Brian Micklethwait's Blog

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

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Wednesday December 31 2014

My journey from home to Quimper in Brittany involved a nervewracking change in Paris.  I only had an hour and a half to get from Paris Nord to Paris Montparnasse, during which time I had to buy a Metro ticket as well as do the actual journey.  The Metro ticket was the scary bit.  The Metro ticket selling system at Paris Nord is or at least looked that day like in-your-face fuck-you nationalisation, on full throttle.  Three windows for selling.  One imperturbably relaxed seller, at one open window, like in a British high street bank of the sort that is bullying you to do everything online.  A queue like something in old Moscow when a meat shipment was rumoured to have arrived, caused by two trains having just arrived at Paris Nord, mine being one.  Luckily there was also a slightly shorter queue for a machine, and by begging help from the lady in front of me, I managed to extract a ticket from the machine, and I then sped to Montparnasse.  On the way back, I will buy a ticket on the train from Quimper to Paris, which I can apparently do.  I will have four hours to make that work.  Should be enough.

At Montparnasse, I of course had an hour to kill, and although I had a good book with me, I killed the hour by taking photos like this:

image

That was taken quite high up in the Montparnasse station, through thick glass, hence the linear interruption and the yellow reflections.  But, being high up, I got a better view of a little of the magnificent roof clutter that Paris offers.  Those chimneys, with their pointy tops like something in a fairy tale book, are unlike anything I have seen or at any rate noticed in London.

Here is another picture which I took just before the one above:

image

Here we see a roof clutter refinement which I do not recall seeing in London much either, namely an illuminated sign right in front of whatever other roof clutter is behind it, advertising the business down below.  Given how I adore roof clutter and am also very fond of signs, this photo gave and gives me deep pleasure.

In among more formal expeditions to local beauty spots, I have got to walk around a bit in Quimper, of which I am very fond.  Back from some walk on the beach, somewhere or other, I had my hosts drop me off in the centre of town and I walked back in the amazing late afternoon sunshine.

In among much else, I took more roof clutter pictures, like this ...:

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… and this:

image

The first is good because it shows more chimney pots.  The second I include for artistic impression.  I just like how it looks.

But what interests me about this clutter, aside from mere prettiness, is that whereas the chimney pots seem to be specific to France, the electronic stuff is the sort of thing that I recognise from the UK.  It would appear that a TV aerial is a TV aerial, anywhere in the UK or France.  Ditto a satellite dish.  How much do these things vary in the rest of the world?

Tuesday December 30 2014

I have swapped one kind of computing confusion, too complicated even to describe, for another, and am now using a French keyboard, but telling the computer I am using that this keyboard is really British.  This means various letters on the keyboard being in the wrong place, such as the Q and the A, which are where the A and the Q ought to be.  There are other confusions, of a more serious sort.

This is a very peculiar experience for a touch typist like me, because it means that I can now only touch type.  I cannot pause and go find the correct letters, because I do not know them, or not the ones that cause all the trouble.  Only my fingers do.

So it is touch typing, or no typing at all.

Which is better than French typing, but still very imperfect, because some of the regular British things are things which my fingers are not that good at, most notably inverted commas, both single and double.  This is why I said it is in the previous paragraph rather than abbreviating it, and why I am saying it is in this sentence, twice, without any inverted commas to indicate that I am quoting myself.

I seem to recall that faced with this dilemma on a previous French expedition, I had to make do with the computer recognising the French keyboard I was using as French, which meant switching As and Qs, etc.  The alternative arrangement is somewhat better, but only somewhat.

Luckily my fingers know how to do two important things, neither of which are in the same place on these keyboards, namely commas, and full stops.

Another oddity is that the spellchecking in my blog input process demands that all words be recognisably French, and so underlines most words, because of them not being French, thus rendering itself inutile, and yes that is how you spell inutile.  But, sorry about all the other spelling errors in this.

Monday December 29 2014

I am able to keep on posting each day, but it is proving tricky.  So best to expect interruptions during the next few days.  I have taken tons of photos, over the course of two cloudless days, but posting any of them is really complicated, and even telling which are the good ones is hard because the screen I am trying to use is too vague for me to tell properly.

To add to those woes, the text posting process has a bizarre quirk on this computer, or maybe it is with this mouse.  Which is that the cursor is liable, without warning, to jump back several words, which makes touch typing as hard as it is usually easy.  As soon as I get up any speed, I find that I am typing stuff in the wrong place, as I just did in the middle of the word “stuff” back there.  Then it did it again.  (Inverted commas are a struggle too.)

I guess it’s called home advantage.  I have not now got it.  So I am, as of now, more than usually definite about promising nothing, because nothing is what you may very well get until I am back home, and back enjoying home advantage.

Sunday December 28 2014

When in France, I have no particular desire to do as the French do.  I have my own agendas.  So, for instance, French people do not make a point of photoing French posters advertising British or American films in the Paris Metro.  But, I like to do this:

image

I am using an alien computer.  Contriving the above photo-display took some doing.  Were I using my own computer I might have cropped that photo.  As it is, it is as it was when it came out of my camera.

Mostly, I just like the thought that we are making movies that they consider good enough to show in Paris.  But I think I am also interested in what sort of picture of my country they are seeing.  I’m guessing it is one that they want to see.  In this case, for example, they are see us Anglos being, although quite good looking, also boring, disgusting, uncultured and gross, and generally behaving like people upon whom wealth is wasted.  Not wanting to see Anglos in this light myself, I have not seen this movie, so I may be entirely wrong about what it is like.

But if it is not like that, they shouldn’t have called it that.  As a general rule, it is surely good business to take your movie look in the posters (and sound in its title) the way it actually is, because that way the people who will be attracted to it by the poster will then enjoy it, and the word of mouth will be good.  Many a movie is not what they first advertised it as, and hence was denounced by its early audiences, but was good in some other way, and ended up appealing to quite other people.  Had they advertised it more accurately to start with, they’d have done better business.

Saturday December 27 2014

Indeed.  Tomorrow I will try to post something more substantial.  But as for today, I’m afraid, a posting saying that that is it is it.

Friday December 26 2014

The gap between my eyesight and the eyesight of my camera grows and grows with the passing of the years, as my eyes inexorably dim and as my cameras inexorably improve.  Even I can regularly manage quite decent shots with my latest camera.  As a result, I become ever more immobilised by having to choose good ones from the enormous piles of decent shots I often come back with, after a day out.

Yesterday was a bit different.  I went to the home of Michael Jennings for a Christmas Day lunch, picture 1.1 being the most striking thing I saw from out of his front window.  The day was lovely, but the light, though wonderful, was fast fading, so Michael and our mutual lady friend and I went out for a short (by my photographic standards) walk to take advantage of it.  Which meant that I took, by my standards, only a few pictures.  Which made it easier to choose and stick up a few half decent ones.

image imageimage imageimage image

Picture 1.2 is my favourite of these.  Thank God for London’s religious diversity.  Much as I loath what Islam says in its holy scriptures, and much as I am critical of people who go through the motions of worshipping these writings, either because they truly believe what those writings say (very wicked), or because they don’t but think that they it doesn’t matter or that they must (also wicked – yes, I mean you, Moderate Muslims – stop saying that you believe stuff that you also say that you don’t believe), I do like that having Muslims in London keeps shops open and taxis running on days like Christmas Day.  Michael fixed a couple of Uber taxi rides for me, and both the drivers had Muslim sounding names.

I don’t know what the church is in 2.1 but it looks pretty behind that leafless tree.  And Tower Bridge always looks pretty to me.

Re those two Tower Bridge shots, I’ve always liked how digital cameras do the opposite of the human eye, and turn urban skies bluer and brighter as they actually get darker.  It’s all those orange-coloured artificial lights, burning relatively brighter as the sun sinks, together with the actual darkness on the ground, impinging upon the Automatic setting.

Thursday December 25 2014

Photoed by me in the Kings Road, last night:

image

I trust I make myself clear.

Wednesday December 24 2014

Yes it’s another Immaculately Modernistical Japanese House Posting at Dezeen, where the pictures are full of The Wires …:

image

… but where the text never mentions The Wires.

They don’t see the anarchy.  They see only the Order.

Tuesday December 23 2014

Ever since I first got a digital camera, I have taken occasional “wildlife” photos, of the not-actually-very-wild-at-all animals of London, mostly ducks and geese, and cats and dogs (especially cats), and occasionally squirrels.  Very occasionally, I get something worth showing, here (that cat being a French cat) or somewhere.  Mostly I prefer inanimate objects to the other sort, because inanimate object keep more still.  And in the case of those living creatures called digital photographers, they also are good at standing very still.

The last time I photoed a pair of birds, they were intensely aware of my presence and very angry about it.  But the other day, just after I had been photoing that Christmas tree, I came across a pair of birds who were utterly oblivious to my presence.  They were very well turned out.  And they were doing all manner of photographically interesting things.  They were standing asleep on one leg, waking up and stretching their wings, doing coordinated dancing, shagging, more coordinated dancing, and then they hopped down off their perch and and onto the grass to have breakfast, or whatever it was.  (All this happened at about eleven in the morning, so if it was breakfast it was a late breakfast.) I took over a hundred and fifty snaps of them.  Below is a ruthlessly edited selection: 

image image imageimage image imageimage image imageimage image imageimage image imageimage image imageimage image imageimage image imageimage image imageimage image imageimage image image

The point of showing all these snaps is not just to enable you to click and enjoy at will.  It is also to make the point about how totally indifferent to my very close - not to say downright voyeuristic - presence these two handsome birds were.

I was still calling these these two birds ducks when I uploaded all those pictures.  They looked all scrunched up and small when doing that asleep-on-one-leg thing.  But actually, I think they’re geese.  Whatever.  They are Londoners.

The only reason I was out and about that morning was because I was walking with Goddaughter 2, who was on her way to France, to Pimlico tube.  As it turned out, I contributed nothing to this first leg of her journey, not even helping her lug her luggage down the steps into the station.  But I am still very glad I took this walk.

Monday December 22 2014

Here.

I also like this one, of the Wembley Arch, seen from the Wheel.

Sunday December 21 2014

Incoming from Michael Jennings:

As of this morning, thirteen successive Australia v India tests have been won by the home side. Seven of these matches have been won (and hosted) by India, and six by Australia. If Australia win the remaining two tests in this series (which may or may not happen) this will be the fourth successive Australia v India series to be a whitewash to the home side.

He was talking about this game.

Cricket has been a bit of a wasteland for me lately, what with county cricket being in hibernation and England playing nothing but one day cricket, which they are rather rubbish at.  They have been preparing for the forthcoming one day World Cup, by losing a one day series in Sri Lanka and then by replacing their captain.  But the feeling among cricket’s chattereres is that sacking Cook will improve England, and one day knock-out tournaments are such a lottery that I will live in hope, for as long as there is any.

Saturday December 20 2014

Busy day today, so another from the I Just Like It directory:

image

It’s the head of Hymn by Damien Hirst, when it was outside the Tate in 2012.

Behind it, we see that the Shard is nearly ready, but not quite.

Friday December 19 2014

Indeed.  Here is a photo I took soon after snapping the first of those anarchic roofs, of some china animals:

image

Now I think we can all agree that the cat there looks sufficiently like a cat for me not to have to say which the cat is.  It’s the cat.  But - and I didn’t just think of this as something to say on Feline Friday because I have long thought it about this particular version of the cat – I think this version of the cat looks like it has begun (only begun you understand) to morph into a dog.  One of those white furry dogs that is about the same size as a cat, but a dog nevertheless.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s the way its face sticks out at the side, rather too much for a cat.

And quite aside from that, I like the photo.  Those horizontal colours.

Also, the bloke on the right, wearing a plate on his head instead of a hat, looks a lot like David McDonagh

Thursday December 18 2014

Last Monday I was in the Covent Garden area.  Having a little time to kill before the event began which had brought me there, I naturally took photos.

The one I like best that I took at that time was this one:

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Forget that balustrade in the foreground.  I’m interested in that big round building behind it, and in the contrast between the severe repetitiousness of vertical wall, and the picturesque jumble of functionality that has erupted on the top of the building.

I’m getting out of chronological order with this next one, because I took this shot after attending the event that had got me to Covent Garden.  But never mind about that, because this is yet another study in repetitiously good mannered vertical walls, topped off with yet more rooftop anarchy:

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Nothing would make me happier than to think that the planners and the architects will continue for ever just not seeing all this rooftop anarchy.

But now take a look at the top of this building (which I photoed, from the other side of the river and with much zooming, on the same day (October 25th of this year) that I took these Shard pictures):

image

Because of the new fashion for making walls which are not quite vertical, and roofs which are not quite horizontal – roofs which are consequently, from a distance, from some angles, clearly visible – all roof clutter has been banished.  To be more exact, the roof clutter has been covered up.  An indoor place has been found for it.  Anarchy has been eradicated.

Wednesday December 17 2014

When it’s finished, it will look, according to the picture on the outside of the site (which is an outdoor hard copy of the first picture here), like this:

image

Here is what it and its surroundings will look like from above.  My home can be found in that picture, this Thing being only a short walk away from it.

But, as of now, in contrast to the above simulations, it looks like this, which I think I somewhat prefer (what with all that lovely scaffolding):

image

Hang on.  Is that a Christmas tree I see up there (in among all that lovely scaffolding)?  Yes it is:

image

After I started taking photos of this Thing Under Construction, together with its Christmas tree, one of the men doing the constructing made “stop doing that” gestures.  I was standing on a public pavement.  They were building a small skyscraper with a Christmas tree on the side of it.  Did they think they could keep this secret, and impose martial law for a quarter of a mile around all this?  I just laughed out loud and carried on, and of course they did nothing about it.

Can you spot why “Sculpture” is included in the category list below?

Tuesday December 16 2014

Photoed by me earlier in the month, outside Green Park tube station:

image

Is this fair?  Publicising these two face-recognisable guys, after they’ve had a hard day hard selling something that looks like it was a rather hard sell?  Well, they’re in uniform, a uniform donned precisely to attract attention, which is what I am giving them.  They are public figures.  Insofar as they are rather letting the uniform down, that too is a public matter.

They remind me somewhat of Dan Aykroyd’s drunk Santa in Trading Places.

In this clip, Aykroyd (a) answers questions about Trading Places, and then (b) plugs his vodka-in-a-skull-bottle.  Really.

Quote:

“Love Capitalism.”

Yes.

I am, however, puzzled by those strange looking marks in the wall, at the top of the picture.  Anyone?

Monday December 15 2014

This morning I had reason to be in the vicinity of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, at about 10 a.m.  Later you will learn why, but in the meantime, just to say that this uncharacteristically early-in-the-day expedition enabled me to reacquaint myself with an old friend, in the form of the delightful footbridge that allows the ballerinas of the Royal Ballet School to make their way to the Royal Opera House, without having to risk being damaged by traffic or by the public:

image

The ROH is on the right there.  I like how the squares in the bridge echo the strong right angles of the building and its roof details.

I also like the blue sky.  But, you think that’s a blue sky?  That’s not a blue sky. 

This is a blue sky.

Sunday December 14 2014

A moment ago I had a twenty first century moment.  I thought: Wouldn’t it be great to have a keyboard on the top of your thighs, embedded in the front of the top of the legs of your trousers.  You could then type wherever, perhaps combined with a pair of those google glasses that you also wear perpetually.  And it could all add up to a mega-computer if combined with a big cycle helmet full of electro-magic.

The point being that typing is never going to go away.  The QWERTY keyboard is permanently with us, I think.

So, what about that top-of-your-trousers keyboard?  Time was when a thought is all that such a thought could ever be.  But now, no sooner is the thought thought than it is googled:

image

Brilliant.  It’s not market-ready yet, but they’re working on it.

Gotta love that Golden Age.

Although, great though the basic idea is, I can’t help feeling that (a) washing and/or cleaning might be an issue, and (b) the keyboard needs to be separable from the trousers by some means.  Maybe just strapped on, or something.  What if the keyboard malfunctions?  Do you then have to chuck away the jeans?  What if the jeans catch on fire?  Is the mere keyboard then any use?  Problems problems.  This, after all, is why keyboards originally separated themselves from personal computers.

But like I say, the basic idea is a very good start.

Maybe in the longer run, the future of the mobile keyboard is that your Goggle Spex will project a keyboard onto a nearby surface (and then keep that keyboard still even when you move your head around), which it will then observe your fingers typing on.

But basically we are talking about the next iteration of the personal computer.  First, big old box in the office.  Second, big old luggable/portable “laptop”.  Third, little toy in your pocket that you can peck at.  And now fourth, this.  A real computer than you can wear all the time and type into whenever, wherever, within less than a second of whatever you want to type occurring to you.  Had I been on a train when I had this notion, I could not then have done this blog posting.  That is what needs to change, much more conveniently than it has so far changed.

Saturday December 13 2014

Back when I took these two pictures (September 15th 2007), this was the camera that most impressed me, because its screen was so big:

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Now, it is this camera that impresses me most, because its screen is so small:

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More and more postings here, I predict, are going to be of pictures I took a while back.

Friday December 12 2014

I just chanced upon this list of London’s twenty tallest buildings.  What I particularly like about this list is that it includes date of construction.

No less that sixteen of these tall buildings were built during this century.  The other four are: One Canada Square (the pointy Docklands one), “Tower 42” (aka the Natwest Building), the “South Bank Tower”, and the Guy’s Tower (aka the ugly little monster now dwarfed by and right next to the Shard).  Those are all twentieth century.  All the rest are twenty first century.

That last one, the Guy’s Tower was, when first perpetrated, the tallest building in London.  I did not know this.  Now it holds the number eighteen spot.

image

That’s a picture I took of the middle of the Shard and of the top of Guy’s Tower from Blackfriars Station (the one on the bridge) when both that station and the Shard were still being constructed, in 2012.  I chose that picture because in it, the Guy’s Tower looks particularly ugly and bedraggled and stained and horrible.

I recently speculated that the Guy’s Tower might have made the Shard possible, by destroying all concerns about aesthetic suitability in its area.  Now I am starting to suspect that it may have had an even more profound effect, on the whole of London.  I mean, if that horrid Thing is the tallest Thing London has, then the sooner we build lots of other taller Things the better.  That’s what I would have been thinking in the seventies, if I had been thinking about London Things at all at that time.

What I am saying, to spell it out, is that if that Guy’s Tower had not been built at all, then the subsequent architectural history of London might have been very different, and far less interesting.

Thursday December 11 2014

In October, I posted this, provoked by seeing a drone in a London shop window.  I said stuff like this:

Something tells me that this gadget is going to generate some contentious news stories about nightmare neighbours, privacy violations, and who knows what other fights and furores.

What might the paps do with such toys?  And how soon before two of these things crash into each other?

I should also then have read and linked to this piece, published by Wired in February.  Oh well.  I’m linking to it now.

Quote:

Sooner or later there will inevitably be a case when the privacy of a celebrity is invaded, a drone crashes and kills someone, or a householder takes the law into their own hands and shoots a drone down.

Quite aside from privacy issues, what sort of noise do these things make?  That alone could be really annoying.  (Although that link is also very good as a discussion of privacy issues.  Noise is only the start of their discussion.)

My guess?  These things will catch on, but at first only for niche markets, like photoing sports events, or, in general, photoing inside large privately owned places where the owner can make his own rules and others then just have to take them or leave them.  Pop concerts.  If they’re not too noisy, they might be good for that.

This is always how new technology first arrives.  Ever since personal computers the assumption has tended to be that the latest gizmo will immediately go personal, so to speak.  (Consider 3D printing.) But actually, personal use is, at any rate to begin with, rather a problem.  At first, the new gizmo finds little niche markets.  Only later, if at all, do things get personal.

Which is why, I think, the first two sightings I have made of photo drones have each been in shop windows, the first in the window of Maplins in the Strand (see the link above), and the most recent, shown below, in the window of Maplins in Tottenham Court Road:

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And a creepy Christmas to you.  I guess this is the gadget of choice of “Secret Santa”.

Which reminds me.  Now is the time I start taking photos of signs saying “Merry Christmas” to stick up here instead of sending out Christmas cards.  Will I find a weirder “Merry Christmas” than that?  Quite possibly not.

I am looking forward to photoing one of these things out in the wild.

Wednesday December 10 2014

Nothing, apart from this, here, today, but I did manage a posting at Samizdata entitled Anton Howes on the Golden Age that never stopped.

I say nothing, but here is a picture I took of someone in a woolly hat taking a picture at Piccadilly Circus:

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Gotta love that Golden Age we’re living in.

Tuesday December 09 2014

Another Bit from a Book, and once again I accompany it with a warning that this Bit could vanish at any moment, for the reasons described in this earlier posting.

This particular Bit is from The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (pp. 255-258):

Much as I love science for its own sake, I find it hard to argue that discovery necessarily precedes invention and that most new practical applications flow from the minting of esoteric insights by natural philosophers. Francis Bacon was the first to make the case that inventors are applying the work of discoverers, and that science is the father of invention. As the scientist Terence Kealey has observed, modern politicians are in thrall to Bacon.  They believe that the recipe for making new ideas is easy: pour public money into science, which is a public good, because nobody will pay for the generation of ideas if the taxpayer does not, and watch new technologies emerge from the downstream end of the pipe. Trouble is, there are two false premises here: first, science is much more like the daughter than the mother of technology; and second, it does not follow that only the taxpayer will pay for ideas in science.

It used to be popular to argue that the European scientific revolution of the seventeenth century unleashed the rational curiosity of the educated classes, whose theories were then applied in the form of new technologies, which in turn allowed standards of living to rise. China, on this theory, somehow lacked this leap to scientific curiosity and philosophical discipline, so it failed to build on its technological lead. But history shows that this is back-to-front. Few of the inventions that made the industrial revolution owed anything to scientific theory.

It is, of course, true that England had a scientific revolution in the late 1600s, personified in people like Harvey, Hooke and Halley, not to mention Boyle, Petty and Newton, but their influence on what happened in England’s manufacturing industry in the following century was negligible. Newton had more influence on Voltaire than he did on James Hargreaves. The industry that was transformed first and most, cotton spinning and weaving, was of little interest to scientists and vice versa. The jennies, gins, frames, mules and looms that revolutionised the working of cotton were invented by tinkering businessmen, not thinking boffins: by ‘hard heads and clever fingers’. It has been said that nothing in their designs would have puzzled Archimedes.

Likewise, of the four men who made the biggest advances in the steam engine - Thomas Newcomen, James Watt, Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson - three were utterly ignorant of scientific theories, and historians disagree about whether the fourth, Watt, derived any influence from theory at all. It was they who made possible the theories of the vacuum and the laws of thermodynamics, not vice versa. Denis Papin, their French-born forerunner, was a scientist, but he got his insights from building an engine rather than the other way round. Heroic efforts by eighteenth-century scientists to prove that Newcomen got his chief insights from Papin’s theories proved wholly unsuccessful.

Throughout the industrial revolution, scientists were the beneficiaries of new technology, much more than they were the benefactors. Even at the famous Lunar Society, where the industrial entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood liked to rub shoulders with natural philosophers like Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley, he got his best idea - the ‘rose-turning’ lathe - from a fellow factory owner, Matthew Boulton. And although Benjamin Franklin’s fertile mind generated many inventions based on principles, from lightning rods to bifocal spectacles, none led to the founding of industries.

So top-down science played little part in the early years of the industrial revolution. In any case, English scientific virtuosity dries up at the key moment. Can you name a single great English scientific discovery of the first half of the eighteenth century? It was an especially barren time for natural philosophers, even in Britain. No, the industrial revolution was not sparked by some deus ex machina of scientific inspiration. Later science did contribute to the gathering pace of invention and the line between discovery and invention became increasingly blurred as the nineteenth century wore on. Thus only when the principles of electrical transmission were understood could the telegraph be perfected; once coal miners understood the succession of geological strata, they knew better where to sink new mines; once benzene’s ring structure was known, manufacturers could design dyes rather than serendipitously stumble on them. And so on. But even most of this was, in Joel Mokyr’s words, ‘a semi-directed, groping, bumbling process of trial and error by clever, dexterous professionals with a vague but gradually clearer notion of the processes at work’. It is a stretch to call most of this science, however. It is what happens today in the garages and cafes of Silicon Valley, but not in the labs of Stanford University.

The twentieth century, too, is replete with technologies that owe just as little to philosophy and to universities as the cotton industry did: flight, solid-state electronics, software. To which scientist would you give credit for the mobile telephone or the search engine or the blog? In a lecture on serendipity in 2007, the Cambridge physicist Sir Richard Friend, citing the example of high-temperature superconductivity - which was stumbled upon in the 1980s and explained afterwards - admitted that even today scientists’ job is really to come along and explain the empirical findings of technological tinkerers after they have discovered something.

The inescapable fact is that most technological change comes from attempts to improve existing technology. It happens on the shop floor among apprentices and mechanicals, or in the workplace among the users of computer programs, and only rarely as a result of the application and transfer of knowledge from the ivory towers of the intelligentsia. This is not to condemn science as useless. The seventeenth-century discoveries of gravity and the circulation of the blood were splendid additions to the sum of human knowledge. But they did less to raise standards of living than the cotton gin and the steam engine. And even the later stages of the industrial revolution are replete with examples of technologies that were developed in remarkable ignorance of why they worked. This was especially true in the biological world. Aspirin was curing headaches for more than a century before anybody had the faintest idea of how. Penicillin’s ability to kill bacteria was finally understood around the time bacteria learnt to defeat it. Lime juice was preventing scurvy centuries before the discovery of vitamin C.  Food was being preserved by canning long before anybody had any germ theory to explain why it helped.

Monday December 08 2014

Here is a picture I took earlier this evening, at Warren Street tube station, the Victoria Line, at the time specified in the picture …:

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… and here is another picture, of the same things, but from closer up and from below, which, as you can see, I took six minutes and one second later:

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The first picture, taken from a random spot quite a long way off and from within a crowd (hence the blurriness) is the problem, and the second picture, taken from much nearer and when I was seated, shows you (without blurriness) what is causing the problem.  There is a sign, and there is a damn great horizontal slab of WTFness, attached to a surveillance camera, right next to the sign, blocking the view of the sign, from everywhere except very near to it.  This arrangement was not calculated to render the sign two thirds useless (see the first picture above), because it is quite clear that no calculation was involved.  The installers of the surveillance camera and its WTFness clearly gave no thought to the sign or its legibility on most of the platform.  But, if a malevolent calculation had been done with the above malevolent purpose in mind, that is exactly where the surveillance camera and its big WTFness attachment would have been placed.  They could not have blotted out the sign better if they had tried.

You see this combination of circumstances quite a lot in tube stations.  Finally, I got around to photoing it, when I saw it, so I can have a bitch about it on my blog.

Knowing how long you must wait for your next train is very soothing, I find.  One of the best things about railway (and bus) services in recent years is that signs such as this one have become ever more abundant.  But, such signs only soothe if it is possible to read them.  They do not soothe if it is necessary to walk half the length of the platform in order to read them.

I am not impressed.

Sunday December 07 2014

Like half of London, it would seem, I’ve been suffering with a cough and a cold and a headache, finding it hard to sleep.  For some reason it all gets worse at night, especially the headache.  Why?

So a couple of incoming emails from Simon Gibbs, concerning some of the pictures I took at that Cost of Living Debate which he organised last October, really cheered me up.

The first email said that one of the pictures I had taken, of one of the speakers, had enabled Simon to flag up, on YouTube, that speaker’s videoed performance, more attractively than might otherwise have been possible.  A photo was attached…:

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... which Simon described thus:

One of your digital photos on my TV, via the Virgin Media YouTube app.

Then, very soon after that email, another one, longer:

I managed to make some more appear.

The video quality is okay, but the camera was pointing statically at the whole panel. You zoomed in on individual speakers while in action (or at rest), then I was able to crop and add titles and the resulting thumbnail is better than any individual frame of the video.

Here “better” means “better able to encourage someone to click from a list of videos through to the video itself”, meaning they will stand out from the crowd.

And another picture was attached:

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I am delighted that my photoing obsession has assisted Simon in his much more strenuous activities.  And I got in for free.

Which reminds me that I should long ago have done my own selection of snaps from that evening, and stuck them up here.  I may yet do this, and maybe quite soon.

Saturday December 06 2014

As earlier promised, a selection of the better photos I took at that Adam Smith Institute Christmas Party:

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Click to get them bigger.  If you want to recycle these photos, please feel free, with or without gratitude to me.  Email me (see top left where it says “Contact") if you’d like any of them bigger.

Friday December 05 2014

When I got to that ASI Christmas Party the other night, I was already in a grumpy mood, on account of not being allowed to bring three Opera Babes to the party.  That’s right.  The Adam Smith Institute didn’t have room for three glamorous young women, two of them at the Royal College of Music (Goddaughter 2 and her friend) and one of them (another friend of Goddaughter 2) who was auditioning for the Royal College of Music (having already been accepted last year by the Guildhall).  I had already arranged to bring Goddaughter 2, but the ASI having spurned her two glamorous Opera Babe friends, GD2 not unreasonably preferred to be with them.  I don’t mean that the ASI said: Opera Babes? - No thanks.  I mean that they didn’t even allow me to say that they were Opera Babes, so oversubscribed were they.  Or so she said.  The ASI lady put their names on the subs bench list in case of cancellations, but your guests only get on the pitch if the ASI tells you so beforehand, and I heard nothing.

So instead I went to the ASI Christmas Party with Goddaughter 2’s glamorous elder sister.  When I got there, it was clear that although there were many persons present, there was most definitely room for three more Opera Babes.  But, too many mostly very non-operatic males of the species had already signed up to be there, and they needed room to stand around in all-male groups and shout their opinions at each other.

So there I was at the ASI Christmas Party feeling grumpy, looking around the room and recognising hardly anyone, and feeling bad about having dragged GD2’s sister to this ghastly do and being so grumpy about it, and for about the first half hour of being there, I continued to be grumpy.  Three things, however, cheered me up.

First, I bumped into someone I did know, Anton Howes.  And it turns out that he has a new blog.  How very last decade, I said, but really, I was truly delighted to hear this, and started to feel that the evening was not going to be a total write-off after all.  I had actually learned something of genuine use and interest to me.  Cheer-me-up Thing Number One.

Cheer-me-up Thing Number Two, I got my camera out.  I think I saw some other person taking photos and I thought: time for me to do some soul stealing.  Was this uncouth?  Probably.  Would I look like an old prick?  Presumably.  But I was feeling like an uncouth old prick anyway, so out came the camera anyway.  And immediately I cheered up.  Suddenly, people cheered up when I approached them, and ceased from only talking about what they were talking about and instead started presenting themselves to my camera in a way that would make them look approximately as good as they were capable of looking.  And, if they ignored me, well, that’s fine, because when people ignore you and just carry on enjoying themselves, that, if you are a photographer rather than a human being, is good.

Cheer-me-up Thing Number Three: Eamonn Butler saw me taking photos, and approached.  Oh dear.  “Brian, could you please stop being such an uncouth old prick?  And if you do insist on photoing, could you please make a point of not photoing him, or him, or her.” Paranoid rubbish like that flashed up in my brain in between Eamonn being clearly about to say something and Eamonn actually starting to say it.  And what did he say?  He said: “Could you please send us a few of your best photos?” or words to that effect.  Hah!  I was now an officially designated photographer.  I was someone.  Instead of me fretting about not knowing anyone (and about not being allowed to be The Bloke Who Brought The Opera Babes), everyone else had to feel bad that they didn’t know me.  Hurrah!

And actually, when I bustled my way through the throng some more, snap snap snapping, it turned out that actually I did know quite a few of those present.

Here we have, I think, another impact of digital photography.  Digital photography cheers up people like me when we go to parties.  But, shame I couldn’t photo the Opera Babes.

All of which began life as a mere intro to me showing you lots of the photos I actually took at this do.  But, people who might google their way to - or maybe even be steered with a link towards - such photos won’t be wanting a long ramble attached to them about how I felt before and during the taking of them.  So, I’ll stick them up in a separate posting.  This I promise.

Thursday December 04 2014

Busy day, so another from the I Just Like It directory (the last one having been this):

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The things roofs turn into when no one cares what they look like.

This was taken in September of this year, in the vicinity of Holburn tube.

Wednesday December 03 2014

I have had a Samizdata postings slump recently.  I haven’t done many such postings lately, and very lately none at all.  This is something that I have kept meaning to correct, for something like the last fortnight, but each day I think, well, another day won’t hurt, not that much.  Each passing day adds the same small amount of silence to the silence total, but a diminishing percentage of silence to the silence total.  Thus, each day of silence feels that tiny bit less culpable than the one before.

But today I snapped out of it, with a posting about photography.  Not fun photography, of the sort I mostly do.  Photography in and around Israel, photography that tells important lies about Israel.

Here is the picture at the top of the article I linked to:

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And see also: this Samizdata posting of mine from way back, which includes a recollection about an anti-Enoch-Powell demo organised by a Daily Telegraph photographer.

Tuesday December 02 2014

Defence Minister Michael Fallon addresses the throng at the Adam Smith Institute Christmas Party, earlier this evening:

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More to follow.

Monday December 01 2014

Today I went walkabout in the City of London with my friend Gus, father of Goddaughter 1.  This evening I found, for the first time, this short video interview at the Arup (his long time employer) website, done with Gus in 2010.

Here are four vertical favourite-photos I took:

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On the left, Gus shows me a magazine picture of the Cheesegrater, taken on a much nicer day than the day, cold and windy, that we were having to put up with today.  Next in line is one of those Big Things seen through a gap in the foreground shots, but with a difference.  This time, there are two Big Things involved.  There is a sliver of Walkie-Talkie on the right, and then way beyond it, you can see the Shard.  Then, we see Gus joke-propping-up the miniature Lego Gherkin that is to be seen next to the regular Gherkin.  On the right, Gus looks up at something or other, this being the best snap I did of him.

Now for all my favourite horizontals.

I’m too tired after all that walking about in the cold to say much about these pictures, but see in particular 2.1, which is, I’m pretty sure, some of the bolts, a few of which recently disintegrated.  Now they are having to check all such bolts, and there are a lot.

1.1: Mmmm, cranes.  Grim day, well done my recently acquired camera, good in low light conditions.

1.2: Canon Street tube.  Designed like a bridge, said Gus, ace bridge designer, because under it there are tube lines which it is built on top of, like a bridge.  This is the building I asked about in an earlier posting here.

1.3: I included this because of the sign saying “all inquiries”.  All?  You know what they mean, but there is fun to be had on the phone with this sign.

2.2: A Gherkin detail, is there because I said, when I saw it, that looks rather plastic.  And guess what, it is plastic.

2.4: Shows us the Lego Gherkin in front of the Actual Gherkin

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3.2: A more fun picture of Gus, featuring also: me, in the right hand purple circle.

3.3, 3.4, 4.1: All the Walkie-Talkie.

4.4: For scaring pigeons, something you seldom see from above.  I saw this particular cluster of pigeon scarers while descending a staircase at Liverpool Street station.  That last was the very last photo I took.

When I emerged from Pimlico tube, near my home, I was amazed at how dark it had become, at a quarter to four in the afternoon.  Like I say, my new camera really did the business today.

Sorry for all the cock-ups and mispronts in this posting.  I’m knackered and am now going to bed.