’s done which makes it great.

The politics seems to be depressing, the usual black-and-white leftist populist, with capitalism being equated with fascism.  When people complain about communist infiltration of Hollywood, this is the kind of thing they must have had in mind, and what makes it such high-class infiltration is that it is so very, very well done.

There is a brother who gets drunk, who spouts poetic dialog full of bitter observational irony.

Oh dear.  Katherine Hepburn is making an Overwrought Speech.  Here’s the propaganda pay-off.  It’s a bit stagey.  Even so, I’m looking forward to watching this right the way through.  And now CG has joined in.  He’s going to go away and Find Himself.  So, they will of course ride off into the black-and-white sunset and find themselves together.

Poetry, drug abuse, revolting against capitalism courtesy of the quite generous crumbs that fall from the capitalist table to its less biddable progeny.  You know the kind of thing.

Anyone who thinks that the Sixties just happened, out of the blue, with no warning and for no reason, needs to watch this movie.

Sunday December 23 2007

Last Friday I went out a-snapping, but not in my usual happy hunting ground, which is the territory that stretches from outside Westminster Abbey through Parliament Square and across Westminster Bridge to the Wheel.  This time I went, as I do occasionally, to the Tower of London, or more exactly to the territory between the Tower and the river, which is a favourite spot for Billion Monkeys to snap away at the real object of their devotions in that part of London, which is Tower Bridge.  The Tower of London has a long and lurid history, but it is, frankly, just a big stone building with little towers on the top, of a sort you can see all over Europe.  Tower Bridge is unique, a combination of late nineteenth century engineering prowess and late nineteenth century architectural ostentation unlike anything else on earth.  In London, of course, it is taken for granted and regarded as, you know, a mere tourist trap.  But the tourists are right about it.  It’s great.

The weather that day was also great, being sunny but misty.  This caused everything to be well lit (while the light lasted) but any big buildings in the background of the objects of my attention, while remaining recognisable, to disappear into the background.  Often, in bright clear light, things in the background when you look at them have a way of barging their way into the foreground when photographed, but not this time.


The pictures are displayed in the order they were taken, with no cropping or photoshopping.  3.1 shows the Tower of London itself, photoed from the bottom of Tower Bridge, with the City, notably the Gherkin, in the background.

Picture 1.1, top left, the very first, is of a place being prepared for skating.  But guess what.  By the time I retraced my steps back to the tube station an hour after I took that first snap, I took snap 3.5, bottom left, penultimate, of people actually skating!  All wearing orange boots!

You’d put your shirt on the bearded geezer in 1.2, who also features behind a balloon telling us all to visit Mexico in 1.4, being a Russian.  I would have anyway.  But I heard him talk, and he’s English.

2.5 is one of the best Billion Monkeys photo-ing themselves snaps I’ve ever done.  Okay more privacy is violated here, this time rather severely, but my rule is never to make anyone look bad, and don’t they look great?  2.6 is another category straddler.  Gloves, great finger work, and a terrific view of Tower Bridge on the camera, with anonymity preserved this time.2.

The couple admiring their picture in 3.2 have just done that very characteristic Billion Monkey thing, which is to ask a fellow Billion Monkey to take a picture of the two of them, and they are looking delightedly at the result.  I often take photos for others, and often then photograph their reaction to my efforts.  I wish I could say they were always as happy as this.

As for all the other pictures, well, I just like them, especially the final one, of the cheerful newspaper headlines.  I love those Evening Standard metal boxes with headlines written on them.  One day, they’ll decide to print them instead, and if this happens before I die, a twig inside my soul will break.

Saturday December 22 2007

Amit Varma praises the Reuters’ Pictures of the Year, and chooses one of Bill Clinton photoed through Hillary’s legs, and a couple more.

I choose this, by Reinhard Krause, of twenty first century China’s answer to George Formby:



A worker cleans the windows of an apartment block in Beijing’s central business district April 4, 2007.

This one is also very striking, I think.  It reminds me, and many others I’m sure, of this.

For as long as the old school media give away great snaps by Real Photographers, I’ll sample at will.

Friday December 21 2007

David Whitehouse is the author of The Sun: A Biography, implying that he may have heretical views about how the sun might now be cooling us down rather than the greenhouse effect warming us up.  (Comments from people knowing more about this man would be most welcome.) He has a recent piece in the New Statesman entitled Has global warming stopped?, implying that he thinks it has.  Concluding paragraphs:

Some media commentators say that the science of global warming is now beyond doubt and those who advocate alternative approaches or indeed modifications to the carbon dioxide greenhouse warming effect had lost the scientific argument. Not so.

Certainly the working hypothesis of CO2 induced global warming is a good one that stands on good physical principles but let us not pretend our understanding extends too far or that the working hypothesis is a sufficient explanation for what is going on.

I have heard it said, by scientists, journalists and politicians, that the time for argument is over and that further scientific debate only causes delay in action. But the wish to know exactly what is going on is independent of politics and scientists must never bend their desire for knowledge to any political cause, however noble.

The science is fascinating, the ramifications profound, but we are fools if we think we have a sufficient understanding of such a complicated system as the Earth’s atmosphere’s interaction with sunlight to decide. We know far less than many think we do or would like you to think we do. We must explain why global warming has stopped.

One of the straws in the wind of this debate is the way that “global warming” has been replaced by “climate change” in the mouths of the action-now-ers, implying that they have suspected for some time that the arguments for their preferred CO2 tyrannies may be running out of steam and need to be modified.

Go here for opposite arguments to those dominant in my part of the blogosphere.

What if both sides are right?  What if CO2 is heating up the planet, and the sun is now cooling it down, and the two effects are cancelling each other out?

Personally I think that the best cure for environmental catastrophe is to be very rich.

Thursday December 20 2007

The Eee PC will make all the others make lighter and cheaper computers too:

Reuters reports that Asus is now shipping 20,000 of the 2 lb. mobile computing quasi-appliances every month. The Tawianese manufacturer has been so encouraged that it has raised its global forecast to five million Eees by the end of 2008 as it aims at becoming the fifth largest notebook PC company by 2010. Those are the kind of numbers that could make the top four take notice, setting off a frenzy of melodramatic pound-shedding to rival The Biggest Loser.

This is exactly what I hoped would happen.  With any luck I will soon be able to stroll down Tottenham Court Road and choose the nicest and cheapest micro-computer, from one of half a dozen different makers.

And sorry to keep banging on about it, but a lot of these little gizmos will have Linux on board, if only because Linux is cheaper, and cheapness is at least half the point of these things.

Eee PCs now come in a range of pastel shades, which is a sure sign of a hit.  Human beings, women even, will soon be having these things.

Wednesday December 19 2007

Patrick Crozier today links to this, which is a review of XP written by a guy who has upgraded to XP from Vista.  Conclusion:

To be honest there is only one conclusion to be made; Microsoft has really outdone themselves in delivering a brand new operating system that really excels in all the areas where Vista was sub-optimal. From my testing, discussions with friends and colleagues, and a review of the material out there on the web there seems to be no doubt whatsoever that that upgrade to XP is well worth the money. Microsoft can really pat themselves on the back for a job well done, delivering an operating system which is much faster and far more reliable than its predecessor. Anyone who thinks there are problems in the Microsoft Windows team need only point to this fantastic release and scoff loudly.

Well done Microsoft!

Heh.  Speaking of which, I swear I recall Instapundit linking to something along these lines in the not too distant past.  Yes, here we are.

This is like watching the sinking of the Titanic in slow motion.

Michael Jennings has been (is still?) in Asia, on his way to Christmas in Oz, and he emails news of the Asus Eee PC:

You may be interested to know that the Asus Eee PC is not available for love or money in Asia, either. I asked a couple of salesmen in Singapore if they had any, and they just laughed. I have no idea whether it is a good computer or not (form the specs I would decribe it as “limited”, but on the other hand it costs about 25% of the price of other subcompact laptops, which probably makes it permissable) but Asus clearly have a huge hit with the machine. It is an interesting move by them. Like many Taiwanese companies, Asus are very important in the PC ecosystem (and they are known to geeks), but their brand is obscure. My desktop PC has an Asus motherboard, and yours might too. The Koreans are much better at having less obscure brands, but their industry is much bigger and there are fewer companies. (Asus make something like 30% of the world’s laptops, but most are sold under other brand names). One thing this product may do is make Asus into a mainstream brand.

Read this to guess your chances of getting one any time soon in these parts.

Interesting that Microsoft is having to fight to get Vista jammed into it, which Asus seems to be resisting because Vista will clog it up.  If these cheap little gizmos with their scarce memory resources (at any rate compared to big desktop clunkers) are a wave of the future, and Michael’s observations (to say nothing of my instincts) say that they very much are, then Vista is looking worse and worse, and like a huge wrong turning for Microsoft.  I want Linux on mine.  When I finally get it.  Some time before next Christmas.  I hope.

Tuesday December 18 2007

Some while ago I asked about Facebook, here or somewhere - yes, here - and whether it was any use.  Well, now I’m hearing a buzz to the effect that it isn’t any use.  Adriana told me the other night that Facebook would do nothing for me that blogging doesn’t already do for me better.  She used the word “silo”, to mean, I think, some kind of big vat closed off from reality.  And now, at this blog (very belatedly added to my blogroll – sorry for the delay Mr Q – I kept meaning to do it and kept not doing it), I encounter this, which includes the phrase “walled garden”, which I take to mean much the same as silo:

Facebook is no paragon of virtue. It bears the hallmarks of the kind of pump-and-dump service that sees us as sticky, monetizable eyeballs in need of pimping. The clue is in the steady stream of emails you get from Facebook: “So-and-so has sent you a message.” Yeah, what is it? Facebook isn’t telling — you have to visit Facebook to find out, generate a banner impression, and read and write your messages using the halt-and-lame Facebook interface, which lags even end-of-lifed email clients like Eudora for composing, reading, filtering, archiving and searching. Emails from Facebook aren’t helpful messages, they’re eyeball bait, intended to send you off to the Facebook site, only to discover that Fred wrote “Hi again!” on your “wall.” Like other “social” apps (cough eVite cough), Facebook has all the social graces of a nose-picking, hyperactive six-year-old, standing at the threshold of your attention and chanting, “I know something, I know something, I know something, won’t tell you what it is!”

If there was any doubt about Facebook’s lack of qualification to displace the Internet with a benevolent dictatorship/walled garden, it was removed when Facebook unveiled its new advertising campaign. Now, Facebook will allow its advertisers use the profile pictures of Facebook users to advertise their products, without permission or compensation. Even if you’re the kind of person who likes the sound of a benevolent dictatorship this clearly isn’t one.

Which doesn’t sound like anything I want, does it?  And he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, and not just sour graping about something he’s too scared or too old to try.

You can read the whole article, by Cory Doctorow, here.

Monday December 17 2007

This looks like a nice bridge:


It’s the Valentine Bridge, in Bristol.

This relatively new footbridge, which snakes its course over the Floating Harbour just north of Temple Meads Station, is shown here from an unusual perspective, looking like the underbelly of a huge insect.

Gardiner’s, the former soap factory (built 1881), is seen in the background to the right. This area is now known as ‘Temple Quay 2’ and has a long way to go before development is complete.

By the look of all the photos of this bridge on Flickr, much of its charm lies in the contrast between the high tech bridge and the picturesquely rural state of the banks it connects.  Will this contrast disappear when “development is complete”?

Sunday December 16 2007

Patrick Crozier at Transport blog:

The other day a bunch of us Transport Bloggers met up at the new St Pancras and recorded a short podcast on the new station.

So in other words, we (Patrick, Michael Jennings, Rob Fisher and I) did this on location, so to speak - sitting at a table outside a coffee bar - rather than in a studio, i.e. at my home or Patrick’s.  Plus, it still worked okay and you can hear it fine.  So, a technical first, for my little bit of the podcastosphere.  I’m sure we’ll do more such things.

My St Pancras pictures, and more by others, here.  Michael Jennings’s blog here (where a couple more St Pancras snaps have been at the top since the beginning of the month), and Rob Fisher’s blog here.

Saturday December 15 2007

Jonathan Gewirtz was kind enough to comment on this posting, leaving a link to his photo blog.  I had a rootle around, and one of my favourite of his snaps is this dramatic skyscape:


And, there is a bridge!

Nice sharp black and white things like bridges with the sun behind them, I can do.  But I find complicated sky next to impossible.  Sky “scapes”, I think, demand the skills of a Real Photographer, which I strongly suspect Gewirtz of being.  You have to know how to distinguish between very bright and almost very bright, like it was the bark of a tree or something.  Plus, have you ever tried to get a Billion Monkey camera to focus precisely on a cloud?  Typically, they refuse.  When I photo a spectacular sky, packed with lots of little dramas, it usually comes out either light all over, or dark all over.

Friday December 14 2007

I’ve been meaning to take a swipe at the abolition of Retail Price Maintenance for about two decades, and at the IEA for recommending it all those years ago, and now I have.

This is my second Samizdata posting in this category (the first having been this one), that is to say a posting that I have long been prevented from writing by the fact that I have been taking the writing of it too seriously.  I wrote this latest piece this morning, adequately rather than perfectly, and before I could allow myself any second thoughts I just shoved it up.

Thursday December 13 2007

Spent the day doing life, so too busy to blog.  So, here are two quota photos, both taken in the vicinity of Southwark tube station.

First, looking back along The Cut, towards Parliament, that being the four pronged Parliament tower, with the roof of Waterloo Station much nearer.


Is that St Stephen’s Tower?  No.  Apparently it’s called Victoria Tower.  I never knew that.  It houses the Parliamentary archives.  Again, did not know.

And this is a new office block inhabited by some branch of the Ken Livingstone industry whose title I can’t remember, as viewed from the eighth story balcony of the block of flats opposite:


Down on the left there is South tube station itself.

Click if you want them bigger.  That is all.

Wednesday December 12 2007

This was in a comment, from “petronius” on a recent Samizdata posting I did about Christianity in China.  I was tempted to make it today’s Samizdata quote of the day, but that might confuse things, what with two nearby postings then being about the same thing.  So, let it be the quote of the day here:

Rome isn’t making many waves with Beijing right now, but then Rome always takes the long view. Look at what happened in Poland. The party there thought the new Cardinal was a quiet scholar. Imagine their shock when they discovered that he had secretly built an army of the best minds in the country, one student at a time. Those 50 million Bibles are going to explode one of these days, when Beijing least expects it.

I’ve no idea if it’s true, but I love the way he puts it.

The more I ponder Christianity, the more (a) I think that most of what it says is barking bonkers, and the more (b) I recognise it to be a profound force in the world, as much because of what it doesn’t do - challenge Caesar on his home turf, basically - as for what it does.  (See more from me along those lines towards the end of the original posting.)

As soon as I abandon cats as an official project, I see cats everywhere (scroll down to the bottom of the posting):


A Japanese version of Skimbleshanks.

Cats rule.  I mean that not in an appreciative or upbeat sense, but as psycho-political analysis.  Like Big Brother, they do things to our brains.

imageThe Agitator is a long overdue addition to my blogroll today, and he linked to this great (and copiously illustrated) list of cool about-to-be-built buildings.

List compiler “deputydog” (to the blogroll with him also) explains what is so especially cool about his number one cool edifice (deputydog has a silly thing about capital letters but is otherwise excellent):

from a distance this skyscraper, to be completed in 2009 in chicago, will seem quite traditional. it’ll only be when you get close and look up that you can appreciate the ripple/jelly effect created by variously sized balconies from top to bottom.

What I admire about this building is that, under the cute decoration, it is a bog standard, structurally and economically completely logical tower.  It doesn’t just seem traditional from a distance.  It is traditional.  The contrast in this respect with some of the other buildings in the list is extreme.  In these other edifices, the entire shape of the thing has been turned into a decorative feature, at (surely) colossal extra cost.  Which is okay, but not, I think, so satisfying.  (Part of the pleasure I get from anything good is the knowledge that it is good without costing too much.  Call it conspicuous non-consumption.)

Expect many terrific snaps on Flickr, taken from quite near to the bottom, photo-ing upwards.

See also, this recent London beauty, which is far smaller and so bulges rather more strikingly, especially when viewed from a distance, but which uses a similar trick, with similar lack of additional cost.

UPDATE: Says deputydog in his latest posting: “go here for like-minded stuff”. Also blogrolled.

Tuesday December 11 2007

I wrote a few weeks back about the permanent italics disease, denouncing blog software for allowing a small failure (to switch off italics in one posting) to pollute the entire rest of the blog with permanent italics.

Well, just to show that even the grandest blogs can be struck down by this disease, or by a variant of it, engadget, which I believe (corrections welcome) is the highest traffic gadget blog on the planet, certainly one of them, is just now suffering from an odd and intermittently far worse variation of this stupid disease.  There is a spot, after about a couple of postings, where they have an advert, which switches from one advert to another and another and another and back again.  Well, one of the adverts currently running (I think it’s a Nikon advert) causes everything, regular text and all, below it to be in huge letters, bigger by far even than, e.g. my headings lettering.  If, after a few moments of this bollocks you press refresh, and you get a different advert, and usually all is then well.

It would be tempting to blame the advertiser.  I mean, advertising doesn’t get much more interruptive than this, does it?  But no.  I think this (I repeat) bollocks is the fault of the blog software.  Yes, it may be an “error” by whoever posted whatever it is that is “causing” the problem, but it ought not to cause any such thing.

And, I also repeat: engadget!  If these guys can’t stop a thing like this happening, this bollocks is a real problem.  Engadget is “powered by Blogsmith”, so I’m guessing they are the bollocksmiths this time around.

Monday December 10 2007

My most alert regular readers (I like to think I have a few regular readers and that a proportion of them are alert) may have noted that feline references were absent last Friday.  This is because I have made my point with the cats and the kittens (the point being: this blog is for my own amusement), and cat mentions every Friday had become a burden.  So, end of cats, at any rate as a weekly thing.

However, coincidentally, last Friday, there was mention in my part of the blogosphere of a splendid piece of catness, which, had I noticed it on the Friday, would have postponed my abandonment of cat mentions by a week - and who knows? - maybe for longer.

Not every online film is pro-war. One, available here, is a 23-minute discussion of whether the Iraq war is illegal under international law. Narrated by a talking cat, it has been seen by more than 600,000 people. It’s anyone’s guess how many of them have actually been swayed by the cat’s arguments.

That’s from this article by Richard Miniter, which is mostly about how Hollywood is not making the Iraq war movies that Americans want to watch.  I found this via Instapundit, who has more on the same topic yesterday.

I should get Viz more often.

I took this photo last Friday, and am very proud of it.  The resplendently magical tower, lit by what’s left of the afternoon sun, rises amidst the clutter and dirt and confusion of the rest of London.  I especially like how the clutter entirely frames the tower.


I will always know this building as the NatWest Tower, but apparently it’s now called Tower 42.  What is this mania for calling the great objects of London something different to what they’re really called?  The Gherkin is the “Swiss Re” Building, the Wheel is the “London Eye”, the GPO Tower is ... whatever that now is, etc.

The great thing about the NatWestTower42, or whatever it now is, is that it is right next to the Gherkin.  But in truth, all even semi-tall buildings in that part of London have great views.  The Monument.  St Pauls.  Even the top of Tower Bridge is terrific.  For a Billion Monkey photographer like me, the very top of the Wheel is arguably too high, and you don’t get as much detail.  Plus, the best part of London for urban drama is more to the east, nearer to the City and Docklands.  Plus, the Wheel moves, of course, and you don’t really get a chance to get stuck in.

I and a friend went to NWT42 last week to see if we could get to the top, for me to take snaps and for her to have an overpriced drink or (except that ten quid for a Diet Pepsi and unlimited snaps would be cheap at twice the price), but apparently you have to book in advance.  (Click on CONTACT for the phone number.)

Has anyone who reads this blog ever tried this, or know anyone who has?  How does it work?  Can you wander all around and see all the views, or are you stuck with those from your booked table?  If you do wander around, do other tables get in the way?

Sunday December 09 2007

David Thompson included in his latest Friday ephemera links one to the Self-Portrait Camera Extension Arm:


The first of its kind, this device allows you to take pictures in any environment, underground, underwater, or in the air, without having to hold your camera at arms length, providing a suitable distance from your subject to ensure you dont truncate shots needlessly before they are even taken.

Made of shatter-resistant polycarbonate and durable aluminum, it extends to 181/2” and can hold any camera or camcorder up to 16 oz. stably. It collapses down to 7 1/2” and fits easily into backpacks or pockets. It has a built-in positioning mirror that allows you to align the arm for a perfect shot, and it has a 1/4 20-thread universal tripod adapter that fits most cameras. (3 1/2 oz.).

What it doesn’t say is whether it has a system to click the camera from the other end of the arm.  I’m almost certain it doesn’t.  So, from where I stand, it’s nothing but a one-legged tripod.  The basic problem with having a dedicated device for taking self-portraits is that you only occasionally want to do this.  It’ll never catch on.

It will never, that is to say, replace this, which I took last Friday:


And it has no chance at all against this.

On those occasions when such methods do not suffice, then all you need do is ask a fellow Billion Monkey to take the snap for you.  We are usually quite willing to oblige.

Saturday December 08 2007

imageWhile looking for a suitable pictures of Boris Johnson to decorate this posting at my Education Blog, I came across this great snap.

So much better than just Boris, I think you will agree.  You could never get a bloke to stand like that for a photo normally.  But for both Billion Monkeys, or, as in this case, Real Photographers, such contortions are themselves entirely normal.

However, when I say “great snap”, I mean it’s a snap of something great, rather than particularly good technically.  Once again, we observe that thing with the light that I mentioned in the earlier posting about the Golden Umbrellas.  Either the foreground in a Billion Monkey shot is too dark, or, as here, the sky is bright white, and sometimes when shadows are flying around, the same thing is both too dark and too light, like a face for instance.  In the blurb about the picture, the guy who took it assures us that in the background, shrouded in mist, is the Wheel.  Can’t see it myself.

I think, next time the sun shines brightly, that I’ll try taking some shots through a pair of sunglasses, and see what happens.

This is odd, from the Spectator:

There will be further dramatic twists certainly, further evolutions of the plot, further alarums and excursions before the curtain comes down, but for those of us watching the Prime Minister perform it is now clear we are witnessing a tragedy - and the bloodletting has not yet ended.

There will be further dramatic twists certainly, further evolutions of the plot, further alarums and excursions before the curtain comes down, but for those of us watching the Prime Minister perform it is now clear we are witnessing a tragedy - and the bloodletting has not yet ended…

I thought only bloggers did things like this.  And if I did something like this and if I became aware of it, I’d correct it.  But, I guess they have a rule.  Derived from their still persisting print era, perchance?  From the age when a blunder, once perpetrated, remained perpetrated for ever?  But, this is not a fatal flaw.  It’s certainly better than changing a basic fact or argument three days later.

As commenter “Wombats” observes:

I see we get a choice of endings.


Indeed ...

Friday December 07 2007

The night before last I was at the Golden Umbrella Awards dinner.  It was nothing like as gruesome as I feared.  I sat next to a lady who wanted to know how to get started in digital photography!  And on my other side was a Swedish MEP who later turned out to be a Billion Monkey also!

I took snaps:


1.1: Perry de Havilland flashing; 1.2: Matthew Elliott; 1.3: Janet Dailey; 1.4: Mistress of Ceremonies Karen Horn, Dimitar Chobanov, John Fund; 1.5: Alberto Mingardi.
2.1: Cecile Philippe; 2.2: Tom Palmer; 2.3: Stephen Pollard; 2.4: Blurry Tim Evans; 2.5: explains itself.
3.1: Christopher Fjellner MEP BnMnky (the one snap where artificial enhancement was required to turn it from a dark blur into a picture); 3.2: Fredrik Erixon; 3.3: Jan Carnogursky; 3.4: Alice Thomson, Atilla Yayla; 3.5: Undying flame?  Let’s hope so.

For further details of who all these people are, and for the official pictures of them taken by the Real Photographer, go here.

Amazingly, I took no less than four photos where I snapped exactly when someone else’s flash went off, the first of these, 1.1, being almost the first photo I took all evening.  See also 1.4 and 3.2, which both involve the flashing of the Real Photographer.

In general, my photos came out much more glittery and shadowy, and in that sense, you could say, more realistically, than those taken by the Real Photographer, whose activities feature in 1.2, 1.4, 3.2, and 3.3.  Because the light actually was a lot more variable than he made it look.  Real photographers all use flash on these occasions (thereby adding yet more to the general glitteriness of the event), because they have to get a result every time.  But, to stop their results looking too flashy, I’m guessing they also use quite strong filters.  The results can be rather austere, as was the case here I think, but they are always usable, unlike my much more brightly and warmly lit, shadow-ridden, but all too often blurrily unusable efforts.  I hate flash, which means that my results at an event like this are very hit or miss.  Much the same applies, I should guess, to the snaps that Perry de Havilland took.  Some of his and some of mine look pretty much identical.  Perry’s camera, as well as starring in 1.1 of coruse, also features in 3.3, and totally upstages Tim Evans in 2.4.

With these remarks above about flash and filters, I can feel myself beginning to metamorphose into a Real Photographer.  The one aspect of Billion Monkey cameras that I am starting seriously to dislike is their inability to moderate bright light and strong contrasts, of the sort that you get in bright sunlight, or if you are using flash.  And as it happens they are now starting to produce combined Real-Photographer-stroke-Billion-Monkey cameras of a sort I am starting to want.  But more about that later.

If you want to know what I thought of the event itself, as opposed to the various photos of it that I and others took, then I have a piece up at one of the CNE blogs about it, and I intend also to do a piece on Samizdata, sometime over the weekend, with a more personal take on it all.

Thursday December 06 2007

Is Photography dead? asks Peter Plagens.  To me this sounds a lot like the wingeing that other old school journalists do about journalism:

Yet wandering the galleries of these two shows, you can’t help but wonder if the entire medium hasn’t fractured itself beyond all recognition. Sculpture did the same thing a while back, so that now “sculpture” can indicate a hole in the ground as readily as a bronze statue. Digitalization has made much of art photography’s vast variety possible. But it’s also a major reason that, 25 years after the technology exploded what photography could do and be, the medium seems to have lost its soul. Film photography’s artistic cachet was always that no matter how much darkroom fiddling someone added to a photograph, the picture was, at its core, a record of something real that occurred in front of the camera. A digital photograph, on the other hand, can be a Photoship fairy tale, containing only a tiny trace of a small fragment of reality. By now, we’ve witnessed all the magical morphing and seen all the clever tricks that have turned so many photographers - formerly bearers of truth - into conjurers of fiction. It’s hard to say “gee whiz” anymore.

We can’t decide what it is any more, so it’s dead dead dead.  Broken anyway.  (By the way, I think sculpture has got a lot better lately.)

But Plagens does have half a point.  Real Photographers do have a real problem.  In their glory days, they could just take a thousand snaps and pick the best, or set up one really great shot, take half a dozen, ditto, and be confident that the Billion Monkeys couldn’t follow them, because we hardly existed.  But now, to try to separate themselves from the simian hoards, they resort to the Photoshop trickery that Plagens describes, which we Billion Monkeys mostly can’t be bothered with.  Most of us prefer to have a record of something real, thank you very much.  (But, those of us who like to get all artistic and play games with Photoshop can be scarily good at that too!)

Photography is not dead.  It is alive and kicking.  Kicking people like Peter Plagens actually, wedded as he is to “art” photography, with all its shows and galleries and related palaver.  Time was when people like Plagens could shape the history of photography by simply announcing where photography was going in their old school columns and their glossily illustrated books devoted exclusively to Real Photographers.  Now, this history has taken on a life of its own, and Plagens can only watch helplessly.  It is his life and work that has been sidelined, that has “lost its soul”, not photography itself.

I say “gee whiz” frequently, about half the time at one of my own photos.  But that’s because my preferred photographers (who include me) keep art at arms length, and instead photo things that are interesting.  Simple really.

Tuesday December 04 2007

One of the major good-thing-bad-thing contrasts in my life just now is whether I have a book on the go or not.  By on the go I don’t mean a book that I am merely reading.  I mean a book I am reading and really want to read, so keenly that I will gladly get it out and read just half a paragraph, if that is all that the small bit of time available allows.

I was especially reminded of this contrast over the summer, when I took a protracted blogging break.  Then, the difference between having a book on the go, or not, was the difference between life being very full, or rather empty.  Mostly it was full.

Books, I feel, are going to be around for quite a while.  But does that merely mean that I love books?  Are generations below me going to read books only if they have things like the Amazon Kindle to read them on?  This seems a very unappealing object to me.


The thing I most like about books is the sense I have when reading them of where I am in them.  How far I’ve got, how far there is to go, and what the overall territory roughly consists of.  Would I get that with one of these things?  I fear not, or not nearly so automatically and naturally.

Anyway, after a brief and unhappy hiatus, I do now have a book on the go, this one.  This contains some contentious speculations about the final years of Edward II, but even if these are wrong (as one irate Amazon reviewer declares irately), I don’t mind.  Part of the fun of learning about history is learning about what the historians still argue about.

Combine this Samizdata posting with the previous posting here, about the Millau Viaduct, and you get that life under the Millau Viaduct is bad indeed.

It’s been quite a while since I had to include “This and that” among the categories.

Monday December 03 2007

December 1st was apparently a theme day for all the Daily Picture blogs, and this time it was ... bridges!  And at Toulouse, I found this particularly appealing photo of a favourite of mine, the Millau Viaduct:


I’ve never seen the rural nature of what happens underneath that wondrous thing better shown.  There is something appealing about a huge structure like this which has hardly any direct impact on its immediate surroundings apart from just being there.  There is no collision here.  Just peaceful coexistence.

Sunday December 02 2007

This is something I’ve always wondered about:

The other pressing question is, are these blogs commercially sensible? Paying journalists to write on low traffic blogs is not a commercially sustainable model. Politics is not popular outside the political elite, far more people watch Sky Sports than Sky News, Murdoch runs the latter as a loss leader. With losses at the Guardian, Telegraph and Indy’s online operations continuing to mount without end, the penny will drop with proprietors eventually. Big Media can do it, can do it well even, but who will pay the elephant to dance?

That’s Guido, ruminating about some of his competitors yesterday.

The big old school media date from an era when regular people had to pay to get in on the big metropolitan conversations, and even then, all they could do was read them.  Now the conversation just ... happens, everywhere.  Anyone can join in at scarcely any cost beyond that of a broadband connection.

And this doesn’t help either.

It will be a big moment when a good and widely read, but unprofitable old school media blog or internet operation gets shut down, by a faceless bastard capitalist who simply refuses to pay the bloggers their huge salaries any more.

Earlier this month I finally ventured back (following an earlier accident up there) onto the roof of my block of flats, at around dusk.  What got me up there again was that fire at the Olympic Games site, which happened earlier that day, and which I had only just heard about.  Was smoke still visible?  No, damn.  That was the second huge cloud of smoke over London that I failed to photo.  Why do I bother to live here, if I can’t notice things like this?

But, the view that evening was beautiful because the day was (apart from that fire) cloudless, so I snapped away happily anyway.

This time, instead of making small pictures that tell part of the story, I’ve concentrated on the various different colours that a cheap camera like mine, firing on automatic, makes of what is all pretty much the same colour (mostly gray with occasional pink), according to what else is in each particular snap.  This is exactly as everything came out of the camera, with no photoshop(clone)ing whatsoever, and they are displayed in chronological order.


As you will see if you do much clicking, the general theme is roof clutter, animal (are birds animals?), vegetable and mineral, old and new, which I highly recommend to photo.  And there’s also the occasional famous landmark peeping through the gloom, like the Post Office Tower or the top of Westminster Cathedral.  That huge Stalinoid lump next to the Post Office Tower is the old Home Office.

See also: this old posting.

I am constantly amazed at how good weather forecasts are.  Today, I will stop in, because it will, apparently, be rainy all day.  Tomorrow, I will go out and take photos, because it will be sunny all day.  I know this, because they’ve told me.

But, it looks like there may not be much cricket to get me up in the morning tomorrow (see the posting below), or the next day.

Although predicting the weather seems to be easy, predicting the climate is something else again.

UPDATE: More climate stuff here.

Test cricket is back, and the timing is right.  Finally, a test match series in foreign parts that gets me up early in the morning, instead of one that keeps me awake at night.  This one starts at 5 am and goes on until midday.  So unless I actually stay awake until 5, I get up, with insufficient sleep, to follow it at just the kind of time I should get up, and that means ... well, you get the idea.

This morning, alas, by the time I’d got up, rain had stopped play.  But at least that meant Warne kept an equal share of the record for another day.

I notice that Strauss - who, together with the also absent Trescothick, got a personal mention in this - is not even playing.  Which was exactly my point.

Saturday December 01 2007

Having finally managed to write at some length about two-man teams, I am seeing the things I wrote about in that piece everywhere:

With the departure of Rangel there was really no one left with enough stature in Chavez’s cabinet to be able to say ‘no’ even occasionally.

There’s a referendum coming up, which asks “Am I your undisbuted boss for ever?” But it will do the Chav little good even if he wins.  If he does win it will merely be assumed that he used the powers he already has to fix the result in his favour.  But if he loses he will lose huge.

Earlier in the week I too a look at the new St Pancras Station, and like almost everyone I like it a lot.  This is how to waste public money indeed.

Much of the pleasure of the new station comes from the way it is organised.  About two thirds of the old shed is the new Euro-station, but alongside that is the publicly accessible bit, on your left as you enter, full of shops and coffee bars, with its sunken rectangular areas, bridges, stairs and colonnades.  And then, beyond all that shopaholic bliss, again on the left, is ... a regular British railway station, with trains going to unmemorable places like Derby and Leicester, and maybe even to exactly those places.  I can’t remember.  Presumably that would be the old LMS main line.  The point being that the Euro-trains are twice the length of regular local trains, which means that the short Brit trains make room for all that shopping.  That enabled them to shove the old station completely into the new extension, using the original station only for the Euro-trains.

Here’s what the whole thing looks like from the air.


I snapped that by snapping my TV during one of the six half-hour documentaries that the BBC has been airing about the remaking of the station.  It’s not the best photo technically, but you get the picture very clearly from that, I think.  The rather darker railway lines on the right as we look down are the local lines, presumably.

Here is another aerial view, this time very fine indeed, of the new station.  On the left you can see Kings Cross, and beyond St Pancras on the right, you can see the British Library.

Next is a fine shot of the station as you enter it by train, found on flickr.


Not a lot is being said by commentators about the new bit, because it is so banal.  But, as with the new Hungerford footbridges, I am becoming a convert, after first not approving.  The new Hungerford footbridges rescue the original and very dull railway bridge.  The new St Pancras extension is simply added to the far end of the glorious original, adding not very much aesthetically, but also subtracting very little, and arguably, by contriving that you enter the old station as if through a tunnel, making the arrival in the old station, presumably, all the more dramatic.  I am looking forward to actually doing this.

And here are a few of the best snaps that I took.  By the time I got there it was already getting dark, but this didn’t diminish my pleasure, or photographic effectiveness.  For one of the most excellent things about this station is how well it is lit, and how cannily the colours of the roof have been selected.  That light blue and grey works very well.


Inevitably there were other Billion Monkeys about besides me, and inevitably I snapped some of them.

I agree with Patrick Crozier about the naff statue.  I like the idea of representative sculpture, but this just looks foolish.  My photo makes it look far better than it is.  The John Betjeman stature, on the other hand, actually is far better.  And note the last two, inside and outside the boring extension.

Yet more St Pancras snaps and commentary here, including a full length one of the stupid statue.  Maybe I’ll eventually get to like that too.

By the way, you can’t help noticing that the place is not yet finished.  Many of the shops are still boarded up, and all over the place evidence is to be found of work yet to be done, details yet to be cleaned up or finalised.  The number of people (not that many) there when I went, which was at about 4pm, surely reflected the only partial nature of what is there now.  When it all beds down, it will be very crowded, I think.  So if you want to visit, now might be a good moment.  On the other hand, when it is finished, it will be even better, and arguably the greater throngs will suit it better.