Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Most recent entries
- On the problems of half-parking with a half-car
- Roof party
- Crane lamp
- Headlights with cleaning brush
- Sign with sarcastic sneer quotes
- Godo and flowers
- Tate cat
- On meeting an American lady friend who likes to read my stuff about cricket
- A birthday party with difficult lighting
- On the unappealingness of classical music on the internet
- Bright buildings in front of dark sky
- Waiting for …
- The ballerina and her support act
- Having a baby can change or ruin your voice
- Ballerina with cranes again - this time with added spy cameras
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6000 Miles from Civilisation
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Adventures in Capitalism
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Category archive: Bits from books
I’ve started reading Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies, years after everyone else who has read it. I haven’t got very far yet, but I am delighted to discover that one of the Enemies that Postrel takes several cracks at is John Gray, that being a link to a crack that I took at Gray at Samizdata a while back.
And I see that Postrel, like me, does not confine herself to analysing and criticising Gray’s arguments, but notes also the cheapness of the tricks that Gray often uses to present his arguments.
What disguises the trickery, at least in the eyes of Gray and his followers, is the air of profundity that is regarded as being attached to the process of foreseeing doom and disaster. In truth, incoherent pessimism is no more profound than incoherent optimism, which is to say, not profound at all.
Says Postrel (p. 9):
Although they represent a minority position, reactionary ideas have tremendous cultural vitality. Reactionaries speak directly to the most salient aspects of contemporary life: technological change, commercial fluidity, biological transformation, changing social roles, cultural mixing, international trade, and instant communication. They see these changes as critically important, and, as the old Natinoal Review motto had it, they are determined to “stand athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop!’” Merely by acknowledging the dynamism of contemporary life, reactionaries win points for insight. And in the eyes of more conventional thinkers, denouncing change makes them seem wise.
Seem. Amen. I’m still proud of this in my piece about Gray, which makes that same point about the seeming wisdom of being a grump rather than a booster:
He trades relentlessly on that shallowest of aesthetic clichés, that misery is more artistic than happiness, that any old rubbish with a sad ending is artistically superior to anything with a happy ending no matter how brilliantly done, that music in a minor key is automatically more significant than anything in C major.
There are plenty more Gray references in Postrel’s book, if the Index is anything to go by and it surely is. My immediate future is bright.
From Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik (pp. 80-81):
Given that literally half of the world’s structures are made from concrete, the upkeep of concrete structures represents a huge and growing effort. To make matters more difficult, many of these structures are in environments that we don’t want to have to revisit on a regular basis, such as the Oresund bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark, or the inner core of a nuclear power station. In these situations it would be ideal to find a way to allow concrete to look after itself, to engineer concrete to be self-healing. Such a concrete does now exist, and although it is in its infancy it has already been shown to work.
The story of these self-healing concretes started when scientists began to investigate the types of life forms that can survive extreme conditions. They found a type of bacterium that lives in the bottom of highly alkaline lakes formed by volcanic activity. These lakes have pH values of 9-11, which will cause burns to human skin. Previously it had been thought, not unreasonably, that no life could exist in these sulphurous ponds. But careful study revealed life to be much more tenacious than we thought. Alkaliphilic bacteria were found to be able to survive in these conditions. And it was discovered that one particular type called B. Pasteurii could excrete the mineral calcite, a constituent of concrete. These bacteria were also found to be extremely tough and able to survive dormant, encased in rock, for decades.
Self-healing concrete has these bacteria embedded inside it along with a form of starch, which acts as food for the bacteria. Under normal circumstances these bacteria remain dormant, encased by the calcium silicate hydrate fibrils. But if a crack forms, the bacteria are released from their bonds, and in the presence of water they wake up and start to look around for food. They find the starch that has been added to the concrete, and this allows them to grow and replicate. In the process they excrete the mineral calcite, a form of calcium carbonate. This calcite bonds to the concrete and starts to build up a mineral structure that spans the crack, stopping further growth of the crack and sealing it up.
It’s the sort of idea that might sound good in theory but never work in practice. But it does work. Research now shows that cracked concrete that has been prepared in this way can recover 90 per cent of its strength thanks to these bacteria. This self-healing concrete is now being developed for use in real engineering structures.
Maybe Miodownik is very good at explaining things, or maybe I am just ready to be learning this stuff. Probably both. I chose that excerpt because my average reader may not know about such things as bacteria which automatically repair concrete. But the truth is that I am almost embarrassed by how much I am reading that is new to me, or only vaguely known, as a sort of historical rumour.
I had no idea, to take just one example, who invented/discovered stainless steel, or where, or how. Now, I have a much better idea. The story is told on page 29 of this book, which I heartily recommend to all technological illiterates who would like not to be technological illiterates.
They were both as pristine and polished as life-size dolls recently removed from their cellophane boxes; rich-girl thin, almost hipless in their tight jeans, with tanned faces that had a waxy sheen especially noticeable on their foreheads, their long, gleaming dark manes with centre partings, the ends trimmed with spirit level exactitude.
I claim no expertise in the matter of the differences between male and female writers, but might not paragraphs like that have caused suspicions that “Robert Galbraith” was really a woman, even if the information had not been revealed on the front cover? It’s the detail. The waxy foreheads, the centre partings, trimmed like that. I don’t think a man would have gone into quite such detail, nor - in this age of male timidity about being anti-female – been as wonderfully rude about it.
I could be imagining all that. I don’t read much fiction by men either, and maybe the best men writers are just as exact about the women they describe and can be just as rude when doing it. And maybe most women writers would not refer to a spirit level in such a context. Really, I just liked it.
Quoted by “Robert Galbraith” (aka JK Rowling) at the beginning of The Cuckoo’s Calling:
Unhappy is he whose fame makes his misfortunes famous.
Celebrity and its discontents are nothing new.
Christopher Seaman, in his book Inside Conducting (pp. 89-90):
If you truly love a work, you’re bound to feel emotionally involved while you’re conducting it, and if this doesn’t get across to the musicians you’ll get a cold performance. Some conductors need to use bigger gestures than others to communicate with an orchestra. It takes great aptitude and long experience to pour your heart out yet still maintain the necessary composure. Professional musicians don’t need a good conductor to be over-demonstrative in order to pick up his musical ideas and feelings. I sometimes tell students who thrash around ineffectively with paroxysms of emotion that they’re meant to be cooking the music, not eating it. (The French term for conductor is chef d’orchestre, but that’s a coincidence.) James Levine is reputed to have said, “My tears only hurt my ability to make the audience cry.” And Richard Strauss said to Rudolf Schwarz, “Don’t sweat – let the orchestra sweat. Don’t weep – let the public weep!”
I came across an approving reference to the bit about “cooking the music, not eating it” in a review of this book in the BBC Music Magazine, November 2013 issue.
I do like how you can chase these things up properly nowadays.
… Yet for me, the most memorable 3D printing innovation of the last year or so was the launch of a $1,200 service called ‘Form of Angels’ from the Japanese pioneer Fasotec. Here an MRI scan is taken of a pregnant woman, and then used to produce a 3D printed model of her unborn baby. The plastic foetus can even be supplied embedded in a resin model of its mother’s midriff for presentation on the expectant parent’s mantelpiece.
Pictures of what that looks like here, among (as you can imagine) many other places.
From the Preface of Christopher Barnatt’s 3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution:
Within a decade or so, it is likely that a fair proportion of our new possessions will be printed on demand in a local factory, in a retail outlet, or on a personal 3D printer in our own home. Some objects may also be stored and transported in a digital format, before being retrieved from the Internet just as music, video and apps are downloaded today. While the required technology to allow this to happen is still in its infancy, 3D printing is developing very rapidly indeed. Some people may tell you that 3D printing is currently being overhyped and will have little impact on industrial practices and our personal lives. Yet these are the same kinds of individuals who once told us that the Internet was no more than a flash in the pan, that online shopping would have no impact on traditional retail, and that very few people would ever carry a phone in their pocket.
In 1939 the first TV sets to go on sale in the United States were showcased at the World Fair in New York. These early TVs cost between $200 and $600 (or about the same as an automobile), and had rather fuzzy, five inch, black-and-white screens. Most of those who attended the World Fair subsequently dismissed television as a fad that would never catch on. After all, how many people could reasonably be expected to spend a large proportion of their time staring at a tiny, flickering image?
The mistake made by those who dismissed television in 1939 was to judge a revolutionary technology on the basis of its earliest manifestation. Around 7S years later, those who claim 3D printing to be no more than hype are, I think, in danger of making exactly the same error.
I’m guessing that what I saw in Currys PC World, Tottenham Court Road, was the 3D Printer equivalent of those “rather fuzzy, five inch, black-and-white screens”, at the New York World Fair, the first stumbling steps.
I haven’t read much of this book yet, but I have already learned one excellent application of 3D printing, which is to print not the Thing itself, but the mold for making the Thing. You then make the Thing itself in the regular old way. Clever.
LATER: Here is Barnatt’s description of that last thing (p. 9):
A particularly promising application of 3D printing is in the direct production of molds, or else of master ‘patterns’ from which final molds can be taken. For example, as we shall see in the next chapter, ‘3D sand casting’ is increasingly being used to print molds into which molten metals are then directly poured to create final components. As explained by ExOne - a pioneer in the manufacture of 3D printers for this purpose - by 3D printing sand casting molds, total production time can be reduced by 70 per cent, with a greater accuracy achieved and more intricate molds created. In fact, using 3D sand casting, single part molds can be formed that would be impossible to make by packing sand around a pattern object that would then need to be removed before the mold was filled with molten metal.
Like I say, clever.
My scanner turned “molds” into “maids” throughout that piece of scanning. Not clever.
Alex Singleton has sent me an advance print-out of a book he has written about how to do PR. I have reached page 59, and am so far very impressed.
When I read a book of this sort, I like to read about relevant personal experiences, as well as Big Lessons and Grand Principles. That way, you are more likely to be convinced that the Big Lessons and Grand Principles really are as good and grand as they may merely seem.
So I particularly enjoyed this bit (from page 59):
When I got my first column in 1994, in a newsstand computer magazine, I had no idea what I was doing. But it seemed like I needed to get some stories, so I wrote to all the relevant companies and invited them to send me information about what they were doing. Not all of them replied - those that failed to respond were PR idiots. Some of them wrote to me saying that they would add me to their press release distribution lists - they were amateurs.
Then some guy called Quentin got in touch. His company, Accountz, sold products by mail order and it was miniscule - just him and his wife. But he wrote me a personal two-page letter (this was before email was commonplace) explaining how he had a Big Idea to defeat the major players in his sector. Unlike some of the other companies, he had no PR agency - but he had a story. And during the 15 issues I wrote that column, I could always rely on him
to take my calls and give me a good quote. When I upgraded to bigger-selling PC titles, including the market-leading ComputerActive, I kept on writing about his company. Today, his products are sold in PC World, Currys, AppleStores and Staples, and as I type this he has just made a successful exit from the company, passing it onto an investor.
What worked about that PR-journalist relationship is that Quentin - perhaps unwittingly - had good personal brand. He never tried to force a bad story on me and never wasted my time.
Alex has told me he is in the market for typos, and I think I see another blemish, to add to the two I’ve already told him about. Shouldn’t “onto” (final line of para 2 there) be “on to”? Not sure, but I think I’m right about that.
More about this book when I have finished it.
Algernon Sidney sends for Micklethwait because Micklethwait is wise, learned, diligent, and faithful
New apostrophe-shaped footbridge in Hull
Lighter blogging here but not none
76 operas and a monument in the wrong place for Hermann the German
Emmanuel Todd quoted and Instalanched
Richard Dawkins on university debating games
Alex Ross on Hollywood film scores
Professor C. Northcote Parkinson on the Edifice Complex
Alex Ross on Sibelius
Lawrence H. White on the Scottish experience of free banking
“I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost.”
John Carey on Shakespeare and the high-art/ popular-art distinction
Switching from dumb bombing to smart bombing
“I’ll build it with explosive bolts connecting the wings to the fuselage …”
If the Jews have been running the world they haven’t been doing it very successfully
Terence Kealey on the Wright brothers and their patent battles
Ed Smith on how baseball defeated cricket in America
Understanding is the booby prize exclamation mark
Will China fail?
A dreadful age
Richard Dawkins on the Muhammad cartoons affair
Is Jeremy Paxman a closet libertarian?