Brian Micklethwait's Blog

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

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Wednesday October 22 2014

Did the junk mail phenomenon always exist?  Or is it relatively new?  What I have in mind is the way that an entire category of communication becomes broken because it is overused by semi or total crooks shouting rubbish at you, thus overwhelming the actual human persons sending you individually useful messages.  Even real messages just sound like arseholes yelling at you.  The signal-to-noise ratio becomes so stupid that eventually, no genuine signals get through.

A few days ago, I received an email from something called Macmillan Distribution (MDL).  A package was due.  There were various buttons for me to press so that I could track the package, or tell them where else to deliver it, or some such thing.  I immediately assumed that this was an industrialised garbage message, the purpose of which was for me to tell crooks about myself by pressing one of the buttons.  Having received many junk messages just like this in the recent past, I assumed that this one was similarly fraudulent.

I noted that they had my name and address, and this might have supplied me with the clue that this was actually a genuine message about a genuine delivery, from a genuine enterprise, with buttons for me to press which actually did what they said they would do.  But instead, I merely thought: oh dear, now the international conglomeration of bastard junk emailer fraudsters knows my name and address.  Oh well, more crap to delete.

But this morning, the package actually arrived, at a time that the emails had been referring to.  The emails from Macmillan Distribution (MDL) (there were three emails in total) had all been genuine.  It was a book that I had already paid for and wanted to read.  So, good.

The actual delivery was a mess.  Some arsehole just smacked the door of my flat (sounding like when the cleaners vacuum the landings and bang their machines into our doors), and then just stuffed the package through my mail flap (which very luckily was big enough).  No electronic buzzing from outside and downstairs, to get my attention while I slumbered, like a proper delivery.  And how the hell did this arsehole contrive to get through the downstairs front door in the first place?  (We’ve had robberies from people claiming to be delivering things, but actually hoovering up the deliveries of others from our (unlocked and wide open) cubby holes.) So, very unsatisfactory, as home deliveries so often are.  But, the thing itself did arrive, which means the delivery scored one out of one on the one measure that really counts.

And, as I say, those emails were all for real.

No doubt there are various twenty first century, social media like methods that I could have used to track this parcel and its delivery, methods which screen out junk and preserve a benign signal-to-noise ratio.  Maybe, any decade now, I will have to get with the twenty first century and dump email completely.

I vividly recall when having email first became a necessity, when you suddenly started getting dirty looks at parties if you didn’t have it.  And when fax numbers ceased mattering.  (Remember those?)

As of now, regular twenty first century people half my age still seem to do email, or so it says on those little cards they give me.  But how long will this last?

More about package delivering from 6k, here.  “Wumdrop” sounds sort of like Uber, only for things.

Tuesday October 21 2014

There I was, lying in the bath, listening to Radio 3.  Some music had ended, and I was now being subjected to a programme which I do not usually listen to, called Words and Music.  And I heard the actor Jim Broadbent saying these words, by Michel de Montaigne:

I take the first subject that chance offers.  They are all equally good to me.  And I never plan to develop them completely.  For I do not see the whole of anything.  (Nor do those who promise to show it to us.) Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone.  I give it a stab, not as wide, but as deep as I know how.  And most often, I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view. Scattering a word here, there another, samples separated from their context, dispersed, without a plan and without a promise, I am not bound to make something of them, or to adhere to them myself, without varying when I please, and giving myself up to doubt and uncertainty, and my ruling quality, which is ignorance.

Sounds like a blogger, doesn’t he?  A blogger, that is to say, like me. Especially where he says “without a promise”.  I keep saying that. Above all there is that “this is what it is and if you don’t like it you know just what you can do about it” vibe that so many bloggers give off.  With Montaigne, we are arriving at that first moment in history when writing and publishing new stuff had become easy.  Not as easy as it is when you blog, but a whole lot easier than it had been.

I transcribed the above quote from Broadbent’s reading of it.  The punctuation is somewhat uncertain, and at one point assertively creative on my part.  I added some brackets, around what is clearly a diversion from his main line of thought to which he immediately returns.  It’s a sideswipe at others and it is then forgotten.

Such is the wonder that is the internet that I had little difficulty in tracking down the quote.  It is near the beginning of Montaigne’s essay entitled “Of Democritus and Heraclitus”, in volume three of his essays.

image

The BBC used a more recent translation, which I much prefer the sound of, it being less antique and long-winded.  And if Montaigne himself was also antique and long-winded, then I still prefer intelligibility to stylistic accuracy.

Monday October 20 2014

I sympathise with whoever wrote this:

West Brom can hardly believe their luck. Being denied a win at the death by Manchester United is one thing, but having teased a previously woeful Marouane Fellaini back to life must really does takes the biscuit.

“Must really does takes the biscuit.” I reckon he was choosing between, not two, but three different ways of saying what he was saying, but managed to combine all three.

This is the kind of mistake that can only happen with a computer.  If you were merely writing, or typing with an old school typewriter, there is no way you would have put that.

When I perpetrate something like that, and I frequently do, and if I later spot the mistake, I then allow myself to correct it, no matter how long ago I made the mistake.  Is this wrong?  My blog, my rules.

A subsection of Sod’s Law states that whenever you mention someone else’s mistake in something you say on the www, you will make a similar sort of error yourself.  If I do this in this posting, I will not correct my error, but will add something “LATER”, in which I identify my error.

Computers.  New ways to screw things up.

I attended a talk this evening at Christian Michel’s about robots.  The point was made the robot cars probably will be safer, but every once in a Blue Moon, there will be a truly spectacular disaster, of a sort impossible to perpetrate with old school cars.

Sunday October 19 2014

Here is another way I might get those high up views of London that I am always searching for:

image

DPReview review here:

In my own experiences, aerial shoots have proven difficult to pull off. The window of shooting time was limited, the cabin was cramped, and the first time I ever stuck my camera out the window, the lens flew off and I miraculously caught it in mid-air. It was also roughly $250 for an hour.

But within the past couple of years, aerial photographers have been introduced to a burgeoning market rife with little flying machines that don’t require passengers, don’t need fuel to operate, and can fit inside a cubic foot. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the era of user-operated photography drones is upon us, and it’s already kicking into warp speed.

I’m guessing that the technology of it would be beyond me, and the legality of it a minefield.

Saturday October 18 2014

This funny letter posting got me googling for Viz, which has the best letters page bar none.  I found a clutch of Viz epistolatory masterpieces here, of which this is my favourite:

What is it with vegetarians and their veggie sausages and burgers?  I’m a meat eater, but I don’t go around making carrots and sprouts out of beef.

This is also a good one:

I work in a call centre in Norwich and we’ve just been told our jobs are moving to India.  I’m so excited!  I’ve always wanted to visit India and with the salary they pay me I’ll be able to live like a Maharaja over there.  Well done Aviva, keep up the good work.

Interesting piece about the rise and fall and rise of Viz, here.

Friday October 17 2014

Spent this evening (a) continuing to be ill (thanks for the kind comments), (b) reading a book, because (c) Godot was being built, again, in my kitchen.

This is being posted with Dawkins, because Godot is now not working.  For the last fortnight Godot has been working, but not properly.

As for Godot working, properly, up to speed, all bells ringing, all whistles whistling, well, you know the answer to that.

I am still waiting.

LATER, The Guru photos progress:

image

Digital photography has, I believe, made a huge contribution not only to fun, but to the economy.  So much of work is keeping track of what work you have done, and digital photography makes this far easier.

Thursday October 16 2014

I am rather ill, so will be brief.

I have opened a Bald Blokes Taking Photos photo file.  So far, my favourite bald bloke taking a photo photo is this one, taken in July of this year:

image

I like (a) the Shard in his picture.  There are other photos in this file of equally good bald blokes, and some of them have come out even better, with more detail.  But you can’t tell from the photo what they’re photoing, which I rate a drawback.

And I like (b) the amazing sort of horizontal rift valley at the back of his head, that many bald blokes have (some of them more than one).

Enjoy.  For me, it’s back to being ill.

Wednesday October 15 2014

It’s that time of the year when I go into one of my local supermarkets and immediately start taking photos, like that, or like this:

image

Yes it’s Halloween.  And the shops, in this case Sainsbury’s, are full of Halloween crap.  And I photo it.  I wouldn’t buy any of it.  Oh no.  I am far above that sort of thing.  But, I photo it.

Except, how about these rather cute buckets?  Just the thing for my Last Friday of the Month meetings, to put crappy food in:

image

Only 50p per bucket!  I got two.  And I just might go back for more.

image

Not that.  I wouldn’t want one of them.  That’s my picture of Sainsbury’s, having the last laugh.

Tuesday October 14 2014

A few days ago I purchased a small loaf of sliced bread of my favourite sort, namely Hovis Original Wheatgerm.  And I found something rather strange about it:

image

Not all the slices were like this, but most of them were.

I’m guessing that what happened here was that part of the previous loaf inside whatever space this loaf was cooked in got left inside, and hence incorporated into the next loaf, my loaf.  And, it would appear, it got cooked twice, or at least rather more than the rest of the loaf, and before the rest of the loaf was inserted.  And then everything sliced and sold to a supermarket, and bought by me, just as if nothing odd had happened at all.

I happily ate the resulting hybrid loaf, which seemed fine, even if the darker bits were a bit drier.  This is not a complaint.  If Hovis want to send me more sliced bread, they are welcome, but that is not my purpose with this posting.  I’m just trying to entertain, with an oddity.  Because, odd, don’t you think?  Never seen that before.

On a slight tangent, I believe that I am becoming a better photographer with the passing of the years.  By this I do not mean that I am getting technically any cleverer, although mercifully my cameras are.  What I mean is that now, I realise that this is the kind of thing that needs to be photographed, before it is merely consumed.  A few years ago, I might have eaten this, and then only later realised that I would have liked a photo of it.

Just to emphasise that my improvement as a photographer still has some way to go, I vaguely recall trying not to get any shadows in this photo.  But, if I was so trying, I failed.  You can make out the shadow of my photoing finger, towards the right.  Apologies for that.  You get what you pay for here.

Monday October 13 2014

When someone shows the world a picture like this …:

image

… I’m like, as the younger element now puts it, yeah yeah.

But when a newspaper, the kind they still print on paper, reports that they are about to sell bits of it, then that, I say to myself, is actual news.  They’re actually going to build this bizarre Thing.  Next to Battersea Power Station.

And by selling the flats in advance, I guess they are also crowdfunding it.  Interesting trend, that, I think.

Expect (although I promise nothing) more pictures from me as it takes shape.  And that is quite some shape, at any rate in the pictures.

Here is what the architecture of Tausendsassa Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser looks like:

image

Often cited for his colorful and curvilinear forms, his name translates to “Multi-Talented Peace-Filled Rainy Day Dark-Colored Hundred Waters.” In everything from his name to his unusual ideas put forth in manifestos, it is immediately evident that Hundertwasser was no ordinary architect.

Looks to me a lot like a beefed up version of Teletubbies architecture.  Did they have that show in Germany?  Yes.  (This is not the first time the Teletubbies have been hailed as architectural pioneers.) I’m not saying this is a bad thing.  I am just, as they say, saying.

Sunday October 12 2014

I have already quoted a couple of interesting bits from Bill Bryson’s excellent book, At Home.  I have now finished reading this, but just before I did, I encountered some interesting stuff about paint (pp. 453-5):

When paints became popular, people wanted them to be as vivid as they could possibly be made. The restrained colours that we associate with the Georgian period in Britain, or Colonial period in America, are a consequence of fading, not decorative restraint. In 1979, when Mount Vernon began a programme of repainting the interiors in faithful colours, ‘people came and just yelled at us’, Dennis Pogue, the curator, told me with a grin when I visited. ‘They told us we were making Mount Vernon garish. They were right - we were. But that’s just because that’s the way it was. It was hard for a lot of people to accept that what we were doing was faithful restoration.

‘Even now paint charts for Colonial-style paints virtually always show the colours from the period as muted. In fact, colours were actually nearly always quite deep and sometimes even startling. The richer a colour you could get, the more you tended to be admired. For one thing, rich colours generally denoted expense, since you needed a lot of pigment to make them. Also, you need to remember that often these colours were seen by candlelight, so they needed to be more forceful to have any kind of impact in muted light.’

The effect is now repeated at Monticello, where several of the rooms are of the most vivid yellows and greens.  Suddenly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come across as having the decorative instincts of hippies. In fact, however, compared with what followed they were exceedingly restrained.

When the first ready-mixed paints came on to the market in the second half of the nineteenth century, people slapped them on with something like wild abandon. It became fashionable not just to have powerfully bright colours in the home, but to have as many as seven or eight colours in a single room.

If we looked closely, however, we would be surprised to note that two very basic colours didn’t exist at all in Mr Marsham’s day: a good white and a good black. The brightest white available was a rather dull off-white, and although whites improved through the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1940s, with the addition of titanium dioxide to paints, that really strong, lasting whites became available. The absence of a good white paint would have been doubly noticeable in early New England, for the Puritans not only had no white paint but didn’t believe in painting anyway. (They thought it was showy.) So all those gleaming white churches we associate with New England towns are in fact a comparatively recent phenomenon.

Also missing from the painter’s palette was a strong black. Permanent black paint, distilled from tar and pitch, wasn’t popularly available until the late nineteenth century. So all the glossy black front doors, railings, gates, lampposts, gutters, downpipes and other fittings that are such an elemental feature of London’s streets today are actually quite recent. If we were to be thrust back intime to Dickens’s London, one of the most startling differences to greet us would be the absence of black painted surfaces. In the time of Dickens, almost all ironwork was green, light blue or dull grey.

Famously, the rise of the Modern Movement in Architecture was triggered by, among many other things, a revulsion against the excesses of Victorian-era decoration, especially architectural decoration.  Decoration became mechanised, and thus both much more common and much less meaningful.  What did all this mechanised decoration prove, what did it mean, when you could thrash it out with no more difficulty than you could erect a plain wall?

What the above Bryson quote strongly suggests, at any rate to me, is that something rather similar happened with colour.

Why is the overwhelming atmosphere of Modernist architecture and architectural propaganda so very monochrome, still.  Part of the answer is that it was only recently learned how to do monochrome.  Monochrome looked modern, from about 1900-ish onwards, because it was modern.  Monochrome was the latest thing.  Colour, meanwhile, had become much cheaper and had been used with garish nouveau riche excess, and there was a reaction to that also, just as there was to excessive decoration.

Saturday October 11 2014

Indeed.  You don’t see this kind of thing every day:

image

But I did.  Today.

As a general rule, I don’t advise combining ice cream with photography.  Do one or the other.  That is the rule I recommend.  But these guys were doing an excellent job of merging these two things, and they weren’t just eating their ice creams and doing photography.  They were photoing their ice creams.

I congratulated them for the excellence of their photographic imagination, and they were really pleased to hear this.  I asked if I could photo them.  Yes, they replied.  And when I said “photo”, I meant, as they surely understood, photo them and put pictures of them up at my blog:

image

I also took lots photos of a demo outside Parliament by Kurds, demanding help from Britain in their battles against ISIS.  Maybe (I promise nothing) I’ll put some of those snaps either here or on Samizdata, perhaps tomorrow.

Friday October 10 2014

The lion statues in Tragalgar Square are famous, and they deserve to be.  But there is another lion statue in London that I am also fond of, namely the one on the far side of Westminster Bridge from the Houses of Parliament.  I like, when I walk along beside the river next to St Thomas’ Hospital, to photo it lined up with the Wheel.

Here is how it looked, on the day I also took these photos, and these, and these:

image

I really liked this when I saw it.  You wouldn’t want a guide lion, but, that’s the joke.

And this other guy liked it too:

image

I couldn’t wait for Friday to come round so I could show these snaps to you people.  Inconveniently, I took them on a Saturday.

The BBC have been doing cats, in a three part documentary, and the papers are all over it.

It turns out that with us, cats are cats.  Then they go outdoors and become lions.  They get on better with us than they do with each other.  They have evolved to manipulate us into feeding and sheltering them.

With the arrival of the internet, the evolution of cats has entered a new and more intense phase.

LATER: Although guide lions probably wouldn’t work, here’s a 2012 story about a guide cat, who guides a dog.

SUNDAY: I was back there yesterday, and that bit of yellow writing wasn’t there when I first photoed this guide dog lion:

image

And they have also sorted out that strap around the lion’s front.

More about what is going on here, here.

Thursday October 09 2014

Dezeen has pretend-photos today of London’s soon-to-be-unleashed new driverless tube trains.  As I write this, they’re all over the TV news.

Their pictures are spooky, being mostly of the black and mysterious fronts of the trains:

image image

The BBC reports that the Train Driving Union is angry.  I’m sure it is.  I guess it will refuse to drive these driverless trains.

Seriously, they’re on a hiding to nothing.  The D(ocklands) L(ight) R(ailway) already has driverless trains and having them on the tube is the obvious next step.  It’s like they said when the atom bomb was first used in anger.  The only important secret, said somebody clever and famous, is now public knowledge.  It works.

The picture that interested me rather more was this one (which I found earlier today at the Evening Standard):

image

This is a trend that has been growing and growing.  Instead of each carriage being a separate room, the whole train is now one huge elongated room.  The Tube already has trains like this, but they are just a bit clunky at the joins.  These new trains, judging by that picture, will accomplish this effect with unprecedented elegance and panache, or so it looks to me.  You almost can’t seen the join.

I guess one good consequence of this is that if one part of this single room is extremely crowded, such a crowd is able to spread itself out, towards the not so crowded parts of the room.

That might be the good news.  But the other day, I found myself doing something really rather annoying to my fellow passengers, on one of these new, single room trains.  I was in a big hurry, and had just managed to catch the train I found myself on.  But, I happened to know that, in order to minimise the time of my journey, I needed to be at the other end of the train.  So, crowded though the train was, I barged my way through it, as politely as I could but still rather disruptively, thereby getting a lot nearer to where I knew the exit was at my destination station.

Is this a Thing now, I wonder?

I also wonder what other effects there will be of these new and improved connections between tube carriages.  What effect, for instance, will this have on busking?