Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Incoming from 6k ...:
This was a 1960s scheme to sell glass, dreamt up by minions of glass superbusiness Pilkington’s. It was never going to get built, but had it been, it would have been a walk away from where I live, and would have been my route to Vauxhall railway station.
6K is right that this kind of thing, and in particular this kind of bridge, interests me. See the first picture and the commentary on it in this posting here, July 2015.
Quote (if I don’t regularly quote me, who will?):
… this shows old London Bridge, with all its buildings. What fun it would be for London to build itself another such bridge. One of the reasons I so welcome the new Blackfriars Station, on its bridge, is that it sets a precedent for just such a bridge with buildings some time in the future. This new Ponte Vecchio on Thames probably shouldn’t be in the middle of London, though, because that would spoil a lot of views. Why not a big bridge of this sort further downstream? Any decade now …
LATER: Meanwhile, a very different bridge ...:
... is to be built across the river, just upstream from the actually existing Vauxhall Bridge. That is the picture the winner of the competition produced. On the basis of that, among other things, this winner will “design” the new bridge. Looks to me like he already has designed it.
Also, yet another bridge has been proposed to join Docklands to the other side of the river.
I have begun reading Matt Ridley’s latest book, The Evolution of Everything. Early signs: brilliant. I especially liked this bit (pp. 7-10), about modern ideas in the ancient world:
A ‘skyhook’ is an imaginary device for hanging an object from the sky. The word originated in a sarcastic remark by a frustrated pilot of a reconnaissance plane in the First World War, when told to stay in the same place for an hour: ‘This machine is not fitted with skyhooks,’ he replied. The philosopher Daniel Dennett used the skyhook as a metaphor for the argument that life shows evidence of an intelligent designer. He contrasted skyhooks with cranes - the first impose a solution, explanation or plan on the world from on high; the second allow solutions, explanations or patterns to emerge from the ground up, as natural selection does.
The history of Western thought is dominated by skyhooks, by devices for explaining the world as the outcome of design and planning. Plato said that society worked by imitating a designed cosmic order, a belief in which should be coercively enforced. Aristotle said that you should look for inherent principles of intentionality and development - souls - within matter. Homer said gods decided the outcome of battles. St Paul said that you should behave morally because Jesus told you so. Mohamed said you should obey God’s word as transmitted through the Koran. Luther said that your fate was in God’s hands. Hobbes said that social order came from a monarch, or what he called ‘Leviathan’ - the state. Kant said morality transcended human experience. Nietzsche said that strong leaders made for good societies. Marx said that the state was the means of delivering economic and social progress. Again and again, we have told ourselves that there is a top-down description of the world, and a top-down prescription by which we should live.
But there is another stream of thought that has tried and usually failed to break through. Perhaps its earliest exponent was Epicurus, a Greek philosopher about whom we know very little. From what later writers said about his writings, we know that he was born in 341 BC and thought (as far as we can tell) that the physical world, the living world, human society and the morality by which we live all emerged as spontaneous phenomena, requiring no divine intervention nor a benign monarch or nanny state to explain them. As interpreted by his followers, Epicurus believed, following another Greek philosopher, Dernocritus, that the world consisted not of lots of special substances including spirits and humours, but simply of two kinds of thing: voids and atoms. Everything, said Epicurus, is made of invisibly small and indestructible atoms, separated by voids; the atoms obey the laws of nature and every phenomenon is the result of natural causes. This was a startlingly prescient conclusion for the fourth century BC.
Unfortunately Epicurus’s writings did not survive. But three hundred years later, his ideas were revived and explored in a lengthy, eloquent and unfinished poem, De Rerum Natura (Of the Nature of Things), by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, who probably died in mid-stanza around 49 BC, just as dictatorship was looming in Rome. Around this time, in Gustave Flaubert’s words, ‘when the gods had ceased to be, and Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius when man stood alone’. Exaggerated maybe, but free thinking was at least more possible then than before or after. Lucretius was more subversive, open-minded and far-seeing than either of those politicians (Cicero admired, but disagreed with, him). His poem rejects all magic, mysticism, superstition, religion and myth. It sticks to an unalloyed empiricism.
As the Harvard historian Stephen Greenblatt has documented, a bald list of the propositions Lucretius advances in the unfinished 7,400 hexameters of De Rerum Natura could serve as an agenda for modernity. He anticipated modern physics by arguing that everything is made of different combinations of a limited set of invisible particles, moving in a void. He grasped the current idea that the universe has no creator, Providence is a fantasy and there is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance. He foreshadowed Darwin in suggesting that nature ceaselessly experiments, and those creatures that can adapt and reproduce will thrive. He was with modern philosophers and historians in suggesting that the universe was not created for or about human beings, that we are not special, and there was no Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty in the distant past, but only a primitive battle for survival. He was like modern atheists in arguing that the soul dies, there is no afterlife, all organised religions are superstitious delusions and invariably cruel, and angels, demons or ghosts do not exist. In his ethics he thought the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
Thanks largely to Greenblatt’s marvellous book The Swerve, I have only recently come to know Lucretius, and to appreciate the extent to which I am, and always have been without knowing it, a Lucretian/Epicurean. Reading his poem in A.E. Stallings’s beautiful translation in my sixth decade is to be left fuming at my educators. How could they have made me waste all those years at school plodding through the tedious platitudes and pedestrian prose of Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar, when they could have been telling me about Lucretius instead, or as well? Even Virgil was writing partly in reaction to Lucretius, keen to re-establish respect for gods, rulers and top-down ideas in general. Lucretius’s notion of the ceaseless mutation of forms composed of indestructible substances - which the Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana called the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon - has been one of the persistent themes of my own writing. It is the central idea behind not just physics and chemistry, but evolution, ecology and economics too. Had the Christians not suppressed Lucretius, we would surely have discovered Darwinism centuries before we did.
It is probably, by now, a little known fact that during January 2007 (and presumably also over Christmas 2006) there were lots of coloured plastic bottles with lightbulbs inside them outside the front of the Royal Festival Hall in London.
All part of the funning down (or is that up?) of the South Bank.
What with Antoine herding drunken cats tonight, you’d think that today here might have been particularly feline. But as it happens, recent archive trawling has brought various bird photos that I’ve taken over the years to my attention.
I find birds difficult to photo, by which I mean difficult to photo interestingly. This is because they are so often photoed, very well, by other photographers. The trick for someone like me is to photo things that other people, and other photographers, tend not to see, like for instance all the other photographers. I think I managed to photo these two birds quite interestingly, just under a year ago, just before last Chistmas, but this sort of thing is rare for me.
Often, when I photo birds, I combine them with others things, as here, or as on the right, right here. This being one of those photos which I suspect will look rather good if seen very small. So, I am showing it very small. Which also means I have to waffle now, to make sure that the next photo doesn’t collide with this one on the right. What I really like about this snap is not the bird, so much as the unusual roof clutter. The bird just tops that off nicely. This shot was taken from Battersea Park railway station. That should be enough waffling.
Next, what we see is some birds seen from an unusual angle, which makes their wings look really strange, like they are made out of metal rather than bird. Whereas the earlier picture benefited from being small, this one squawked out to be horizontalised, so that is what I did:
For each of the two originals, above, click on the smaller version.
This last bird photo also shows something which is, to me, very strange. Which is, that all the birds are pointing in the same direction, one way or the other, along the road. Except one, who is, I suspect, turning from pointing one way to pointing the other way. Why are they doing this?
One possible explanation is that they are all looking at me, to see if I would throw them any food, or perhaps attack them. My guess being that when a pigeon looks at you he has to look at you sideways on, with just one eye. He doesn’t do what humans with their flat faces do, when looking at you, which is turn their faces towards you. No, a pigeon displays his profile. But what do I know? Am I making any sense? Anyone? I am probably talking nonsense.
Anyway, truth or tripe, that concludes today’s Avian Friday posting.
I say new. New for me. Old and superfluous to requirements for the people who were getting rid of them.
Audiences for regularly repeating events tend exactly to fill whatever comfortable spaces and places are offered to them. Given that my speakers tend to be pretty good, the single best way for me to persuade more people to attend my Last Fridays of the Month meetings (there will be another such meeting tomorrow evening) is to improve the seating arrangements. More and more comfortable chairs are the best way to make these events better.
When these meetings resumed, in January 2013, there was a rather ungainly sofa, which seats two in comfort and three in discomfort unless all three are very thin, and one other comfy single chair. The rest was all stools and upright chairs and old loudspeakers and suchlike.
Worst of all there was this:
That picture having already been shown here, here.
But, to replace the above abomination, there is now this:
Despite appearances, these two beauties work very well as a three seat sofa. Better yet, they cost me: nothing. I went out shopping a few months back, and Goddaughter 2 happened to be with me. We saw these two semi-sofas being inserted into a skip. So we skipped the shopping and grabbed them, all this being only a couple of dozen yards from the front door of my block of flats. Moments later, and they’d have been covered in subsequent rubbish. No Goddaughter 2, and I don’t know how I would have managed. Almost certainly, not. Amazing.
And then, about a week ago in a charity shop I encountered these two little numbers, also very comfortable:
I had to pay a few bob for them, and some more bob for a taxi to get them home, but it all added up to far less than I was thinking of paying for something similar, singular, new, to see if another similar, singular, new, would be worth a further quite large outlay.
The above improvements may not seem like much, but they increase the number of truly comfortable seats at my evenings from three-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half. So the chance of a comfy seat have now more than doubled.
All I need now is to replace that goofy original sofa, with its goofy great arm rests that take up about one and half people’s worth of space, and things would be looking even better.
Last night I did a posting at Samizdata about Milo Yiannopoulos.
Until today, when I dug him up on YouTube, I didn’t even know what nationality this guy is. American would have been my guess, but basically I didn’t know, although I did learn yesterday what he looks like. But for me he was basically a name, that I couldn’t spell.
Turns out he’s British. Very British. Who knew? Everybody except me, presumably. Blog and learn.
I asked for the opinions of Samizdata commentariat, and got some. I don’t know why, but I expected more variety in these responses, more doubts, more reservations. Actually, the Samizdata commentariat has, so far, been uniformly approving of this guy.
Now I’m listening to him babble away, and it turns out that, being a libertarian and an atheist, I’m “touchy” - meaning oversensitive about being criticised - times two. As a libertarian I’m obsessed with marijuana and with computer hacking. (Actually: No, times two.) As an atheist, well, it turns out I dress stupidly. (Yes. True.) He does love to wind people up, which he does by saying slightly untrue and quite funny things. He’s like that classic old Fleet Street type, the Opinionated Female Columnist, whose job is to overgeneralise in ways that are quite popular and pile up the readers, and to make the Outraged Classes really really outraged, and who eventually gets … old.
I’m starting to think he may soon be a bit of a has been. But, at least he now is.
I think the article that I linked to from Samizdata may have been a peak. It is truly brilliant.
What I do like is his interest in the tactics of how to spread ideas, how to win arguments, how to be able to make arguments despite the efforts of people who want nothing except to shut him up, by saying things that shut them up.
Photo taken in 2008 by me, from a train, just past Queenstown Road railway station, on my way from Waterloo to Egham, the railway station of my childhood:
That’s not two towers joined together by a bridge.
This is two towers joined together by a bridge:
Those two towers are going to be built in Copenhagen harbour. They’ve just received the go-ahead. Here’s hoping they do indeed go ahead.
I have been reading Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism. And very good it is. Here are some of the things Foster says about Robert Owen (pp. 86-69, pp 92-95:
After he built Cromford, Arkwright became involved in the development of another even more spectacular water-driven venture, at New Lanark in Scotland. The fast-flowing river below the beautiful Falls of Clyde made the site ideal. Arkwright’s partner there was David Dale, a respected Glasgow merchant. The notoriously prickly Arkwright fell out with Dale, reportedly over a triviality, and withdrew. Dale took control and continued to expand, but the reason New Lanark is so well preserved today is not that it is seen as a monument to capitalism. Quite the contrary. Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, turned New Lanark into the promotional centre for a Utopian dream, where he nurtured anti-capitalist sentiment. A fair amount of anti-capitalist sentiment still seems to pervade the site today.
Owen’s New Lanark was very far from being an experiment in socialism understood as collective ownership and control. Workers had neither shares in the mill nor much - if any - say in how it was run. Nor was Owen a political revolutionary. What he did share in common with more radical socialists was opposition to religion; belief that human nature was an indeterminate clay ("blank slate"), there to be moulded by men such as himself; distaste for the “individual selfish” competitive system and private property (even though they enabled him to promote his muddled ideas); demonization of money; and a generally woolly notion of how economies - as opposed to individual businesses - work. Owen rejected Adam Smith’s idea of gradual improvement under a system of “natural liberty.” For him, cotton masters, the men who owned and ran the mills, were (except for himself) greedy and selfish, while workers were oppressed sheep to be led, with himself as the Good Shepherd.
Adam Smith had shrewdly noted that people by nature give far more deference to the ideas of the wealthy than they deserve. Of few people was this more true than Robert Owen.
Owen was born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown in Wales, five years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He received only a rudimentary education before being shipped off by his parents to work in the drapery business. He proved an assiduous employee and developed a keen interest in the then-booming textile industry. He started his own business but soon returned to employment as a mill manager in Manchester. Close to his 20th birthday, he was reportedly managing 500 workers, at the then substantial salary of £300 a year. Owen soon found investors to help him start his own mill. He also became interested in education and social reform (which was the rule rather than the exception for industrialists of the time). However, when he visited New Lanark he saw a place where he might indulge a nascent vision of industrial harmony, a New Jerusalem in which he would be the secular Messiah.
Owen courted David Dale’s daughter, Anne Caroline, married her on September 30, 1799, and took over New Lanark early in 1800 on what seemed generous terms, essentially promising to pay Dale out of the mill’s future profits. New Lanark was the basis for the fortune and reputation that enabled Robert Owen to indulge his ideas. The scale of New Lanark seems extraordinary even today, but to visitors from the present, if they could travel back to Owen’s time, the most arresting feature of the place would be that most of its employees were children, supplied by orphanages in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Child labour has become one of the great fixed images of the Industrial Revolution, but it is inappropriate to take our modern sensitivities back to earlier times. Child labour was common - as it still is in many poor countries - because it was, and is, necessary for the survival of both the children and their families. It was most necessary for orphans. Indeed, orphanages paid cotton manufacturers to take their charges off their hands. David Dale reportedly treated his young employees well. By 1796 he was employing 16 teachers at the site.
Owen’s desire to prevent children under 10 from working appears wholly admirable, until we remember that this might have led them to starve. His desire to educate children and provide an early equivalent of daycare was worthy but ultimately self-interested in business terms, since these measures increased the skills and contentment - and thus productivity - of the workforce, as did his organization of medical insurance, savings opportunities, food and other provisions. There was no conflict between good business and morality. Indeed, Owen himself constantly, at least in the early days, stressed the importance of these measures for increasing profitability.
The village shop that Owen set up at New Lanark was reportedly an inspiration for the modern cooperative movement, which was founded in the town of Rochdale in Lancashire. According to a potted history at the New Lanark site, when Owen arrived, there were lots of small traders in the village, “selling poor quality goods at high prices.” He was able to buy in bulk, lower the prices and still make a profit. But of course this is exactly what supermarkets and big-box stores do today, even as they are castigated for putting the “little guy” … out of business.
Robert Owen put the little guy out of business too. He also made sure that no other traders could survive in the village, by paying his workers with “tickets for wages,” which they could spend only at his village shop. Elsewhere such enforced commitment to the company store would be cited as evidence of corporate villainy, but Owen declared that his own motives weren’t “selfish.” The important thing was not what was good for him, but what was good for mankind, although he clearly expected a little kudos for showing mankind the way.
At New Lanark, Owen in fact displayed more of the enlightened capitalist than of the Utopian dreamer. One might not doubt his good intentions when it came to spreading education and advocating factory reform, but he seemed eager to bury the fact that many other cottom masters, and businessmen of the time more generally, were enlightened and reform-minded.
As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, both mill owners and authorities were disturbed by Luddite riots that resulted in the breaking of new machinery, which was seen as destroying jobs. Robert Owen claimed that what had brought about these awful, and worsening, conditions was economic liberalism and the competitive system, which, he declared, was based on “deception.” He came forward with a series of bold proposals for “villages of unity and co-operation,” which struck many as workhouses by a more glorified name.
Although the great and the good expressed polite interest in Owen’s solutions to what were, after all, pressing problems, many were profoundly skeptical. John Quincy Adams, then U.S. ambassador to Britain, described Owen in his memoirs as “crafty crazy ... a speculative, scheming, mischievous man.”
Owen managed to draw the ire of both radical reformers, the political economist heirs of Adam Smith, groups that rarely saw eye to eye. The radicals saw Owen’s communities as oppressive, while the economists viewed them as impractical and counterproductive. The reformer William Cobbett described them as “parallelograms of paupers.” The political economist Robert Torrens said it ws difficult to decide whether Owen was a “knave” or an enthusiast “in whose brain a copulation between vanity and benevolence has engendered madness.”
Owen welcomed a steady stream of “philanthropic tourists” at New Lanark. Their number included Grand Duke Nicholas, future czar of Russia. Some - although presumably not the grand duke - found disquieting authoritarian overtones to Owen’s operation. After watching Owen’s child labourers drill like little soldiers at the mill’s Institution for the Formation of Character (which has been lovingly restored with taxpayers’ money from the European Union), the poet Robert Southey compared the place to a slave plantation.
Parliament ultimately rejected Owen’s scheme. One member suggested that “this visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society.” Owen responded to criticism by making his schemes more grandiose. Undaunted, he set off to proselytize in the New World, and not merely to lecture but at last to put into effect his grand plan. He bought an existing cooperative community in Indiana, which he renamed New Harmony.
Owen attracted a large number of settlers, described by one of Owen’s sons, Robert Dale Owen, as a “heterogenous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle ... and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen Sr. soon went back to Britain to spread the word of his success. Another son, William, confided dolefully to his diary, “The enjoyment of a reformer, I would say, is much more in contemplation, than in reality.”
New Harmony soon started to fall apart. Skilled labour did not feel inclined to have its income, under Owen’s plan, “equalized” with the unskilled or, worse, with those who did not wish to work at all. A collectivist scheme such as Owen’s could in effect work only if powered by either religious conviction or forced labour, a lesson that would not be lost on Owen’s more revolutionary successors.
The abolition of money led to a bureaucratic nightmare. When even lettuce had to pass through the company store, it inevitably wilted before it reached the plate. (Moscow McDonald’s would encounter analogous problems in trying to get supplies through the collapsing Soviet system almost 200 years later.)
After an absence of two months, Owen returned to New Harmony, arriving by river with intellectual reinforcements dubbed the “boatload of knowledge.” He forced the community through numerous reorganizations, all the while churning out portentous exhortations such as the “Declaration of Mental Independence:’ which promised to free man from the “slavery” of private property, religion and marriage.
One visitor, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, wrote, “He looks forward to nothing else than to remodel the world entirely; to root out all crime; to abolish punishment; to create similar views and similar wants, and in this manner to abolish all dissension and warfare ... He was too unalterably convinced of the result to admit the slightest room for doubt!’ Every other member of the community to whom the duke spoke acknowledged that Owen was “deceived in his expectations!’ The final blow to the community was a falling-out between Owen and William Maclure, a wealthy emigre Scotsman, which led to the two men suing each other over property, the concept New Harmony was meant to transcend.
The one undoubted benefit Owen did bestow upon the former colonies was his children, who turned out to be a good deal more level-headed than their father and who would become prominent in American affairs. Owen then set off on an even more quixotic scheme: to persuade the government of Mexico to grant him a huge swath of land on which to test his theories. He required Mexico first to abandon Catholicism. Mexico demurred. Owen returned to London and embarked upon expansive new ventures. He became the first president of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an organization that lasted a year. Seeking to trump both the pecuniary root of all evil and “unnecessary” middlemen, he set up “labour exchanges,” whereby merchandise was exchanged for “labour notes,” whose value was meant to be calculated according to the hours of sweat embodied in each product. The administrators found that they could not possibly calculate values this way and were forced to copy market prices. The labour exchanges collapsed too.
Owen staunchly opposed the “superstition” of religion, and yet his own views were at root profoundly religious, based on a “New Moral World” set up in opposition to a demonic set of greedy capitalists. He founded the Rational Society, complete with Halls of Science instead of churches, and “social hymns.” Sample verse:
Outcasts in your native soil,
Doom’d to poverty and toil,
Strangers in your native land;
Come, and join the social band.
Owen’s acolytes founded another Utopian community, at an estate called Queenwood in Hampshire, whose collapse Owen hastened by spending it into the ground. One of his more clear-sighted disciples noted that “Mr. Owen was no financier, and had no idea of money.” Queenwood, like New Harmony, imploded amid lawsuits, yet again over property.
Robert Owen represented a psychological type that would persist throughout the business world. Although such businessmen have a good grasp of their own business, they fail to understand the nature of markets more generally and believe themselves to be morally exceptional in a world marked by short-sighted greed.
Two more additions to the Bald Blokes Taking Photos collection. On the left, a Bald Bloke photos Big Ben, in 2006:
On the right, in 2010, a Bald Bloke photos the Wheel, above, with Big Ben in the background.
Indeed. Today was a lot colder than of late, and a lot brighter than of late. I guess that happens when the clouds go away, in November. I was on my way out around midday today, and took these, the last one through a train window:
The first two are looking across Vincent Square, towards Victoria Street and at Westminster Abbey. The next three are of building work at the top end of Victoria Street, where there is not a lot of building work going on. And finally, Big Things, from the train out of Victoria.
I was very pessimistic about all the new stuff around Victoria Station, but that big spikey thing is looking very cool.
The first picture is the odd one out. No cranes.
On Friday November 27th (i.e. exactly one week from now), my friend from way back, Antoine Clarke, will be giving a talk at my place entitled “Herding cats, or lessons from drunks about organising anarchy”.
These talks happen every last Friday of the month, and before they give one of them, I ask each speaker to supply a paragraph or two about what they’ll be saying, so I can email my list of potential attenders. Antoine has just supplied me with ten paragraphs on his talk:
It would be hard to imagine any more dysfunctional organisation than a leaderless group of drunks promising among themselves to quit drinking and to help other drunks to quit.
And then I realized that there is a similar organisation for narcotics addicts, one for cocaine addicts, crystal meth addicts and even “sex and love addicts” - whatever that may mean.
Alcoholics Anonymous has been described as a “benign anarchy” by one of its founders and manages to organize over 100,000 groups worldwide with between 1.5 million and 2 million members. Its power structure has been described as an “inverted pyramid”.
AA operates by having almost completely autonomous branches, no publicity, no professional class of “charity workers” and no set fees. It has a “12-step program” and “12 traditions” which have been described respectively as “rules for not killing yourself” and “rules for not killing other people”.
The effectiveness of AA at curing or controlling alcohol addiction is not clear cut. Because of anonymity, self-selection and the difficulty of known if someone who stops attending meetings has relapsed or simply found he can lead a functional lifestyle. The fact that over a dozen other organisations have copied AA’s 12-step and 12 tradition system suggests at least some level of success, unlike, say the UK’s National Health Service which has fewer imitators.
One particular problem for AA is that any 12-step program will only really work if it is voluntary, but in the USA especially, courts mandate that convicted criminals attend AA meetings as a parole condition. I think this reduces recidivism among the criminals (compared with them NOT following a program), but it surely dilutes the effectiveness of AA groups (more disruptive attendees, people going through the motions, possible discouragement of others).
I shall be looking at the elements of AA’s structure and organisational culture to see what lessons can be learned about the possibility of anarchic institutions especially at handling social problems.
What interests me is the “anarchy with table manners” aspect of AA and the contrast with truly dysfunctional libertarian organisations, like the Libertarian Alliance.
I’m also interested in the issue of government interference and the ways in which well-meaning interventions make matters worse. I shall also take a look at the spiritual element of AA’s 12-step program, noting that it claims to work for atheists and agnostics as well as for theists.
Hopefully, this is an attractive alternative to binge drinking on a Friday night in central London.
Indeed. There will be no binge drinking at the meeting.
I see that of Counting Cats, in the person of Julie near Chicago, recently linked to a piece by the late Antony Flew entitled The Terrors of Islam, a piece which I had totally forgotten about. But I am sure that this piece influenced me very strongly when I read it. And I definitely did read it because I published it, for the Libertarian Alliance (Chris Tame Tendency).
It always pleases me hugely when someone links to an old LA effort of mine like this. Not exclusively mine, you understand. Somebody else had to write it. But … mine. And this particular piece of Flew’s is downright prophetic.
Counting Cats had a strange outbreak of junk postings about fake university essays a week or two back but seems to be over it now.
Rather as a politician, when sacked, pretends that he has resigned to spend more time with whatever is left of his family, when a cricketer gets the elbow from the national team, the selectors always now say stuff like this:
James Whitaker, the national selector, said: “Ian Bell has been an outstanding player for many years and undoubtedly still has plenty to offer England in the future. It was clearly a difficult decision but he has struggled for runs in recent series and we felt that it was the right time for him to take a break and spend time working on his game out of the spotlight.
Outstanding player. More to offer. Take a break. Work on his game. Out of the spotlight. And sometimes, it’s even true. After all, Compton and Ballance are both back. But the difference is age. Compton and Ballance are still quite young. Bell is at that age where he is either good now, or not. He doesn’t have a potential big decade to offer in the future, just one or two more years right now.
Bell’s problem is that he has always been the kind of player who can make a good team better, but he has never been the kind of player good enough to make a bad team good. And even when he was playing really well, which he did from time to time, you kind of didn’t notice. He was never a “game changer”, merely a pretty good player, who sometimes did really well, and sometimes not so well.
Talking of bellends, for several years now the comedians on the telly have been using this, to me, peculiar expression, to describe people they are not impressed by and are inclined to mock. But only now, wanting to add something to this posting, did I learn that the bellend is the head of the penis. Which presumably makes the bell … Blog and learn.
Today I finally managed to get back to Kings Cross, and I even got there before it was dark. But I couldn’t choose only a few pictures from that to show you, so maybe tomorrow with rather more than a few.
So meanwhile, a quota couple quota photoing their quota shadows, in the quota year of 2007:
This happened on the south bank of the Thames, between Westminster Bridge and the Wheel. These pictures make me fell smug and superior, on account of how much more complex and multi-layered my pictures were compared to theirs.
More remembered sunshine. It’s been grey and grim for so long now it seems like for ever.
So there I was, in the bath I think it was, listening to the cricket in Dubai, and Agnew mentioned what sounded like a rather interesting photo, of a very tall cricketer called Mohammad Irfan, being interviewed. The particular fun being that Irfan is very tall, and both the interviewer and the cameraman are standing on boxes:
Agnew mentioned that he had seen this photo on Twitter, and that was enough of a clue for me to find it (scroll down to Nov 15 until you get to the bit where it says: “Love this pic of Irfan being interviewed") very quickly:
Bonus: another photographer in the shot.
More and more, the world is following me, in no longer wanted to exclude other photographers from its photos, but instead to include other photographers.
A few months ago, when the sun was shining and I was in the habit of leaving my home and wandering about in London, I took what i thought at the time was a photo of a bald bloke taking a photo:
I cropped half the guy’s face out of this photo, to make him non-machine-recognisable.
But looking at this photo again, I realise that the real mystery is what the guy has on his left wrist:
As so often, my camera saw more than I did.
When I started googling, to try to find out more about that device, I was pretty confident that I would soon learn. But, I couldn’t find anything called that that looked like that. Presumably it is some sort of Androidy iPhoney Watchy Thingy. But I was unable to go beyond that vague presumption.
This is a hastily drawn illustration of a characteristic urban phenomenon of the late twentieth century, namely: the Meaningless Triangle:
The blue lines are the edges, aka the curbs, of two city streets, which, for reasons lost in history, meet each other at an angle.
The black lines are are piece of Modern Movement type Modern Architecture, circa 1970, made of grey concrete, with big, boring windows. Something like an office block or a department store. The Meaningless Triangles are the pink bits.
In the days of Modern Movement type Modernism, architects were obsessed with making everything rectangular, which explains that jagged, saw-like edge to the big Modern Movement type building, at the bottom of my diagram. In order for the building to be in line with one of the streets, it has to be at an angle to the other street, because the streets are not themselves at right angles.
So, why not just have wall to the building that are not at right angles? This is what is done now. Why not then?
There are many reasons. One is that doing this kind of thing, in the days before computers, was a bit difficult. But more fundamentally, right angles were, you know, Modern. Only the despised higgledy-piggledy Past had walls at crazy angles.
More fundamentally, Modern Movement architecture was not so much about building a mere building, as about building a small fragment of a potentially infinite urban grid. In a perfect world, the Modern Movement type building would not stop at the boundaries of the site. It would instead stride madly off in all four directions, covering the whole earth in a single rectangular grid. You think that’s mad? Sure it’s mad. But this was how these people thought, in those days. They really did publish schemes to cover the entire world with just the one new building, and smash all the others.
The boundaries of the site were an affront to the building. The building did not end gracefully and decorously at the boundary, and then show a polite face to the world. No. It merely stopped, as gracelessly and rudely as possible, and in a manner which threatened to go bashing on, just as soon as a socialist upheaval (preferably worldwide) could clear all the higgledy-piggledy crap of the past out of the way. In a perfect world, there would be no boundaries, no property rights. No arbitrary lines where one bit of “property” stops and another bit starts. Oh no. All would be owned by the People in Common, and our architect is the instrument of the People in Common, and supplies them all, all I say, with a new and infinitely huge new building.
I know, insane. Don’t blame me. I’m just telling you what these lunatics were thinking.
Luckily, the higgledy-piggledy old world kept these maniacs under control. They had to stop their damn buildings at the edge of the site. If they had tried to bash on beyond the site, they’d have been arrested. But, they could make the ragged edge of the building look as ragged and ugly as they liked, and they did.
Hence all the Meaningless Triangles.
If you want to hear me talking about the above, go to this video, of me giving a talk about Modern Architecture, and start watching at 41 minutes.
What got me blogging about Meaningless Triangles was that I recently, in the course of wandering through my photo-archives, came across this photo:
What we see there is a very meaningful building, built to fill in a Meaningless Triangle. As I recall, this is a few dozen yards from the entrance to Kensington High Street Tube station. Yes, I just found the Caffe Nero in Wrights Lane, near that very tube station. That’s the one. I took my photo of it in 2010.
I never did get to see that gas holder park I was on about yesterday. I had thought it would be clearly visible and clearly signposted, but it was neither, and I placed myself on the wrong side of a big building site, and never got near it. I only worked out exactly where it had been hiding when I got home.
But none of that matters. The point of having a photo-objective of this sort is to get me to a part of town that I might not otherwise be visiting, and in general, to get me out into the town. Gas Holder Park isn’t going anywhere, and my failed attempt to visit it, I got to be on the exact right bit of pavement to take this photo, which is definitely one of my recent favourites:
It’s not just the craziness of the vehicle. It’s the way that, with no other traffic - or even pedestrians - choosing to get involved in the short, and with my camera tracking the crazy vehicle and thus blurring everything else, the crazy vehicle becomes a sort of disembodied presence, liberated from the urban bustle that it was in fact surrounded by, like it was a movie character on drugs, or something similarly unenmeshed in reality as the rest of us perceive it.
Seconds later, I took another shot of the crazy vehicle as it sped away from me, hoping that it tell me what the white sphere was in aid of. It wasn’t a great picture ...:
... but it did the job:
And (see above) it’s a recently opened ping pong drinkery. The white sphere is a ping pong ball. More about the place here, where there is another picture of the Morris Minor, surrounded by urban bustle, so not on drugs.
Because of the uncannily precise weather forecasts with which modern civilisation is blessed, I know that today will be a great day to be going out, which I have not done for a while. And I intend to check out this, which is a gas holder that has been tarted up into a big old public sculpture stroke small park inside:
There are mirrors. I like mirrors. Mirrors make for fun photos.
Also, notice how, in this other picture, …:
... it would appear that they (Bell Philips) will be inserting a block of flats into another nearby gas holder. Cute.
I’ll let you all know how it is all looking, at the moment. Assuming I manage to find it and it’s not still a building site behind barriers. With these kinds of things, the internet can only tell you so much. By which I mean that it could tell you enough so that you wouldn’t have to go there to check it out, but it generally can’t be bothered. So, since it’s only a short Victoria Line journey, I will go there. To check out not only the Thing itself, but to see what other Things I can see from inside it, framed by it.
Not to say the sexist-est. Those Victorians often used to let their hair down in public. It’s all around us, if only you are willing to look at it and see it. It’s only a matter of time before the feminists start defacing such things, because they are already in a state of fluttering Victorian spinsterish hysteria about the sort of feelings expressed in this statue.
This statue is in honour of Sir Arthur Sullivan. A while back, I and Alex Singleton did a recorded conversation about him, and about Gilbert of course.
So yes, In among yesterday’s picture archive rootling, I came across this amazing picture:
That picture, like yesterday’s effort, was taken in 2010, by which time I was in the habit of photoing the bit on statues where it tells you what it is. So I had no trouble learning more about this statue today. The great thing about the internet is how you no longer have to do “research” when you write about something like this. All that is required is a link, and all is explained, by somebody else.
And the somebody else at the other end of this link, “Metro Girl”, has this to say about this amazing statue:
Situated in the slimmer part of the gardens nearer to the north-eastern exit, it is located looking towards The Savoy Hotel. Sullivan and his frequent collaborator, dramatist WS Gilbert were closely linked to The Savoy Theatre, which was built by their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte in 1881 using profits from their shows. Gilbert and Sullivan’s last eight comic operas premiered at The Savoy Theatre, so it is only fitting that the Sullivan memorial is so nearby.
And, more to my particular point, this:
The monument features a weeping Muse of Music, who is so distraught her clothes are falling off as she leans against the pedestal. This topless Muse has led some art critics to describe the memorial as the sexiest statue in the capital.
Not knowing every sexy statue in the capital, I can’t be sure that this is indeed the sexiest. But I’ve not seen anything to top it.
Recently I have become very interested in taking photos through my kitchen and toilet windows, my kitchen being where most of my toil (hah!) is done. (I said that that earlier photo was taken from my kitchen, but I now realise it’s taken from the toilet, through an open window rather than a grubby kitchen window which is too hard to be opening and shutting.) I am doing this because there is building going on across the courtyard, and I love to photo building work. The temporariness of everything. The scaffolding, and more recently the translucent blankets they now often drape over scaffolding, catching shadows of the scaffolding.
But over the years, I have taken photos through this window for other reasons. I especially like this one, which I just came across when looking for something else, which I took in 2010:
That netting has since been repaired, but it continues to add a layer of visual oddity to all the pictures I take from this window. It is there, as I said in that earlier posting, to stop pigeons crapping all over the courtyard.
I especially like the white dots against the black background, at the bottom. Each dot is a droplet, at each point in the netting where the strings join, or cross, or do whatever they do when they meet. The bigger, nearer droplets are on the outside of the window.
I’m guessing I was very struck by what I saw that day, because where I live, in London, rain is quite rare.
I’ve not been out much lately, but last Friday night I got to see Perry and Adriana’s new version of indoors. That was the best photo I took, of a drying up cloth.
Click on that to see Adriana’s trousers, of the sort that are presumably threatening all the time to get tighter.
The German conductor Herbert von Karajan probably did more to popularise classical music after WW2 that any other single person. His LPs and then his CDs and DVDs sold in their millions. I have many Karajan CDs myself. So, the question of whether he was any sort of Nazi and if so what sort remains a hot topic.
Playwright Ronald Harwood, author of a play about Wilhelm Furtwängler, was recently interviewed on BBC4 TV. During this, Harwood mentioned, in contemptuous passing, that Karajan was obviously a Nazi. Furtwängler was interesting because it wasn’t clear, hence that play. Karajan? Not interesting, because clearly he was. He hired a Jewish secretary after the war. What more do you need to know?
Well, I for one needed to know a bit more than only that, so I did some googling and came across this by Peter Alward, former vice-president of EMI Classics:
I first met Karajan in 1976, and we remained friends up to his death. He was one of EMI’s flagship artists in the late 70s and early 80s; most of his operatic work was for us, his symphonic work for Deutsche Grammophon. Yes, he cultivated the cult of the maestro - he was a shrewd businessman and recognised his market worth. He was not slow in coming forward and speaking his mind, but no conductor is a shrinking violet. I feel he was misunderstood. There was the glamorous image - the jet-set lifestyle - but this was all a defence. He was really very shy, a simple man with simple tastes. I vehemently oppose the theory that he was a Nazi. He was an opportunist. I’m Jewish, and if I believed otherwise, I wouldn’t have spent a minute in his company.
Opportunist sounds about right to me. Karajan, like all conductors, needed power, over an orchestra. Needing this sort of power, he had to avoid antagonising whoever the politicians were, the ones with the more regular sort of power. But he did not care about politics for its own sake, merely as a means to the end of his music making.
Trouble is, you can surely say the same for a great many other servants of the Third Reich. I bet plenty of rocket, airplane, tank, bomb and ship designers were equally opportunistic, and equally free of any positive desire to be Nazis. But whoever happened to be Germany’s politicians, these people would have served them. All they cared about was rockets, airplanes, tanks, bombs and ships. Classical music was not as important to the Nazi regime as armaments were, but it was quite important. Karajan did help.
The most interesting titbit I learned from this little burst of Karajan-googling was that apparently his second wife, Anita, whom he married in 1942, was burdened with a Jewish grandfather. But hKarajan wasn’t merely “burdened” thus. He burdened himself. Wikipedia:
On 22 October 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Karajan married Anna Maria “Anita” Sauest, born Gütermann. She was the daughter of a well-known manufacturer of yarn for sewing machines. Having had a Jewish grandfather, she was considered a Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish woman).
Just marrying a quarter-Jewess, before that was dodgy, is one thing. Being a celeb and marrying a famous heiress with a famously rich and half-Jewish dad, and doing all that in 1942, is something else again. That’s more than just hiring an entirely Jewish secretary after the war.
When I read about such people and about such times, I don’t feel inclined to condemn. I merely wonder how I might have behaved, or misbehaved, had I been confronted by such pressures and such temptations.
Most clichés are true. Being true they get repeated and repeated, which is how they became cliches. But the cliché that it rains a lot in England is not true, at any rate not in my part of England. Rain in London is actually quite rare, and when it does rain it seldom lasts long. Heavy rain is very rare, which is why, when it happens, it causes excited headlines.
But, the weather is often cloudy and overcast. Thus for the last several days it has been almost entirely overcast, and very occasionally wet.
I have been mostly indoors, having one of my periodic attempts to tidy up. Photographically, I have done little, except remember sunnier days earlier in the year.
Here are four photos taken in June and July of this year, all of which involve sunshine in one way or another:
I love that weird effect you see when someone has been destroying reinforced concrete, combining jumbles of twisted metal rods and what can look like ancient rocks but which are really bits of concrete. The sunniest thing in that photo is me, in the form of my shadow. Nothing says bright light like a strong shadow.
All the other snaps involve - what else? - cranes. I especially like how bright light often strikes cranes. Usually, when I photo this, I get disappointingly toned down results. My camera presumably thinks that by eliminating dazzle it was helping, but dazzle is what I am often trying to photo. I want the light to be out of control and sloshing about all over the place. Bottom left is a rare exception to that tendency.
Bottom right is looking down Tottenham Court Road, at a crane and a Wheel, lit by sun, backed by dark cloud, a favourite effect. The strange and rather misshapen green house thing (which I like) is (I think) the top of the new Tottenham Court Road Crossrail-Tube Station.
They’re playing an Old-Timers T20 in New York today. Here are the two squads, “Sachin’s Blasters” and “Warne’s Warriors”:
SR Tendulkar (Captain), CEL Ambrose, SC Ganguly, CL Hooper, DPMD Jayawardene, L Klusener, BC Lara, VVS Laxman, GD McGrath, Moin Khan†, M Muralitharan, SM Pollock, V Sehwag, Shoaib Akhtar, GP Swann.
SK Warne (Captain), AB Agarkar, AA Donald, ML Hayden, JH Kallis, RT Ponting, JN Rhodes, KC Sangakkara†, Saqlain Mushtaq, A Symonds, MP Vaughan, DL Vettori, CA Walsh, Wasim Akram.
It makes me think of these guys.
Find out what happened here, that also being where I found out about this remarkable enterprise.
The modified cliché is a standard method to spice up writing. You take a too-much-repeated clutch of words, like a metaphor so stale that you hardly notice the metaphor any more, and you alter it or add something to it to bring things alive again. (Said Vinegar Joe Stillwell of Louis Mountbatten: “There’s less to that young man than meets the eye.” I still remember something Harry Phibbs wrote about how he was “eager to intrude upon private grief”.)
Something similar can be done with architecture, on a far more grand scale:
The individual bricks, so to speak, of this architectural pile are impeccably dull. Yet they are combined in a very dramatic way. Which makes the impeccable dullness that is thus still very visible all the more entertaining.
Modifying a cliché has particular architectural advantages, because it means that you already know how the cliché bits work, because that’s been done thousands of times already. (See this earlier posting.)
Of course, combining them in this new way could create all manner of problems of different sorts, so you still need to be careful. But, despite the dangers, I like this.
Today, however, it’s practically in the air. I could flick through a copy of em>Wired magazine in a supermarket, or see the statue of James Watt in St Paul’s Cathedral. Innovation is unstoppable, but not because the Internet has innumerable nodes of useful information, as Ridley claims. It’s unstoppable because across the world, innovation is so deeply rooted in our speech, thought and culture. And we don’t even know it.
Innovation is, at root, the idea of innovation! And the idea that innovation is a good idea!
Anton Howes is making good progress as a scholar, his latest little victory being that he has been invited to present his findings at this event at Columbia University. My thanks to Simon Gibbs for alerting me to this latter happy circumstance.
LATER: Van Beethoven.
... causing them to stay stuck inside my head for ever.
That’s it really. Provided something can get out of hand inside a head.
What I am talking about, in the event that you don’t already recognise the syndrome, is that you think of something to put on your blog, and start seeking out links, and you find highly pertinent links to add, but at the far end of them, you find further highly pertinent things to add to the original posting, until it ceases entirely from being the piece of fun that blogging ought mostly to be, and becomes a giant piece of homework that never gets done.
I think my fascination with the Union Jack really got into gear with the Scottish Referendum. Why then? Because then, we might have had to abandon it. It might have become a relic.
Then, during the recently concluded Rugby World Cup, the Brits all got knocked out by the time the semi-finals came around. But, the two nations whose national flags involve the Union Jack (for the time being anyway), Australia and New Zealand (England’s flag is the red and white flag of St George), were the two finalists. So, the Union Jack triumphed, even if the nation that originated it did not.
So, I am now always on the lookout for Union Jacks, especially when the colours are being played with. The shape is wonderful, I think, but the colours can get repetitious and they come alive when altered somewhat.
And today, I found just such a Union Jack, in a shop, in Tottenham court Road. I went in and photoed it, several times. Nobody objected, or tried to sell me furniture. Or even to sell me the Union Jack that I was photoing. I just did my photos, and also a few others of cat cushions, and then made my exit.
If you look at a mirror, you tend to see yourself. If you photograph a mirror, you tend to photo yourself taking a photo, unless you are a Real Photographer. I am not, even if one of the above photos does exclude me.
£149 is what this mirror would cost you.
As I type this, Simon Schama is concluding his TV series about The Face of Britain, the final episode being entitled “The Face in the Mirror”. He is doing selfies, or “self-portraits” as they have mostly been known, until now. I expect that we will be shown regular folks posing with their selfie sticks, right at the end.
It was something to do with the fact that it was unseasonably warm yesterday, which resulted in fog this morning in London, but only in patches. And the Evening Standard, which now keeps virtually ticking over at the weekend, reported on the various London fog photos people have been taking.
This, taken by this guy, is my favourite:
Cranes (and the Walkie-Talkie) in front of the fog. Shard stabbing through the fog.