Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Friday December 31 2010

I’ve been spending the time I’ve not been using for socialising (and I’ve been doing quite a lot of socialising) by trawling through my photo archives, looking for nice photos, to prove what a lovely decade I’ve just had, taking photos.

Here is one of my favourites:

image

That’s Matilda, my Mum’s cat, snapped around five ten years ago.  Normally, she was just a nice cat.  But with the magic of flash, a bit from the side, Matilda is here seen wondering how she can contrive a job for herself as the part time ruler of the world.  There’s nothing like a shadow with pointy ears to suggest a dark and dangerous alter ego.

Happy New Year everyone.

Thursday December 30 2010

I saw this at Instapundit, but I have no idea whether they were aiming it particularly at me, or at people generally.  I don’t know where I am with adverts any more.

image

Being a Z list blogger has its advantages as well as its humiliations.  I can take the piss out of stuff like this, confident that only my readers will notice.

Just spotted another advert in the same spot, for something along the lines of credit rating UK.  That suggests targetting to me.  I.e. not a proper advert at all, just junk mail in among what I am trying to read.  I really can’t see this “business model” (free verbiage plus non-adverts) going anywhere very fast.  Note that it even drains the juice out of real adverts, because you no longer believe that any of them are real.

More on the whole paying-for-what-you-read thing by me here.

Wednesday December 29 2010

I am currently spending most of what blogging time I have concocting a Samizdata posting provisionally entitled “My digital photography decade”.  After all, we are not just approaching the end of a year.  Soon the first decade of this new millenium will be ending.  This is the kind of photo I intend to use to illustrate this posting:

image

That’s my friend from way back, David Botsford, who wrote lots of Libertarian Alliance stuff, a little of which you can see in the fireplace there (although what you see is mostly not by him).  That picture was taken with my very first camera, something called a Minolta Dimage.  I was only able to remember that name when I found my way to photos of it, that I had taken in various mirrors.  Note that the above picture of David does use flash, but flash directed at him from way off to my right, held in my outstretched right hand.  You can see the flash shadow way to David’s left, as we look.

I’ve had two new computers since taking that, and it took me quite a while to find my way to the archive that had such pictures.

Later, I may add some links, to the LA pamphlet featuring that picture, or one very like it, and to anything that materialises along the lines referred to above at Samizdata.

Monday December 27 2010

The dinner I shared at Perry and Adriana’s on Christmas Eve was superb.  It began with delicious spicey parsnip soup.  This, being an indeterminate grey colour, looked like something you might get in prison, but it did not taste at all like that.  Then, to juice up the main course (duck rather than turkey) there was a particularly appetising, somewhat alcoholic gravy.  Outstanding.  Also outstanding were the potatoes (cooked under the duck apparently), and other vegetables, which is not always the case in my experience.  (Overcooked on the outside, frozen in the middle Brussels sprouts anyone?  That or just mushy all through.) Perhaps, by and by, there will be info about some of that appetisingness here.

After we had dined, presents were exchanged.  This was because in Adriana’s country of origin, Slovakia, Christmas Eve is the time for presents, rather than Christmas Day.  So, Perry and Adriana exchanged presents that evening, after we had dined.  Which created a somewhat delicate social dilemma.  What if there are guests?  Might they feel left out?  Perhaps.  So, we visitors got presents too.  Which in its turn created another nice social dilemma.  Should we have brought presents with us?  (I didn’t.) Should they have told us to bring presents?  (They didn’t.)

But what the hell, I bought some Maria Callas operatic CDs for Adriana’s mum in the early 1990s when such things were hard to come by in Slovakia, so what goes around comes around.  That’s worth a woolly jumper and a bottle of (my favourite) booze.

All of which is mere preamble to this photo, which was one of the presents that Perry (I think) got.  Someone got it anyway:

image

Yes you saw that right, Marmite spoons.  I don’t know that I would want to own such spoons, but I certainly wanted to photograph them.  I’d forgotten about this until now, hence the delay.

Someone also got some Marmite chocolate.  Which, I think we would all agree is a very peculiar thing to receive, or even to exist.  I didn’t sample any on Christmas Eve, but do intend to at least once, some time soon.

What next, I wonder?  Chocolate flavoured potato crisps?  Already been done.

Sunday December 26 2010

By lunch on the first day of the fourth test at the MCG, Australia had already lost vital wickets, and also those of Hughes and Ponting.

I slept through the beginning and only awoke and searched out R5LiveSportX (my subconscious wanted to know what the score was) as they were discussing the wicket of Hughes, and right after that Ponting got out.  Big news: Watson was already out.  And then, just before lunch and just before a shower began, Hussey was out caught behind off Jimmy A.

After England went one up at Adelaide and before the previous test at Perth that Australia won by an innings, I was a lone voice of sanity telling England fans to calm down and stop assuming that Australia was now a failed state.  Now everyone will be wallowing hysterically in sanity, pointing out that Australia were four down by lunch on the first day at Perth and still won that one by several thousand runs.  Now, everyone will be saying that England should not be counting their chickens and that four swallows do not make a test match morning.

Yes they do.  Let me go out on a limb here and say that England have made a very good start.

LATER:

. . . W . . | . . . . W . | . W

Australia 77-8.  I told you it was a good start by England.

LATER: Australia 98 all out.

LATER: I just want to have this here as a souvenir:

image

It’s a slice from one of the set of photos at the bottom of this page.

The point being that good moments for your team in this series have a habit of being extreme, but fleeting.  I don’t believe this has stopped.  Ponting double century in the second innings anyone?

Friday December 24 2010

Indeed:

image

That’s from Victoria Station shopping centre.  I’ve used this sign before to say Happy Christmas, but if it’s good enough for them to keep using, and it is, it’s good enough for me to keep using.

If you want any further seasonal advice:

imageimage

The poster on the left as on a wall at Chateau Perry (de Havilland) which is where I now am, and the mugs are from a shop window near to Chateau Perry.  Thank you to Perry and especially Adriana for the outstanding Xmas hospitality.

All the very best to all my friends and readers, and in a very small number of cases both.  I have quite a lot of fun doing this blog, and I hope you have, at least sometimes, some fun reading it.  I hope that next year, and come to that the next decade, goes well for you.

LATER, on my way back home, on foot because the buses and trains had all stopped at midnight, this:

image

It’s Rigby & Peller, their Kings Road shop.

Dawkins, the new mainframe, marks, for me, a definite step away from CDs and towards the 21st century way with music, which is to have it in computer files rather than on bits of plastic in plastic cases, stored in vast shelves where books or even pictures would otherwise be.  This is because Dawkins does much better sound than God, the previous mainframe, ever did.

When discussing Dawkins with the Guru, I basically said, like a very fat American ordering a very fat American sandwich: give it everything.  All the extras.  All the trimmings.  Speed?  Yes, a lot.  Hard disc?  Huge.  Ram?  Pile it on.  USBs?  As many as possible.  And: sound card?  A very good one please.  In each case, look at the cost graph, which goes up gradually from nothing, but then does a kink upwards when you get too greedy, and take me to the right hand end of the relatively flat bit, to just before the kink.  I want the most that I can get without spending silly money.

And that’s what I now have.  In particular, I have what sounds like an excellent new sound card.

Despite using the same old scumbag little plastic speakers that were previously attached to God, I now get, from these same scumbag speakers, hugely improved sound, rivalling the quality and volume of the sound I get from my separate CD system.  Now, if I want to play music very late at night without the inconvenience of using headphones, I can stick it on Dawkins (who is closer to me than the CD system) and play it softer, thus not disturbing the neighbours.

Presumably, attaching Real Speakers to God would merely have reproduced the same anaemically ghastly sound more expensively and more inconveniently, what with God’s crappy sound card.  Now, Real Speakers, even quite big Real Speakers, but attached to Dawkins, seem like a fine idea.  It helps that Dawkins, being faster and more rammed up, will be able to handle all this without having a brain seizure if also asked to do anything else complicated.

Until now, I have regarded mere computer files as a definite second best, compared to CDs played on a proper CD machine.  Now, not so much.

Just recently, Gramophone magazine stopped attaching a CD of excerpts to its cover, and merely announced that these excerpts would be at its website.  It seems I am not the only old classical fogey who is finally moving in this direction.

Someone asked what the new mainframe looks like.  It looks like this:

image

On the front, big black rectangular nothingness, like the Monolith in 2001.  The Monolith, unlike Dawkins, is sort of a God, because it taught that monkey how to make a space ship by throwing a bone into the air.

But the nothingness at the front of my new mainframe is more prosaic than that.  It is a big plastic door, which you open when you want to play a CD or a DVD or something.  Besides which, I conjecture that many geeks have computers which they refer to as The Monolith.  Dawkins, not so many.  Dawkins it remains.

Thursday December 23 2010

Incoming yesterday from Michael J, yesterday:

image

My problem is that when I hear about cats on a Monday, I will have entirely forgotten about them by the time Friday comes around.  But blog postings can be posted on a Tuesday and only appear on the Friday.  I would hardly call this placid scene a bomb, but you can set blog postings such as this to go off like a bomb.

UPDATE Friday: More Michael J travel snaps here, including another of Dubrovnik.

There were problems with this blog last night and earlier today, caused by some general admin at the Guru’s supercomputer, which (unknown to him at the time) adversely impacted on my blog.  Basically www brianmicklethwait dot com got you not to the latest stuff, but to your last visit.  Or something.  As soon as I told the Guru about the problem (and thanks to those who told me because I hadn’t properly clocked it) he was able to make the necessary adjustments, back to how things had been, and the problem should not now to recur.

I know.  “Should”.  Computer folk are fond of that word, aren’t they?  Nevertheless, I am, at least in this particular computer matter, optimistic.

Some months ago I began reading The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross, which is a blow by blow account of twentieth century classical music.  Reading and greatly enjoying.

Trouble is, it’s a very big book, even in paperback, which makes it not-ideal for carrying around London, travelling being one of the main ways I read books.  (No internet to distract.) So, despite liking this book a lot, I now realise that I stopped reading it and that I switched to a succession of other equally enticing volumes that were not so big.  I am only now back with it, having resumed at a time when I was at home, but de-internetted by new computer turmoil.

On page 317, Ross says something I have long thought, but never myself put into written down words, or even said out loud very much:

Hollywood may have been hazardous territory for composers, but they at least felt wanted there, as they never did in American concert halls. The shift to talkies had created a mania for continuous sound.  Just as actors in screwball comedies had to talk a mile a minute, composers were called upon to underline every gesture and emphasize every emotion.  An actress could hardly serve a cup of coffee without having fifty Max Steiner strings swoop in to assist her.  ("What that awful music does,” Bette Davis once said to Gore Vidal, “is erase the actor’s performance, note by note.")

Well said, Bette.

But things improved.  Ross continues:

Early movie scores had a purely illustrative function, which composers called “Mickey-Mousing”: if a British frigate sails into the frame, “Rule, Britannia” plays.  Later, composers introduced techniques of musical distancing and irony, along the lines of Sergei Eisenstein’s counterpointing of image and sound. Music could be used to reveal a hidden psychological subtext, ...

Indeed.  There then follows an admiring description of the music written for The Grapes of Wrath by Aaron Copland.  Very influential, says Ross.

This soundtrack-composer-usurping-the-actors style of movie music only completely died out in the sixties and seventies, when they started using pop music for soundtracks, music with an insistent beat of its own which is quite unable to supply this kind of detailed and non-rhythmic “help” for actors.  What a relief that was. Suddenly the actors were revealed as able to act perfectly well without such help.  Every so often, I watch an old movie on the telly, starring someone like Doris Day, and suddenly we are back with that awful oh-look-she’s-adjusting-her-hat, she’s-a-bit-sad, ooh-now-Rock-Hudson-has-just-cheered-her-up style of movie musical accompaniment.  I realise now that Doris Day was perhaps not a completely god-awful film actress with all the subtlety of a container ship trying to win a round-the-harbour speedboat race.  It was just that the people writing, directing, editing and musically accompanying Doris Day’s performances were all tasteless idiots.

Another reason I am now reading The Rest is Noise is that I recently attended a lecture given by Ross at the British Library.  The lecture rather outstayed its welcome, for me.  Ross had about twenty interesting minutes worth of stuff to say about descending base lines as a way of signalling sorrowfulness in sorrowful songs, but took an hour to say it.  Nevertheless, the point was a good one and there were many delightful musical illustrations, my favourite being when he played “Hit the Road Jack”.

Afterwards, having already read and liked some of the earlier Alex Ross book, I bought a signed copy of the latest one.  But, not having finished reading the previous book, I wanted to do that first.

No welcomes outstayed in either of these books, or not so far.  Almost every page of them contains stuff just as worthy of blogvertisement as the above bit that I happened to choose.  And if, when you are reading a book, you fancy a break, you can have one.  Lectures happen in lecture time.  Books can be read in your own time.

Yes, here, as promised, is the proof that I can do squares!!!

All these pictures were taken in October of this year.  I looked at November, but didn’t seem to have any.  Then I realised that, due to complications arising out of the getting of a new computer, they were all still on my SD card.  By the time I realised that I could have used November snaps, or even December snaps, the process was underway, in fact nearly finished, so easy had this process now become.

1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4 are all architecture.  4.2, 1.3 and 1.4 are good architecture: the BT tower reflected in some nearby windows; the Shard under construction, viewed from Waterloo; the Strata tower ditto.  1.1 is the National Theatre, not such good architecture, hence the need now being felt to make it look nicer by sticking pictures on it:

imageimageimageimage

Next: Kensal Green railway station.  2.1 weird mirror; 2.2 artistic shot of the sort Goddaughter One likes and would have taken, had she been there; 2.3 the view from the bridge; 2.4 weirdness not in the station but near it, also being photoed by the friend I was visiting (I don’t think those legs were ever a real person):

imageimageimageimage

Now, some snaps taken in Lower Marsh, home of Gramex.  3.1 a really weird picture combining my legs, reflected in the window, and the legs of a manikin pretending to be Marilyn Monroe with her skirt billowing up, and also a camera on the floor of the window; 3.2 a bike more usually to be seen near the Wheel, with a similarly coloured alien riding about on it; 3.3 china ornaments; 3.4 a favourite eatery:

imageimageimageimage

And finally some people.  4.1 my fellow Transport Bloggers; 4.2 a very different kind of people picture, an anonymous one (which helps when you don’t have their permission) and also the kind of picture that could only come out of a camera; 4.3 another snap of Jesus Huerta de Sot; 4.4 another Hispanic, this time Francisco de Miranda (and where might that be? I hear you ask – well you’ll just have to click on it):

imageimageimageimage

The best clutches of little square pix are all of the same kind of thing and are self-explanatory and just go up in one great 4x4 wadge, or better yet a 5x5 wadge, or even 5x8 or 5x10.  Maybe later.  Actually: definitely later.  This was just so quick.

Wednesday December 22 2010

I’m far too pleased about this to be able to explain it intelligibly, but let me try anyway.

In the Good Old Days, I used an ancient version of Photoshop, the Real Thing, and when I wanted to crop a picture down to a little square, it was easy.  I would go to one of those things at the top, and then go down to “grid on”, and make a grid go on.  Then, doing the square was easy. It would confine itself to jumping from line to line on the grid.  It would either be square, or not square.  Choosing square was relatively easy.  Occasionally, it would get it one or even two grid jumps wrong, but this was easily corrected.  A bit cumbersome, but it worked fine.

But then, bad news.  I got a new computer (I think that must have been when this happened) and started using something that was Nearly Photoshop, but actually not, instead of Real Photoshop.  And in Nearly Photoshop, I couldn’t find any “grid on” thing.

By now I had become habituated to doing little squares, and really liked them.  But now, they took agonisingly long, because I had to get the mouse arrow in exactly the right position to make the little square pictures truly square.  This took ages.

So it was that I gradually did fewer and fewer of those big collections of squares that you people can then click on to see more of.  You probably never did click on them, but I don’t care about that.  This is my blog and I’ll have big collections of little square pictures if I want to.  It’s the principle of the thing. I missed them, and I pined.  How do I get to “grid on” in my Nearly Photoshop.  How?  How?

For some reason I just could not get my geek friends interested in this question.  They all insisted on just carrying on with their lives.  Grid on, grid on, grid on, how do I get that? Nothing.  Although, to be fair to the GFs, I could never remember the proper name for my Nearly Photoshop.

Today, all this ended.  When you get a new computer, things misbehave, and a particular misbehaviour this morning was that, while I was using my Nearly Photoshop, the mouse arrow insisted that it was a paintbrush for shoving yellow stars on my pictures.  What the hell is that?  Yellow stars?  I never told it to do that!  Make it stop!  I tried to make it stop.  Stop, stop.  It didn’t.  So then I tried what you do with a badly behaved child, and tried to get it interested in something else.  I chose another tool.  Select a rectangle.  That sounded like what it normally does.  So I chose that.  And then, right near where it said select a rectangle, were the magic words: select a square.  Select a square!!! And it did!!!  It refused to select anything except a square.  It worked.  I could make little squares, any size, in seconds, even quicker than I could with Real Photoshop.  Okay, okay, Real Photoshop probably does select a square too, but I never found out how.  Besides which, that’s not the point.  Nearly Photoshop now does everything I want of it.

I was going to follow this up with visual proof of this new superpower that I now possess, but that will have to wait, not because I couldn’t now do it, but because blog postings should, as a general rule, say just the one thing and thus not be too long.

Tuesday December 21 2010

Don’t usually do poems here (and don’t have a category called “poetry"), but this brought back happy memories:

Stumbled upon it here.

Monday December 20 2010

It’s the early hours of Monday morning and, while getting used to the new mainframe by searching ancient directories, I came across a photo that I really like, that I took a while back of giant bicycle-taxis, resting, somewhere in the London Bridge area, south of the river.

But bicycle-taxis are transport, so the posting and the photo ended up here.

Saturday December 18 2010

Today (this being the small hours of “tomorrow") I had a huge new computer delivered.  Well, it’s actually the same size as the old one, but being much more formidable in what it does, in particular in how fast it does what it does, it seems bigger, the way formidable people also seem bigger.  The old one was Windows XP.  Now it’s Windows 7.

I admire the new machine, but have yet to bond with it.  I respect it enormously, but do not, as yet, like it.  It has as its regular screen picture a succession of horribly Photoshop-enhanced photos of classic British Isles coastal scenes, which I did not take, the sunset behind what I think must be the Giants Causeway (somewhere in (Northern?) Ireland) being particularly garish and ugly and tasteless.  Everything else on the screen also looks more or less different, and hence more or less wrong.  The keyboard is the usual huge nuclear power station controller, ostentatiously crammed with an unprecedented gaggle of incomprehensible bells and whistles doing who knows what, and this keyboard, unlike any of its predecessors, is physically unconnected to anything, instead communicating telepathically with a pod on a wire.  I have already plugged in my lovely old Mac keyboard.  But, I’ll get used to it.  I’ll have to, because the old one was also taken away, what remained of it after its various hard discs of data had all been removed or transferred.  That boat has been burned.

The first laptop was Jesus.  Which made the previous mainframe God.  The current laptop is Judas.  What is this new mainframe?  Allah?  I think not.  No, I think the name for it is: Dawkins.

Thursday December 16 2010

The third test in Perth got under way in the small hours of this morning without anyone getting out in the first over.  Since Anderson of England bowled that over, a maiden, that was a definite setback for England.  The last ball of this first over did see Watson being given out caught behind off his hip, but he knew he wasn’t out and the review system saved him.

But a wicket did fall in the second over.  Hughes bowled Tremlett 2.  So, some compensation for that early disappointment for us England supporters.

Tremlett, flagged up in my previous Ashes posting here, has already taken more wickets (1) in this match than the entire total of the wickets he took (0) in the earlier warm-up game against Victoria.

Now Ponting is out, caught Collingwood bowled Anderson 12.  17-2.

A lot can happen during a five day test match, but, on balance, I would say that England are just about shading it, so far.

Wednesday December 15 2010

Well it’s been an unpleasant and frustrating last few weeks, kicked off with a terrible cough that took about a month to go away.  But after a brief spell of less cold weather, we’re now back with the very cold stuff, and I’m back coughing, again, and presumably for about another month.

My computer life is also in a mess, because I’m getting a new one.  In the course of fiddling about with the old one, getting hard drives out to put in the new one, and so on, my Computer Guru contrived to stop the old computer working.  Something to do with the power processor, or the power something.  So now, until the new Lamborghini computer arrives, I’m using my bottom-of-the-range Smartcar laptop not as a mere adjunct but as It, the One, the Fountain of and Repository of Everything.

image

Trouble is, when it’s on my desk I can’t get close enough to the screen of my Smartcar laptop to read internet stuff.  When all I do with the laptop is word process in coffee bars, I just beef up the size of the font and carry on, but that’s harder when reading internet stuff.  So, as you can see from the above snap, I have raised it up to eye level, on an improvised platform.  That, however, means it needs a separate keyboard back down there at desk level.  But that makes sense anyway, because I so much prefer my regular Macintosh keyboard to any PC keyboard I have ever known, and certainly to the keyboard on the laptop.  This arrangement also means I can fit food onto my desk without any bother.

I could have added a screen to the laptop, as well as the keyboard, but the truth is I like nothing better than a very small screen very close to me, rather than a bigger screen a bit further away.  This upheaval has definitely influenced the redesign of my Entire Desk that I have been plotting for as long as I can remember.  The superstructure of the New Desk has just got much bigger and much nearer to my face, turning the desk surface into something more like a shelf for my hands to do stuff, rather than a surface open to the elements.

I knew you’d be excited.

I am well aware of what a crap blog posting this has been, but I set myself very low standards here.  All a blog posting here has to be is a blog posting.

By the way, the photo on the screen in the photo is of a sign I saw at Embankment tube station on the night of the big demo in favour of continuing higher education free riding.  It’s quite funny, but it doesn’t really mean anything, does it?

Monday December 13 2010

During the recently concluded second test match between Australia and England at Adelaide, I wrote a Samizdata piece saying, basically: England supporters!  Do not count your chickens before they are hatched!  Now I say, switching to a different variety of bird: One swallow does not make a summer!  Then as now, the fact that the leaders of the England team understand all of this perfectly is cause for England optimism, but only optimism.

Yes, England won that second game and won it well.  But ever since then, the cricket commentariat has been ablaze with explanations of why England are now so unstoppably good and why Australia are now so incurably bad.  Yet the very first day of this series saw England bowled out for 260 odd and, by the third day, way behind on first innings.  Who is to say that something similar might not happen again, in a later test match?  Yes, England recovered in that game.  That doesn’t mean that a similar reverse in a later game will be so easily corrected.

I agree that England are now the favourites, as they were as soon as they had got ahead of the game in Adelaide.  But all that this means is that England-to-win is a good bet.  It doesn’t mean that England-to-win is now an inevitability.

I refuse to wallow in analysing why England are now better than Australia until the clear evidence is in that they really are.  Australia without Warne and McGrath are clearly not the force they were.  But have they declined enough, or have England improved enough, for England (thrashed 5-0 last time they visited) now to be definitely superior?  Not yet settled.

Imagine the eating of words there would be if Australia won the next game.  And imagine the disappointment in the England camp if that happened, and imagine what would then happen to the odds.  Yet all it might take for such an outcome to come out is for Mitchell Johnson to find his length and direction.

I expect Tremlett to replace Broad in the England side.  As one who closely followed Tremlett’s bowling for his new county (and my county always), Surrey, last summer, I believe that he might do quite well, and maybe very well indeed.

Several times over the last few years in my bloggings I have referred to Professor C. Northcote Parkinson’s observations about the inverse relationship between architectural splendour and institutional accomplishment.  It would have been useful to have been able to link to an explication of these ideas.  Better late than never.  Here are the paragraphs I had in mind.  They are chapter 8, “Plans and Plants”, of Parkinson’s Law or The Pursuit of Progress, first published in the USA in 1957, and in the UK in 1958.  The Edifice Complex is nothing new.

Every student of human institutions is familiar with the standard test by which the importance of the individual may be assessed.  The number of doors to be passed, the number of his personal assistants, the number of his telephone receivers - these three figures, taken with the depth of his carpet in centimetres, have given us a simple formula that is reliable for most parts of the world.  It is less widely known that the same sort of measurement is applicable, but in reverse, to the institution itself.

Take, for example, a publishing organization.  Publishers have a strong tendency, as we know, to live in a state of chaotic squalor.  The visitor who applies at the obvious entrance is led outside and around the block down an alley and up three flights of stairs.  A research establishment is similarly housed, as a rule, on the ground floor of what was once a private house, a crazy wooden corridor leading thence to a corrugated-iron hut in what was once the garden.  Are we not all familiar, moreover, with the layout of an international airport?  As we emerge from the aircraft, we see (over to our right or left) a lofty structure wrapped in scaffolding.  Then the air hostess leads us into a hut with an asbestos roof.  Nor do we suppose for a moment that it will ever be otherwise.  By the time the building is complete the airfield will have been moved to another site.

The institutions already mentioned - lively and productive as they may be - flourish in such shabby and makeshift surroundings that we might turn with relief to an institution clothed from the outset with convenience and dignity.  The outer door in bronze and glass, is placed centrally in a symmetrical facade.  Polished shoes glide quietly over shining rubber to the glittering and silent lift. The overpoweringly cultured receptionist will murmur with carmine lips into an ice-blue receiver. She will, wave you into a chromium armchair, consoling you with a dazzling smile for any slight but inevitable delay. Looking up from a glossy magazine, you will observe how the wide corridors radiate towards departments A, B, and C.  From behind closed doors will come the subdued noise of an ordered activity.  A minute later and you are ankle deep in the director’s carpet, plodding sturdily towards his distant, tidy desk.  Hypnotized by the chief’s unwavering stare, cowed by the Matisse hung upon his wall, you will feel that you have found real efficiency at last.

In point of fact you will have discovered nothing of the kind.  It is now known that a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse.  This apparently paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the more esoteric details of which we need not concern ourselves.  In general principle, however, the method pursued has been to select and date the buildings which appear to have been perfectly designed for their purpose.  A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay.  During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters.  The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done.  Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.

Thus, to the casual tourist, awestruck in front of St Peter’s, Rome, the Basilica and the Vatican must seem the ideal setting for the Papal Monarchy at the very height of its prestige and power.  Here, he reflects, must Innocent III have thundered his anathema.  Here must Gregory VII have laid down the law.  But a glance at the guide-book will convince the traveller that the really powerful Popes reigned long before the present dome was raised, and reigned not infrequently somewhere else.  More than that, the later Popes lost half their authority while the work was still in progress.  Julius II, whose decision it was to build, and Leo X, who approved Raphael’s design, were dead long before the buildings assumed their present shape.  Bramante’s palace was still building until 1565, the great church not consecrated until 1626, nor the piazza colonnades finished until 1667.  The great days of the Papacy were over before the perfect setting was even planned.  They were almost forgotten by the date of its completion.

That this sequence of events is in no way exceptional can be proved with ease.  Just such a sequence can be found in the history of the League of Nations.  Great hopes centred on the League from its inception in 1920 until about 1930.  By 1933, at the latest, the experiment was seen to have failed.  Its physical embodiment, however, the Palace of the Nations, was not opened until 1937.  It was a structure no doubt justly admired.  Deep thought had gone into the design of secretariat and council chambers, committee-rooms and cafeteria.  Everything was there which ingenuity could devise - except indeed, the League itself.  By the year when its Palace was formally opened the League had practically ceased to exist.

It might be urged that the Palace of Versailles is an instance of something quite opposite; the architectural embodiment of Louis XIV’s monarchy at its height.  But here again the facts refuse to fit the theory.  For granted that Versailles may typify the triumphant spirit of that age, it was mostly completed very late in the reign, and some of it indeed during the reign that followed.  The building of Versailles mainly took place between 1669 and 1685.  The king did not move there until 1682, and even then the work was still in progress.  The famous royal bedroom was not occupied until 1701, nor the chapel finished until nine years later.  Considered as a seat of government, rather than a royal residence, Versailles dates in part from as late as 1756.  On the other hand, Louis XIV’s real triumphs were mostly before 1679, the apex of his career being reached in 1682 itself and his power declining from about 1685.  According to one historian, Louis, in coming to Versailles, ‘was already sealing the doom of his line and race’.  Another says off Versailles that ‘The whole thing ... was completed just when the decline of Louis’ power had begun.’ A third tacitly supports this theory by describing the period 1685-1713 as ‘The years of Decline’.  In other words, the visitor who thinks Versailles the place from which Turenne rode forth to victory is essentially mistaken.  It would be historically more correct to picture the embarrassment, in that setting, of those who came with the news of defeat at Blenheim.  In a palace respondent with emblems of victory they can hardly have known which way to look.

Mention of Blenheim must naturally call to mind the palace of that name built for the victorious Duke of Marlborough.  Here again we have a building ideally planned, this time as the place of retirement for a national hero.  Its heroic proportions are more dramatic perhaps than convenient, but the general effect is just what the architects intended.  No scene could more fittingly enshrine a legend.  No setting could have been more appropriate for the meeting of old comrades on the anniversary of a battle.  Our pleasure, however in picturing the scene is spoiled by our realization that it cannot have taken place.  The Duke never lived there and never saw it finished.  His actual residence was at Holywell, near St Albans, and (when in town) at Marlborough House.  He died at Windsor Lodge and his old comrades, when they held a reunion, are known to have dined in a tent. Blenheim took long in building, not because of the elaboration of the design - which was admittedly quite elaborate enough - but because the Duke was in disgrace and even, for two year, in exile during the period which might otherwise have witnessed its completion. 

What of the monarchy which the Duke of Marlborough served?  Just as tourists now wander, guide-book in hand, through the Orangerie or the Galerie des Glaces, so the future archaeologist may peer around what once was London.  And he may well incline to see in the ruins of Buckingham Palace a true expression of British monarchy.  He will trace the great avenue from Admiralty Arch to the palace gate.  He will reconstruct the forecourt and the central balcony, thinking all the time how suitable it must have been for a powerful ruler whose sway extended to the remote parts of the world.  Even a present-day American might be tempted to shake his head over the arrogance of a George III, enthroned in such impressive state as this.  But again we find that the really powerful monarchs all lived somewhere else, in buildings long since vanished - at Greenwich or Nonesuch, Kenilworth or Whitehall.  The builder of Buckingham Palace was George IV, whose court architect, John Nash, was responsible for what was described at the time as its ‘general feebleness and triviality of taste’.  But George IV himself, who lived at Carlton House or Brighton, never saw the finished work; nor did William IV, who ordered its completion.  It was Queen Victoria who first took up residence there in 1837, being married from the new palace in 1840.  But her first enthusiasm for Buckingham Palace was relatively short-lived.  Her husband infinitely preferred Windsor and her own later preference was for Balmoral or Osbome.  The splendours of Buckingham Palace are therefore to be associated, if we are to be accurate, with a later and strictly constitutional monarchy.  It dates from a period when power was vested in Parliament.

It is natural, therefore, to ask at this point whether the Palace of Westminster, where the House of Commons meets, is itself a true expression of parliamentary rule.  It represents beyond question a magnificent piece of planning, aptly designed for debate and yet provided with ample space for everything else - for committee meetings, for quiet study, for refreshment, and (on its terrace) for tea.  It has everything a legislator could possibly desire, all incorporated in a building of immense dignity and comfort. It should date - but this we now hardly dare assume - from a period when parliamentary rule was at its height.  But once again the dates refuse to fit into this pattern.  The original House, where Pitt and Fox were matched in oratory, was accidentally destroyed by fire in 1834.  It would appear to have been as famed for its inconvenience as for its lofty standard of debate.  The present structure was begun in 1840, partly occupied in 1852, but incomplete when its architect died in 1860.  It finally assumed its present appearance in about 1868.  Now, by what we can no longer regard as coincidence, the decline of Parliament can be traced, without much dispute, to the Reform Act of 1867.  It was in the following year that all initiative in legislation passed from Parliament to be vested in the Cabinet.  The prestige attached to the letters ‘M.P.’ began sharply to decline and thenceforward the most that could be said is that ‘a role, though a humble one, was left for private members.  The great days were over.

The same could not be said of the various Ministries, which were to gain importance in proportion to Parliament’s decline.  Investigation may yet serve to reveal that the India Office reached its peak of efficiency when accommodated in the Westminster Palace Hotel.  What is more significant, however, is the recent development of the Colonial Office.  For while the British Empire was mostly acquired at a period when the Colonial Office (in so far as there was one) occupied haphazard premises in Downing Street, a new phase of colonial policy began when the department moved into buildings actually designed for the purpose.  This was in 1875 and the structure Was well designed as a background for the disasters of the Boer War.  But the Colonial Office gained a new lease of life during World War II.  With its move to temporary and highly inconvenient premises in Great Smith Street - premises leased from the Church of England and intended for an entirely different purpose - British colonial policy entered that phase of enlightened activity which will end no doubt with the completion of the new building planned on the site of the old Westminster Hospital.  It is reassuring to know that work on this site has not even begun.

But no other British example can now match in significance the story of New Delhi. Nowhere else have British architects been given the task of planning so great a capital city as the seat of government for so vast a population.  The intention to found New Delhi was announced at the Imperial Durbar of 1911, King George V being at that time the Mogul’s successor on what had been the Peacock Throne.  Sir Edwin Lutyens then proceeded to draw up plans for a British Versailles, splendid in conception, comprehensive in detail, masterly in design and overpowering in scales.  But the stages of its progress towards completion correspond with so many steps in political collapse.  The Government of India Act of 1909 had been the prelude to all that followed - the attempt on the Viceroy’s life in 1912, the Declaration of 1917, the Montagu-Chelmsford Report of 1918 and its implementation In 1920.  Lord Irwin actually moved into his new palace in 1929, the year in which the Indian Congress demanded independence, the year in which the Round Table Conference opened, the year before the Civil Disobedience campaign began.  It would be possible, though tedious, to trace the whole story down to the day when the British finally withdrew, showing how each phase of the retreat was exactly paralleled with the completion of another triumph in civic design.  What was finally achieved was no more and no less than a mausoleum.

The decline of British imperialism actually began with the general election of 1906 and the victory on that occasion of liberal and semi-socialist ideas.  It need surprise no one, therefore, to observe that 1906 is the date of completion carved in imperishable granite over the War Office doors.  The campaign of Waterloo might have been directed from poky offices around the Horse Guards Parade.  It was, by contrast, in surroundings of dignity that were approved the plans for attacking the Dardanelles.  Might it be that the elaborate layout of the Pentagon at Arlington, Virginia, provides another significant lesson for planners?  It would be unfair to detect an element of logic in the siting of the Pentagon alongside the National Cemetery, but the subject seems at least worthy of investigation.

It is by no means certain that an influential reader of this chapter could prolong the life of a dying institution merely by depriving it of its streamlined headquarters.  What he can do, however, with more confidence, is to prevent any organization strangling itself at birth.  Examples abound of new institutions coming into existence with a full establishment of deputy directors, consultants, and executives, all these coming together in a building specially designed for their purpose.  And experience proves that such an institution will die.  It is choked by its own perfection.  It cannot take root for lack of soil.  It cannot grow naturally for it is already grown.  Fruitless by its very nature, it cannot even flower.  When we see an example of such planning - when we are confronted for example by the building designed for the United Nations - the experts among us shake their heads sadly, draw a sheet over the corpse, and tiptoe quietly into the open air.

Saturday December 11 2010

I know.  You want brilliant blogging from me.  Well, I’ve been busy.  So have some brilliant blogging from some other people.

Perry de Havilland’s Why I support Wikileaks is a model of what blogging should be, as I told him over the phone this afternoon.  On a significant subject, well written, and not too long.  “Indeed”, said he.  “Say what you have to say and then get out of there.” Wise words.

I also very much like this, which is a great send-up of climate science by Zanzibar-based Sam Duncan.

On the latter subject, I think some are getting it a bit wrong why we mock these climate scientists about all the snow we’ve been having lately.  It’s not that this snow (in London it’s been no more than a light dusting) proves directly that there is no global warming going on.  No.  What the snow proves is that the climate scientists are ignorant prats, because they were saying that any snow in such places as London would be a thing of the past, or at the very least failing to contradict the prats who did say this, nearly loudly enough.  Therefore they don’t understand weather, or do but have been lying about it.  Therefore their prophecies of global doom are worthless, either mistakes or (my opinion) more lies.  If they don’t (or won’t) understand climate, why should we trust their climate models?

Not a complete and comprehensive proof, I admit.  But definitely a relevant part of the argument.

Thursday December 09 2010

Real Soon Now, I’m going to give my blogroll a good going over, and when I do, one of the inclusions is going to Leytonstonia, which is a blog about big new commercial London buildings:

Blogging on London’s commercial property deals and developments, from Riverside South and the ‘Walkie Talkie’ at 20 Fenchurch Street, to the Pinnacle, the Shard and the ‘Cheesegrater’ at 122 Leadenhall Street.

Skim reading of this tells me that the blogger in question, O. R. Herington, concentrates on assembling relevant facts, and gives mere opinion-mongering (e.g.: Will it look nice?) a miss.  Just, in other words, what I want, so I can then opinion-monger having at least got some of the facts right.

Another Real Soon Now project of mine is a posting about how the Telegraph may be following the Times behind a paywall, and how it may all soon become a stampede.  If that happens, and it makes sense to me that it well might, then blogs like this, that specialise in aggregating all the news there is (and recently has been) on a very particular and specialised topic, will start to loom larger in the free-o-sphere.

Back to O. R. Herington, and the same guy has two other blogs which appear to be just starting up, called Art Deco Wallpaper (no postings so far) and Brutalist Architecture (just the one introductory posting).  The blurb for the latter is:

From Balfron Tower to the Barbican Estate, this website aims to capture the UK’s brutalist architecture, much of which is already dissapearing such as Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre, the Pimlico Academy and the Trinity Centre in Gateshead.  What isn’t already listed is also under threat of demolition and redevelopment including Preston bus station.

It certainly is, and good bloody riddance to most of it, I say.  Does O. R. Herington actually like this stuff, and does he want to be its John Betjeman?  This says yes he does:

The UK boasts some of the most impressive brutalist architecture in the world, with the Barbican centre in the City of London perhaps considered the jewel in the concrete crown.

Jewel in the “concrete crown”, eh?  Well, I hope he succeeds, just a bit.  We wouldn’t want all brutalism expunged from the record, if only because we need to remember just how ghastly it was.  Besides which, brutalism can look quite good when ruined and covered in creeper.  It could also be brightened up considerably by being adorned with coloured paint or coloured flashing adverts.  Besides which, London (in particular) wouldn’t be London if every building in it was pretty.

Insofar as O. R. Herington thinks that brutalism should be remembered and that it is worth blogging about, I agree with him a hundred percent.  Whatever you think of these buildings, good blog, and I wish it lots of further postings.

Remember the scorn I poured on BP for pretending that BP just means ... “BP”.  As opposed to what it actually still does mean for as long as the initials B and P continue to be used in this connection, in this order: British Petroleum.

Here’s another such piece of foolishness:

Sorkin apparently did not get the memo (we did) in which TLC announced, about a dozen years ago, that the “T” and “L” and “C” no longer stand for “The” and “Learning” and “Channel” and it was now to be called “TLC” ...

If your channel used to be The Learning Channel, TLC for short, and you continue to use the acronym TLC, then TLC continues to mean The Learning Channel.  Sending out a memo saying that from now on, TLC does not mean The Learning Channel is like sending out a memo saying that the Milk in Milk Marketing Board has nothing to do, any more, with the white stuff that comes out of cows but that the Milk in Milk Marketing Board is merely a random collection of letters meaning nothing at all.  This is Humpty Dumpty talk.  Words mean exactly what I want them to mean, etc.  No they don’t.

The truth is that words have a life of their own.  You can’t change the meaning of a word by merely announcing that it has changed its meaning, even as everyone else continues to use the word to mean what it has always meant.

The same applies to acronyms.  If people continue to think that TLC means The Learning Channel, then that is what TLC continues to mean, memo or no memo.

It accordingly still makes perfect sense for Aaron Sorkin to mock TLC for being, in his opinion, nothing to do with learning.

Tuesday December 07 2010

That’s twice in the last few days I’ve slammed some important nails on the head in brief and to-the-point blog postings at Samizdata. I did it with this, and I think I just might have done it again with this.  The point will be a familiar one to all who read everything here.  But how many is that?  And I think, this time, I may just have cracked the phrasing of it.  I hope that this latest one also has its little moment of virality, but assume nothing.

Monday December 06 2010

More Ashes thoughts from me, just before the fourth day got under way, here.

The way the cricket commentariat has been talking (including a certain commenter here), England are a shoe-in.  Yet, just after lunch, Australia were 84-0 and looking good.  At which point, I noted this comment at Cricinfo:

“At this point in the series, the teams are equal. Both have been bowled out cheaply in the first innings then fought back for draws (this Test will be a draw). The only difference is that England have looked better, and probably have less room for improvement.”

England are at a disadvantage, because they have “less room for improvement”.  I like it!  Seriously, it’s a shrewd comment.

But no sooner had I clocked it than Australia lost their first wicket, to what sounds like a wicked ball from England spinster Swann:

Swann to Katich, OUT, 53.0 mph, gone! Caught behind! That probing off-stump line and sharp spin has done for Katich. England went up in unison as soon as the ball exploded past the bat ... there’s a short pause and the umpire raises the finger.

“Exploded”?  Suddenly England’s chances seem a whole lot better.

Last few overs:

. . . . . . | . W . . . . | . . . . . . | . . . . . . | . . . . 1 . |

Pressure!

Australia were rattling along until Katich got out.  Now look at them.

Ponting out!  98-2.  Caught Collingwood bowled ... Swann:

Ponting falls!  Pushing with no great certainty and a delivery that didn’t turn nearly as much as the last one, the ball takes a healthy edge and loops gently to slip.  Ponting stands at the wicket for several moments, he’s bitterly disappointed and can barely drag himself off.

As I’m pretty sure I noted here, the two final, wicket-taking deliveries bowled at the finishes of the last two England Ashes wins, at Lord’s and at the Oval, were both bowled by Swann.  Will that be the story again?  Could well be.

Sunday December 05 2010

Indeed:

The town is the capital of the Riverina area, is New South Wales’ largest inland city and is known as the food bowl of Australia.

It means there have been some devastating crop losses with wheat and barley particularly affected.

There have also been floods in Queensland and Victoria with the added problem in Victoria of swarms of locusts.

Swarms stretching 16 miles have been reported - which make them the worst locust plague for 75 years.

Definitely not cricket.  But that from, of all people, the cricket correspondent of the Sun.  I’d blogroll this guy, but it’s not a blog, because you can’t link to individual pieces, unless I am much mistaken as I could well be.  The above, I must therefore tell you, was dated today, Sunday Dec 5th.

Saturday December 04 2010

imageWhat with the cold, and me being poorly, and the cricket all night, I’ve not been out lately to observe progress with the Shard.  But although I realised way ahead of most what a great photo-op this edifice was going to be as it took shape, it is now taking shape.  And you have to be totally blind not to realise, should you happen to live in London or merely happen to be in London, that you might as well be snapping this thing as not (if you any kind of snapper), what with the marginal cost of digital photography being zero.

So I didn’t take this particular Shard snap.  Mick Hartley did.  I like it (as did he) because it gives us a nice foretaste a characteristic Shard snap to come, the one where the Shard has its top in the clouds.

As I am fond of saying, with architecture you never know.  With this Shard, we still can’t know absolutely for sure that it will look truly big, or like a merely medium sized spike.  At present I am optimistic.
 
 
 

Friday December 03 2010

Except that in this cat-themed promotion of the latest “fragrance for women” - Purr - being pushed this Christmas by pop songstress Katy Perry, nobody makes use of this obvious pun, because now a perfume is always a “fragrance”.  About fifty years ago, or whenever it was, they had a meeting, and decided that from now on it wasn’t “scent” or “perfume”, but “frangrance”.  At first people sniggered.  Pull the other one.  But now, “fragrance” is a normal word, used by normal people:

image

That’s my dimly lit photo of a poster for this in the Tube.  Better version of the same picture here.

Time was when this kind of thing was a “stage” in a pop career.  First you sang songs.  Then after about a decade, you decided you weren’t getting any younger, had babies to pay for, had financial frauds to recover from, husbands to buy off, and decided to launch a range of nickers or “fragrance” or some such thing, to enable you to go on living in the manner that you were now accustomed to.  Now, the fragrance angle seems to be part of it from the start.

Another lady popper, Alexandra Burke, went from pop songs (her instant hen party stroke exercise class classic Broken Heels is a favourite of mine) to deodorant in no time at all.

That was pretty sensational.  But how about this!?!?:

. . . W W 1 | . . . 1 . . | W

So, 2 for 3 (as we say in these parts) after thirteen balls.

It could have been even worse.  A close LBW that the technology said was going over.  A catchable caught-and-bowled chance.  A couple of near played-ons.

But runs are now starting to flow.  Australia could yet get a very decent score.  Australia are now 36 for 3, after eleven overs.  Latest score here.

But whatever else materialises, definitely first blood, this time, to England.

Thursday December 02 2010

Questions concerning the death of copyright protection on dowloaded MP3s

Wired:

In January 2009, Apple announced that it would remove the copyright protection wrapper from every song in its store. Today, Amazon and Walmart both sell music encoded as MP3s, which don’t even have hooks for copyright-protection locks. The battle is over, comrades.

Question.  If, say three years ago, you bought an MP3 which did have DRM ("Digital Rights Management” – in English: anti-copying measures) built into it, are you still stuck with all that restriction?  Or, if you want to have no such restriction, do you have to buy it again, under the new regime?

Basically, about three or four years ago now, I heard news to the effect that DRM would in due course be done away with, and I said to myself: fine, when they do that, I will consider paying for downloaded MP3s. Until they do, forget it.  I want to be able to listen to all MP3s I own on whatever machine I want to play them on.  If I even doubt that this will definitely work, then forget it, no deal.  Won’t even think about it.  But now, I’m thinking about it.  Hence all these questions.

What will prevent people just copying and sharing MP3s amongst themselves?  What will stop me emailing them to people?

If the answers to the above are: nothing, and something (even if that something is only that it will take so damn long), then that will greatly encourage meatspace network building, so that you can get your hands on tons of free recorded sound.  Won’t it?