Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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- Why I mostly write about architectural design rather than about interior design
- A Shiny Thing and a friend also photoing it - with an iPhone
- Reading Anton Howes again
- Along the river towards Battersea
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- Animals not understanding cameras
- The Wires get mentioned! (But it makes no difference!)
- More Big Olympic Thing photos
- Snohetta does zig zag roofs for competitive cities
- Going from knowing a piece of music to also knowing what it is
- Don’t mention The Wires!!!
- White Van Brians
- A Shiny Thing by Frank Stella Hon RA
- Richard J. Evans on how evidence can become more significant over time
- Another from the archives
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This and that
So I stayed up very late, again, to follow the beginning of Australia v South Africa. It all started pretty sedately. One wicket fell, but then things proceeded without incident until South Africa got to 60-1, at which point I could not stay awake and went to bed. Once in bed, I woke up and couldn’t get to sleep, but I went to bed.
At which point, I now learn, this happened:
… 2-61 (Petersen, 22.4 ov), 3-63 (Kallis, 24.3 ov), 4-67 (Amla, 26.5 ov),5-67 (de Villiers, 27.4 ov), 6-75 (Elgar, 30.5 ov), ...
By the close it had evened out, with SA getting to 225, thanks to du Plessis, again, and Australia losing two top order wickets before the close. But then, Australia always lose top order wickets early these days. Then Clarke scores a double century.
Last time the Ashes were played, neither Clarke nor Ponting could buy a run. Ponting still can’t and is accordingly retiring. But what if Clarke scores lots of double centuries when next he plays against England?
Luckily, now that Cook is the England captain he scores centuries every time. But will that be enough?
Earlier this evening, or last night if you think today begins at 12 midnight (and has thus already begun) rather than when you get up next day (in which case for me it has not yet begun), I went to a Comedy Improv Evening, at the Leicester Square Theatre, in a small downstairs room. It was a laugh, which is what you obviously want with comedy.
The format was clever. They had a interviewer guy, who interviewed a borderline comedy celeb, and then a gang of comedy improvisers improvised comedy, taking their cues from what the celeb said. Then another borderline celeb, then more improv. Then a final borderline celeb, and a fnal dose of improv. It added up to just over an hour.
So, for instance, comedian Nish Kumar, borderline celeb one, talked about how he got a bit bored seeing his face on a poster everywhere in Edinburgh. Yeah, I know, a not very subtle way of saying: I’m doing okay, I’ve got my face up on posters in Edinburgh. But it was okay. And the improvisers did a thing about how Stalin got bored with his face being everywhere.
Then they had one of those women who had high hopes for herself, having trained herself to do Shakespeare and such, but who now has a job selling eyebrow trimmers or something similar on a TV shopping channel. She was really funny, switching between herself, so to speak, and herself doing her shopping channel spiel. And then they improvved a bunch of act-ors selling each other eyebrow trimmers, in the style of a Shakespeare comedy. How we all laughed.
Those were just two bits I happen to remember. There was lots of other stuff, and never once did I sneak any looks at my watch.
The final borderline celeb was an actor who had been in various movies, doing scenes with famous actors, many of which were cut out of the final movie. Ah the joy of hearing about the misfortunes of others.
It worked well. The borderline celebs got to put their faces about and to be used to get an audience together, but without them having to do lots of rehearsing. And the presumably less well-known performers get a bigger audience.
My two favourite performers, among the gang of improvvers I mean, were Joseph Morpurgo, and one of the ladies, called, although I could be wrong, Idil Sukan. If Idil Sukan was actually a different lady, no matter, because they were all good.
Recommended. But, alas, there is no run for you to go to a later performance in. There was just the one show, and the one I saw was it. Besides which, if you go to another show of theirs, it would be completely different, what with everything being improvised.
At the website of these amusing people, there is, on page one, at the moment, the plug for the show I just saw, already linked to above, with pictures of the three borderline celebs. Where it says What Monkey Toast Is, they describe what they do. (They certainly do not describe what monkey toast is and why they’re named after it.) But where it says “Upcoming Gigs”, there is currently nothing. So, no more shows fixed. But I don’t believe that this will be their last.
I don’t know why they’re called Monkey Toast. I’m guessing comedy troupes are like race horses, in that they have to be called something or other, but the main thing is not to take a name that’s already taken. So, you call it Purple Bilgewater or Our Daughter’s Wedding (a real pop group of former times, that one) or The Funny Peculiars, or some other daft thing that if googled gets you nowhere, simply because you have to call it something and can’t spend all your time arguing about what. As the comedy troupes multiply in number, the names get dafter and dafter, like with the horses.
This posting might have been funnier and shorter if I had worked harder at it instead of just stream-of-consciousness-ing it the way I actually did. But that way it would probably not have been written at all.
I only get excited about sport when my teams are winning, or (as in the case of the recent US presidential election, when I think they are). Is this common sense? Or a character defect? Evidence of grown upness? Or of fickleness and feebleness? Well, I know what works for me.
Match 2 Day 3 of the four match series between India and England in Mumbai saw the England cricket team have their best day since I don’t know when. By the end of it, India were 117-7, only 31 ahead, but Gambhir was still in and he and/or a bit of tail-end flailing could yet put England under severe pressure in the final innings. Who was to say that the Indian spinners would be so ineffective the second time around, or that England wouldn’t have a second innings just like their first, but without the 300 runs scored by Cook and Pietersen. When Day 4 began, England could still lose, and all the more humiliatingly because of how good things were looking.
Said Vic Marks:
I don’t want to dampen English optimism but there is a scenario where the last three wickets get India a three-figure lead and then it’s sweaty palm time.
I agree. Don’t burn your fences until they’ve hatched.
Nevertheless, to quote Marks some more:
… England are on the brink of a famous victory and one that would absolutely ignite this series.
And so it proved. And I had to stay awake, again, until 4am and beyond, again, just to check that all was well.
I was helped in staying awake by an absorbing morning between Australia and South Africa in Adelaide, which preceded the start of play in Mumbai. Australia already had South Africa four down, and were chasing further wickets on the final day. In the morning, they got none.
Much has been said about the amazing not out century scored by debutant du Plessis, and this was indeed amazing. Kallis later also did very well. But I was particularly intrigued by the contribution of A. B. de Villiers.
6 2 4 6 4 1
That makes 23 in 6 balls. He took his team to victory with an over to spare, by scoring 47 in 32 balls, with five fours and three sixes. In this innings against Australia, de Villiers faced 246 balls. The least he has scored on previous occasions when he has faced this many balls in the one innings, or so I read in one of the media reports of this innings, was around 150. This time, he got 33. Best statistic? Number of boundaries. Zero. I watched this on computerised telly. (Yes, I have my ways.)
Fellow testcricketlag sufferer Michael Jennings emailed me yesterday as follows:
I ruin my sleep for several days, and in return all I get is Australia falling two wickets short of winning. Quite annoying. We were down a bowler to injury, but so were they, so I guess I can’t really blame that.
I will also point out that Australia scored 202 runs in the final session of the first day, and South Africa managed 49 in the final session of the final day. Both were extremely good performances, of course.
And it appears that England can be very good if Pieterson and Cook can actually play successfully together. I wonder if they can keep it up.
This makes two postings already this morning, and it isn’t yet 2am. Wish me luck getting to sleep.
As of late last night, and for I don’t know how much longer before that, this blog was out of action. An error message involving database corruption greeted all those coming here. The Guru was immediately emailed, and very quickly he had the problem licked. Deepest thanks to him, and apologies if you tried to visit during the outage. Thanks for trying again.
As it happens, I have in mind to relaunch this blog, in a matter of months rather than weeks, as a Wordpress blog rather than using what it uses now, which is Expression Engine. The circumstance prompting this is that Samizdata, Real Soon Now, is getting a makeover, which will, I am told, involve Samizdata switching to using Wordpress. This is very good news for Samizdata, and will surely unleash many improvements.
Now that Wordpress is clearly the market leader for blogging software, I thought I’d switch to Wordpress for here also. That way, I will use only one software package, and hopefully I’ll be able to do a whole lot of things here that I can’t do now.
The only reason I picked Expression Engine in the first place is because, or such is my recollection, there was a plan for Samizdata to switch to Expression Engine. That never happened, but meanwhile that was what I went with. Very inconvenient.
Anyone who thinks Wordpress is a bad idea, please tell me why, now.
I have done rather less photo-ing this year than I had hoped, or presumed that I would. The Olympics, if anything, got in the way of my wanderings.
Paris was great and yielded a ton of photos, but it took me months to recover from the cold. It felt like I had been on an Arctic Expedition. And the trouble with the Paris photos was that there were so many, I didn’t know how to display them, and ended showing hardly any of them. They’ll keep. I will show some of them, Real Eventually, although I promise nothing.
Here are more from that day’s expedition, which started on the north side of the Thames Barrier (where there is a rather nice park), and then went north (by such methods as walking, and the DLR), ending up in Stratford. The road from the Olympic region to Stratford with a particular pleasure, because this is not the kind of place you expect to supply you with great views, but it did.
Not all the photos that follow are “great photos” by any means, even especially good. They are just some of my favourites, either because they are quite artistic, or because what is in the photos if interest, or some combination of the two.
All of the little snaps below are just small versions of the final object, rather than selected things. In the event that you feel inclined, click and enjoy:
I’ve just clicked, again, through the complete set of everything I took that day, and I swear I could have shown you another (or a different) twenty shots that are just as good as those ones.
As I said in this, the major benefit of my new camera is not so much that my best shots are any better, although that is surely true. No, the big difference is that there are now far fewer failures. The average quality of my shots has shot up. (Like I say, in Paris, I brought home an avalanche of pretty good photos, which overwhelmed my powers of selection.)
My guess is that this is a very widespread experience, among all digital photographers who have kept their kit up to date.
LATER: I see now that there is duplication. Two railway clutter plus Big Olympic Thing snaps. I will lose one of these and replace it with something else. Like I say, there’s plenty of stuff to choose from.
A cat gets into a box. Eventually. Video. Here.
And no, I don’t know what language that is.
I have recently acquired a new cleaning lady. She’s been twice now, and she seems good. I am paying her £20 for two hours, which is a bit more than she expects, but I need her services rather less regularly than many people might, and at irregular times, so a bit more seems fair.
She is keen to get further cleaning and housekeeping work in the London area, so if anyone in London would like me to put them in touch, get in touch with me.
Yes, she is Eastern European. I have yet to ask if she is a trained concert pianist. She definitely sings in a church choir.
Incoming from Michael J:
Amongst other things, 482 was the most runs Australia have scored in a day in a test match since 1910, Michael Clarke scored 120 runs in the final session, Australia scored 202 runs in the final session, and Michael Clarke became the first player to score four double centuries in a calendar year. (He still has another two and a half tests to play). After all that, David Warner’s 119 off 112 balls earlier in the day almost looks an insignificant footnote.
And what’s more, 482-5 after 55-3.
I went to bed when Warner got out (210-4), figuring that at that point the big hitting had ended. Wrong.
Makes a change from this, doesn’t it?
This year, I really (although I promise nothing) want to do one of those “my year in photographs” postings, for Samizdata. The trick with such postings is to start assembling photos early, i.e. around now.
Trawling through the year’s archives today, with the above in mind, I found this fun photo, taken in the part of London where people grumble about how the Olympics haven’t helped them as much as they were promised.
Yes, it’s a pub dwarfed by modernity:
I wondered where exactly this is, and then I saw that three doors away from the Builders Arms is the West Ham Labour Party. So: West Ham. Although googling says it could be Newham, or Stratford. Eastenders land anyway.
The pub itself is not as unmodern as it is trying to look, being built in that Ye Olde Interwar Style with bogus half timbering. As one raised in the suburbs of London, I know the style well. An earlier version of the Builders Arms was demolished to make way for road widening, and that one is its replacement, built in 1937. That being the time when a lot of London’s suburbs got built, with lots of buildings looking just like that.
Osbert Lancaster’s phrase “Stockbroker’s Tudor” has just popped into my mind. While googling for images along those lines, I came across this, about the “Interwar Old English” style, as practised in Australia.
As so often with architecture, form follows fashion.
So far, for me, one of the most impressive or a great many impressive things to be found in Steven Pinkers new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is his description of The Enlightenment. (I mentioned this huge volume, in passing, in my latest Samizdata posting, and at greater length in an earlier posting.)
So. The Enlightenment. This is a word I have heard all my life. But what did it, does it, mean? It is assumed that all educated people know what The Enlightenment means, and that it was and is a noble and fine thing, and why it was and is a noble and fine thing. But why, exactly? I guess that, until now, I was not educated.
What makes Pinker’s exposition of the ideas behind The Enlightenment so excellent is that he explains how the scientific project at the heart of The Enlightenment was joined at the hip to a new moral vision of mankind. This was not merely a couple of vaguely benevolent quests, for scientific truth on the one hand, and for moral excellence on the other. For, as Pinker asks, why did the quest for scientific truth necessarily imply a quest for moral improvement (as we now regard it), for greater “humanity” in our treatment of other humans? Pinker answers this question.
I found that picture of Pinker here.
Whenever I scan in a great gob of verbiage from a book into this blog, I warn readers that the posting may disappear without warning, in the event of the slightest objection from the author, or from the publisher, or from anyone else connected with upholding the intellectual property in question. There is no way that me reproducing this relatively tiny fragment of Pinker’s huge book will damage its sales, quite the reverse. But, if those charged with overseeing such things inform me that, in their view, a line has been crossed by this posting, a line they consider worth defending, this excerpt (from Chapter 4, “The Humanitarian Revolution”, pp. 216-221 of my Penguin paper edition) will immediately vanish.
In other words, if, having read the above, you decide that you will be wanting to read what follows, best to do that now.
Bringing people and ideas together, of course, does not determine how those ideas will evolve. The rise of the Republic of Letters and the cosmopolitan city cannot, by themselves, explain why a humanitarian ethics arose in the 18th century, rather than ever-more-ingenious rationales for torture, slavery, despotism, and war.
My own view is that the two developments really are linked. When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases - given that they were doing their biology properly, and given that DNA really does have four bases, in the long run they could hardly have discovered anything else - we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely. The universe of ideas, in which one idea entails others, is itself an exogenous force, and once a community of thinkers enters that universe, they will be forced in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings. I think this process of moral discovery was a significant cause of the Humanitarian Revolution.
I am prepared to take this line of explanation a step further. The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism. (It is also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well.) Here is a potted account of this philosophy - a rough but more or less coherent composite of the views of these Enlightenment thinkers.
It begins with skepticism. The history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible. One therefore ought to seek good reasons believing something. Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty - all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.
Is there anything we can be certain of? Descartes gave as good an answer as any: our own consciousness. I know that I am conscious, by the very fact of wondering what I can know, and I can also know that my consciousness comprises several kinds of experience. These include the perception of an external world and of other people, and various pleasures and pains, both sensual (such as food, comfort, and sex) and spiritual (such as love, knowledge, and an appreciation of beauty).
We are also committed to reason. If we are asking a question, evaluating possible answers, and trying to persuade others of the value of those answers, then we are reasoning, and therefore have tacitly signed on to the validity of reason. We are also committed to whatever conclusions follow from the careful application of reason, such as the theorems of mathematics and logic.
Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. The progress of science, with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge - not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.
The indispensability of reason does not imply that individual people are always rational or are unswayed by passion and illusion. It only means that people are capable of reason, and that a community of people who choose to perfect this faculty and to exercise it openly and fairly can collectively reason their way to sounder conclusions in the long run. As Lincoln observed, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Among the beliefs about the world of which we can be highly confident is that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. Other people are made of the same stuff, seek the same kinds of goals, and react with external signs of pleasure and pain to the kinds of events that cause pain and pleasure in each of us.
By the same reasoning, we can infer that people who are different from us in many superficial ways - their gender, their race, their culture - are like us in fundamental ways. As Shakespeare’s Shylock asks:
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
The commonality of basic human responses across cultures has profound implications. One is that there is a universal human nature. It encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge). Human nature may be studied, just as anything else in the world may be. And our decisions on how to organize our lives can take the facts of human nature into account - including the discounting of our own intuitions when a scientific understanding casts them in doubt.
The other implication of our psychological commonality is that however much people differ, there can be, in principle, a meeting of the minds. I can appeal to your reason and try to persuade you, applying standards of logic and evidence that both of us are committed to by the very fact that we are both reasoning beings.
The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me - to get off my foot, or not to stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning - then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours if I want you to take me seriously (say, by retaining my right to stand on your foot, or to stab you, or to let your children drown). I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.
You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other’s children drown, and feuded incessantly. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one where we both are unselfish.
Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal.
From the factual knowledge that there is a universal human nature, and the moral principle that no person has grounds for privileging his or her interests over others’, we can deduce a great deal about how we ought to run our affairs. A government is a good thing to have, because in a state of anarchy people’s self-interest, self-deception, and fear of these shortcomings in others would lead to constant strife. People are better off abjuring violence, if everyone else agrees to do so, and vesting authority in a disinterested third party. But since that third party will consist of human beings, not angels, their power must be checked by the power of other people, to force them to govern with the consent of the governed. They may not use violence against their citizens beyond the minimum necessary to prevent greater violence. And they should foster arrangements that allow people to flourish from cooperation and voluntary exchange.
This line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied. I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same.
If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment, and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it. Though not necessarily atheistic (it is compatible with a deism in which God is identified with the nature of the universe), Enlightenment humanism makes no use of scripture, Jesus, ritual, religious law, divine purpose, immortal souls, an afterlife, a messianic age, or a God who responds to individual people. It sweeps aside many secular sources of value as well, if they cannot be shown to be necessary for the enhancement of human flourishing. These include the prestige of the nation, race, or class; fetishized virtues such as manliness, dignity, heroism, glory, and honor; and other mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, and struggles.
I would argue that Enlightenment humanism, whether invoked explicitly or implicitly, underlay the diverse humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. The philosophy was explicitly invoked in the design of the first liberal democracies, most transparently in the ‘self-evident truths’ in the American Declaration of Independence. Later it would spread to other parts of the world, blended with humanistic arguments that had arisen independently in those civilizations. And as we shall see in chapter 7, it regained momentum during the Rights Revolutions of the present era.
Incoming from Michael Jennings:
Now, back to serious stuff, the Australia v South Africa test series starts in just under an hour. If Australia win this series they get the number one spot back - possibly a little prematurely, but I will take it if it happens. And in truth, if they win this series I think they will deserve it as much as anyone else does.
I am now tracking this here.
As I said to Antoine in that election chat we recorded, this is the kind of cricket match I would have liked to follow twenty years ago, but couldn’t. Now, I can.
The new Surrey captain is already off the mark.
I’m talking about the photo on the right here, taken the same evening I took the ones in the previous posting. I only show the photo on the left, taken moments before, which in itself is rubbish, because it clarifies what’s going on in the photo on the right.
And in the photo on the right, what we see is a flash going off exactly when I took my photo, even though the photographer and her flash are hidden from view. All we see is the shadows cast by the flash.
We can see it’s flash, rather than just some random street light, from the fact that there is no corresponding light in the photo on the left. And on the left, we can see the lady (in a red top) whose flash went off in the right hand photo.
Last Wednesday, for reasons that had nothing to do with any attempt to take the photos that follow, I found myself at Piccadilly Circus. This is always a fun spot to photo photographers, but on this particular night they were out in force, because also present were Halloween revellers, typically themselves armed with cameras. Here are some of the better snaps I snapped, of all the Halloween fun and games:
I hope (although I promise nothing) to be doing a Samizdata posting, Real Soon Now, along the lines of: Is Halloween Replacing Bonfire Night in Britain? I shall be keeping an ear open next Monday (November 5th) to hear if there is any abatement on the explosion front.
Nice for me that one of them was a cat, what with it now being Friday and all.