Boris pater mixed metaphor alert

Incoming email with mixed metaphor and Other creatures news:

Stanley Johnson, Boris pater, on Sky News this morning re Brexit deal: “We’re barking up the wrong horse …”

From GodDaughter2’s pater Tony, to whom thanks. Tor the benefit of anyone reading this who never did Latin, pater means Dad.

Stanley Johnson is an I’m A Celebrity celebrity, it would seem. Or was.

There ought to be an equal and opposite response to this, along the lines of “riding the wrong tree”, but that doesn’t sound quite right. “Jumping trees”? Still not sounding right.

As for Brexit, I personally, I hope that if Boris is the next PM, he doesn’t jump trees. And I think we can all agree that Prime Minister May has been barking up the wrong horse ever since she got the job.

Fast food – slow food

On the left, fast food, and on the right slower food:

The Speed Burger bikes on the left were photoed by me in Quimper, Brittany, in April 2018. The taxi advertising Just East food was photoed by me earlier this evening, as I walked home from a meeting.

I photoed this taxi with the permission of its driver and (presumably) owner. I told him I liked to photo taxis with interesting adverts, like his taxi, because such adverts are a relatively new thing in London, and because particular adverts will soon be gone. He told me that his advert was especially interesting because it had to be changed. The original Just East advert had been for fast food. But then the Mayor of London banned fast food adverts wherever Transport for London is in charge, which includes on taxis, and a different advert was stuck on the taxi, advertising Just Eat food that is slower.

Paris photographique

At the old blog, it was quota photos. Now it’s quota galleries, because they’re so easy to do (at least compared to how hard they used to be to do). And just as I didn’t expect you to expend any more time than you felt like expending on those quota photos, so I don’t expect you to even glance at all these photos, unless you want to. So, click click click:

All of the above photos were photoed in Paris, on May 5th of last year, when I was passing through on my way back from Brittany to London. The weather was stupendous. Not a cloud to be seen. I love how weather like that, when combined with light coloured buildings and the automatic setting on my camera, turns the sky blue-black.

There’s a bit of a bias towards roof clutter. Well, this is Paris. And Paris is famous, even among normal people who don’t usually care about roof clutter, for its roof clutter.

Good night. It has been tomorrow for quite some time.

Battersea gallery

Yesterday evening I walked over to Battersea, to see how things are going with surrounding the old Power Station with apartment blocks, with sorting out the western end of London’s Big New Sewer, and constructing a new tube station.

In the photos that follow, I concentrate on the new blocks of flats, not least because it is easier to see that, what with it having reached the stage of mostly now being above ground. Tube line and sewer construction remains largely hidden throughout, and in general they tend to be more secretive about such things.

So how are things going with all those flats? How things are going is that there is a lot of building going on, but also, already, a lot of living.

The earliest photos in this gallery show the part where they say: come on it. This is already a place, with people, and food, and a road through to other parts beyond. Then, you walk along one of the oddest bridges in London, over and through what is still a giant building site, right next to the old Power Station, and then you arrive at the bit that is finished and already containing people.

None of the photos that follow are individually that fascinating. But click, click, click your way through them at speed, and you’ll get an idea of how this passing moment in the history of London is now looking:

The photos that concentrate on life being lived, rather than merely dwellings being constructed, concern the London Seafood Festival (that being the only link I now have the time to contrive), which I had definitely not been expecting. But many others had, and were gathered in large numbers to partake.

Then I made my way to Battersea Park railway station, with the last two photos having been photoed from the train that took me to Victoria Station on the other side of the river.

My larger point is this: that the newest and most noticeable London architecture has now done a switch, from the erection of individually crafted and highly visible and recognisable Big Things, to the mass production of generic Machines For Living In and Machines For Working In. So many office blocks and blocks of flats of a certain height, all jammed together in a formerly not so very desirable location, each higher than low but each lower than really high. So much concrete and steel being hoisted into the air by so many cranes. And so many people all being crammed into these new dwellings and new workplaces, as they beaver away at their desk jobs nearby or in The City, and relax by the river in their numerous new eateries and drinkeries down on the ground floors. Yes, this kind of thing has been going on in London for many decades, but just lately, it has shifted up a gear.

That all these new Batterseans will be within walking and face-to-face talking distance of one another is bound to have creative consequences. All sorts of new urban possibilities will become possible.

A lot more of this stuff has been happening out East, in Docklands and beyond. There too (see especially: North Greenwich) things have shifted up a gear. Battersea feels a bit more upmarket than those places down East.

Welcome to the latest version of London.

The magic of Twitter

Dominic Frisby, at 1.30 am this morning:

Morning all, I am compiling a list of irritating people on the telly (US or UK) for a routine. Would you mind posting below the name of anyone who gets up your nose? The more the better.

PS Please don’t use their twitter handles.

Dominic Frisby, one hour later:

Thank you!

I have plenty.

I’m guessing that the trick of Twittering is learning how to make use of it for your own purposes, without letting it drive you mad. Note in particular the bit about not using Twitter handles. The suggested celebs were not told about this operation. They therefore had no chance to get mad, and then to try to drive Frisby, or anybody else, mad.

When gossiping malevolently, I think it’s always kinder to do it behind people’s backs and without their knowledge. Why by gratuitously hurtful?

This is not a Cape Sugarbird

I’m talking about this:

What chance does Western Civilisation have if people get basic facts like this wrong?

It’s a Malachite Sunbird.

This is a Cape Sugarbird:

This being a South African bird disagreement, nobody thinks to comment on the amazing plants that the above birds are perched on. They’re just … plants.

But, if 6k (that link being to a bird photo that 6k photoed in London a while back), who visits this blog from time to time and via whose Twitter feed I learned of this Sunbird/Sugarbird confusion (now flapping about all over Twitter before the truth can even get its feathers on), can tell me about the vegetation in the photos I have displayed, I’d love to be thus enlightened. I mean, those Orange Things. That Sunflower-like flower. Amazing.

So it really is cold – good to know

Bishop Hill:

A week away from midsummer and I think I’m going to have to light the stove. Cold, wet and miserable.

And I now have a headache.

Worse, the cricket world cup is proving to be a huge embarrassment, as game after game gets washed out. Today it was India v NZ.

The stupid thing is, it actually doesn’t rain that much in England, not nearly as much as people say. Ever since I started wandering about in London photoing photos, I have paid very careful attention to the weather, and I absolutely know this. The weather isn’t always that great, but actual rain, falling out of the sky, continuously, is quite rare, percentage-wise. It very seldom rains as much as it has been raining for the last few days. Whenever I go out, I carry a small portable umbrella in my bag, in a special compartment. Almost always, that is where it stays. Like I say, it very seldom rains. But, sometimes it does, and when it does, we all notice because it’s so damn unpleasant.

But part of the reason it’s so damn unpleasant is that it rains quite rarely, so we aren’t organised to deal with it, the way they are in countries where they have an actual rainy season.

The title of this posting sounds sarcastic, but no sarcasm was intended. The Bishop’s tweet, quoted above, actually made me feel better. I had been feeling cold, but I didn’t believe how I felt. This is June. It can’t be this cold. I must be imagining it. (To be exact, my feet had to be imagining it.) But now I know that it isn’t just me.

Lethal White

I’ve just finished reading Lethal White, the latest Cormoran Strike book by J.K. Rowling, aka “Robert Galbraith”.

The book is very long, nearly eight hundred pages in the paperback version I read, and far longer than its three predecessors (all three of which I also possess and have read with enthusiasm). I’m guessing this was a trick that JKR discovered when writing her Harry Potter books., which I seem to recall got ever more huge both in their size and in their popularity as that series proceeded. If your readers love your stuff, they just cannot get enough of it. As I neared the end of Lethal White, the desire to find out what the hell explains everything vied with the desire to slow down because I didn’t want to be in a position where there was no more of the story to read.

I won’t tell you what I think of the plot, because that would involve revealing the plot, which is not done with detective fiction. Is the senior villain a satisfactory senior villain? Ditto. Why is the book called “Lethal White”? Not saying.

What I can tell you is that Lethal White, like all the Cormoran Strike books, is based in and around London, and the book features a number of locations with which I am well acquainted, including Denmark Street (with its musical instrument shops) where Strike lives and works. Strike and his side-kick Robin Ellacott have one of their close-of-play evening debriefing and note-comparing sessions in a pub near St James’s Park tube (also mentioned) called “The Two Chairmen” (that a “chairman” was a man who carried chairs for a living is explained), in one of the upstairs rooms of which Libertarian Home used to have their speaker events, which I often attended and where I did a few speeches myself. And one of the people whom Cormoran and Robin visit to question has a house in Upper Cheyne Row, the rather off-the-beaten-track street in Chelsea where Samizdata had its HQ until a short while back. There’s no doubt that knowing a lot of the places where this tale unfolds added greatly to the fun of reading it. (The Rebus books must surely sell particularly well in Edinburgh.)

Local appeal to Londoners like me aside, I think that maybe the key quality the Cormoran Strike books possess, and again maybe this one especially, is that the stories are not too carefully contrived. JKR’s imagination, you feel, really flew, when she was writing this one, especially the bits about Robin’s newly acquired husband, that being all part of why the book is so long. (The book opens with Robin’s wedding and its aftermath.) In Lethal White, things get said and things happen, which, you get the feeling, surprised its author, let alone the rest of us. (I was too old to become a Harry Potter devotee, but I suspect that something very similar can be said about those books.)

If a fictional work seems too contrived, too carefully constructed, too mechanically perfect, so to speak, then suddenly all you can see is the mechanism, the formula, the conscious calculation of the creator or creators about what the “secret” of the success of the franchise consists of. At which point this secret is no longer any sort of secret. Disbelief is suspended. The mere characters degenerate into robots. And we readers stop caring about what happens, because it becomes impossible for us to forget, while we attend to the story, that it is all just made up. It no longer even feels real.

I am well aware that Cormoran and Robin are made-up people, and that a lot of contrivance and construction went into the making of Lethal White. But while I was reading it, it didn’t, to me, feel that way.

I like what Jake Arnott of the Guardian says about Strike:

Strike is a wonderfully complex creature, with just the right balance of contradictions to guide us through this labyrinthine world. An overweight former boxer with one leg amputated below the knee, ex-military police – and you don’t get much more authoritarian than that – he grew up in the counterculture of squats and communes with a groupie mother who died of an overdose. He’s one of those lost souls who joined the army in search of family, an outsider who knows the belly of the beast. And the time taken in describing the day-to-day workings of his craft ensures that he’s plausible enough in his occupation. One element of realism is that Strike, having solved many high-profile murders (not something actual private investigators do much in real life), has now become famous and compromised in his operations. His cover is blown and this predicament seems heartfelt to the author. For we now know Robert Galbraith as the nom de plume of JK Rowling, who intended to write her crime novels incognito until someone blew the gaff. The opening line, after a long prologue, is the most quotable in the book: “Such is the universal desire for fame that those who achieve it accidentally or unwillingly will wait in vain for pity.”

Yes, I’d forgotten that first line. Now, I remember liking it a lot.

Stephen Davies on “the most rapid and sustained technological innovation anywhere in the world before the later eighteenth century”

I have recently been reading The Wealth Explosion by Stephen Davies. Its subtitle is “The Nature and Origins of Modernity”. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to think about why the “modernity” that the world now enjoys happened where it did and when it did.

In particular, Davies asks, why did modernity not happen sooner? As he reveals in his chapter entitled “Song China and the Ming Restoration”, modernity very nearly did happen, several centuries earlier, in China. He describes, in the section entitled “Was Song China Close to Being a ‘Modern Economy’?” (pp. 81-85), how very close indeed China got to leading the world out of Malthusian economic stagnation:

Faced with this kind of evidence, a number of historians have argued that Song China was in fact the world’s first ‘modern’ economy and society and that had it continued we would now be speaking of the transition to modernity in the fourteenth century rather than the nineteenth. Certainly, by a number of measures Song China was as developed as mid eighteenth century Europe. Not only that but it displayed several of the distinctive features of modernity outlined in the first chapter, and the direction of development seemed to be for these ‘modern’ features to become more marked rather than less. What though were the modern aspects of China under the Song that have so caught the imagination of subsequent authors?

In the first place, Song China had rapid, even ‘explosive’ population growth. World population as a whole grew throughout the medieval warm period but the growth in China was much more rapid than that found elsewhere. By 1190, China’s population had reached at least seventy three million: seventy years later it had arrived at the hundred million mark. China’s population more than doubled between 960 and 1100. (It had remained stable at roughly fifty million for the previous six hundred years.) As a contrast, world population grew from about two hundred and fifty million to three hundred and thirty million between 960 and the later thirteenth century, an increase of thirty-two per cent. As in the contemporary modern world this process of population growth, which took place throughout the Song dynasty, accelerated as time went on and the rate of increase seems to have been at its most rapid during the last years of the dynasty, in the thirteenth century.

Moreover, this rise in population was exceeded by the rise in output of both agriculture and manufacture, both of which showed again a rising rate of productivity increase as the years went by. So for example, the level of iron output in 1078 mentioned earlier represented a six-fold increase from 806, in the last years of the Tang. In Shanxi in the 1040s annual production of iron amounted to some sixty tonnes per annum but by the 1110s this had risen to three hundred and sixty tonnes per year. This means that what we have in Song China, from at least the eleventh century, is modern style intensive growth, in contrast to the pattern of broadly extensive growth found elsewhere.

This went along with a ‘commercial revolution’ every bit as dramatic as that of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. By 1200, all of the institutions of the kind of market economy found in Europe in 1800 were already present in China. These included large firms and partnerships with tradable stock and a whole range of sophisticated financial and banking institutions and instruments. The Song economy had a wide range of forms and varieties of business venture from large government monopolies to major private firms, often organised into confederations, and an enormous range of small private businesses engaged in all kinds of productive activity, including an expanding range of services for the urban population of the empire. Much of the production was decentralised and performed in households or small workshops with the goods being sold to professional middlemen or brokers who in turn sold the products to merchants who distributed and sold them using the dense internal trade network or exported them in exchange for foreign products.

Perhaps most significantly, the changes in agriculture made possible by the legal reforms of Song Taizu meant that there was a clear movement of population from the countryside to the cities and of labour from agriculture to manufacturing. Our best estimate is that by the later twelfth century, between six and seven and a half per cent of the population of Song China lived in cities with a population of over one hundred thousand with a similar proportion living in smaller urban centres, which would make it clearly the most urbanised society on the planet at that time. The capital before 1127, Kaifeng, had a population of over a million, as did Hangzhou, which became the capital after that year. What is really striking is the rate of urbanisation. Kaifeng grew from half a million in 1021 to over a million by 1100. Hangzhou went from four hundred thousand inhabitants in late twelfth century to over a million by 1270. Moreover, urbanisation on this scale was not just a feature of the capital. Guangzhou, Chinas major seaport at this time reached a population of half a million by 1120 and the inland city ofJiankang had a population of two hundred thousand at the same time.

In contrast to the cities of Tang China, which had been mainly centres of administration, these were primarily commercial centres, even if they also housed the imperial court. In contrast to the Tang period when there were a limited number of strictly regulated markets, Song cities had markets and retail establishments on all of their main streets as well as huge commercial markets, which were only lightly regulated. There were also large covered entertainment complexes known as pleasure grounds where games and entertainments would be available until the early hours of the morning. One prominent feature of urban life under the Song was clubs and associations of all kinds. Patricia Ebrey for example cites a document of 1235 that mentions the West Lake Poetry Club, the Buddhist Tea Society, the Physical Fitness Club, the Anglers’ Club, the Occult Club, the Plants and Fruits Club, the Antique Collectors’ Club, the Horse-Lovers’ Club, and the Refined Music Society – all of these in Hangzhou.

Song China also saw the most rapid and sustained technological innovation anywhere in the world before the later eighteenth century. As well as the innovations already mentioned in maritime technology the period saw the invention of the dry dock for repairing ships and of paddle powered vessels for use as tugs or in warfare. Block printing was invented in the eleventh century and movable type printing in the thirteenth – in this case borrowed from the Koreans. There were important refinements and inventions in the area of mechanical devices, particularly the use of belt drives and complex toothed gears. One important element of technological progress in China at this time, in marked contrast to other periods, was openness to and adoption of innovations made elsewhere. As well as the examples of movable type, and the superior varieties of rice imported from Annam, the most dramatic case was that of the windmill, invented in the Middle East and then adopted by the Chinese in the early thirteenth century. Notably, the Chinese did not simply take up the Middle Eastern technology but adapted and improved it.

Perhaps most striking was the increasing use of complex machinery in textile manufacturing. As early as the twelfth century devices were invented for the mechanical spinning of silk, which could be powered by men, animals or waterwheels. The text describing this machine stated that with its thirty-two spindles it could spin about sixty kilos of thread per day. It was very similar in design to the water frame of Richard Arkwright, which plays such a prominent part in most accounts of the Industrial Revolution. The missing ingredient was rollers to draw out the thread as it was being spun but this kind of device was known to the Chinese at the time in the form of the cotton gin, for removing seeds from raw cotton. So far as we know cotton spinning was never mechanised in this way, but its use as a fabric only became common at the end of the Song period.

Alongside technological innovation were intimations of scientific investigation. The key figures here were polymaths, similar to Renaissance figures such as Leonardo, who combined empirical experimentation and investigation with scientific speculation, typically in a wide range of fields and areas of knowledge. The most famous was Shen Kuo (1031-1095) who published much of his ideas and findings in a collection of essays known as the Dream Pool Jottings, covering topics as diverse as mathematics, geology, economics, medicine, and engineering. As this shows, Song China saw investigation and discovery in a range of areas of knowledge, the most notable being mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, medicine (including forensic medicine), and optics (where there seems to have been borrowing from the Arabs).

This was linked to important developments in philosophy and abstract thought. The key here was the ideas of Neo-Confucian philosophers, above all Chu-Hsi (1130-1200). He argued that an essential part of the process of self-perfection (a key idea in Confucianism) was the investigation of ‘material things’, that is empirical enquiry. What we can see here are early intimations of the idea of scientific method, which were as well developed in thirteenth century China as they would be in seventeenth century Europe. As in Europe some four to five hundred years later, there was a mixture of philosophical speculation, magic, empirical investigation, and practical (often commercial) endeavour all mixed together into a single intellectual and physical exercise.

There were also distinctively ‘modern’ developments in the structure of government and in social structure and hierarchy. The change here was a very clear movement from a hereditary elite to a more meritocratic one. Reforms to the examination system by which government officials were recruited made the process much more open and Significantly increased the size of the pool of applicants. By the later years of the dynasty in the early thirteenth century, the number of candidates taking the exams was eleven times what it had been in the early eleventh century and the number who passed was five times what it had been under the Tang. However, the number of government posts hardly increased at all. The result was the appearance of a class of degree holders who formed the local elite, but Were not actual holders of government office. Their Confucian training led them to see themselves as moral leaders of society through the force of example as much as administration. The reforms to the system also meant that it was now rare for the status of being a degree holder to persist in the one family for more than three generations. Despite the way in which educated Confucians tended to look down on soldiers and merchants both commerce and the military also provided routes for upward social mobility. The result of all this was to make society much more socially mobile and to make status increasingly non-heritable, as well as increasing income (as opposed to status) inequality.

The government of Song China was, like that of earlier dynasties, organised on a departmental basis. The main innovation, already mentioned, was the creation of a council of ministers with a deliberative as well as an administrative role and a Prime Minister (the actual title was First Privy Councillor) who headed the administration. The most famous holder of this office was Wang An Shih (1021-1086) who began a major series of reforms between 1069 and 1074. These reforms proved very divisive and led to the appearance of two factions, one known as the New Policies Group that supported them and another, led by another scholar-politician Sima Guang (1019-1086) that opposed them. This division persisted throughout the remainder of the dynasty’s history and so a form of elite party politics came into being, based on this division between reformers and conservatives, which reflected intellectual debates within Confucianism. Song government had a distinctly modern flavour, as it was not household or clan based and operated through a professional bureaucracy. Among its particularly modern elements were several agencies to monitor and assess public opinion, each one using a different method of doing this.

Davies also speaks about his book in this video lecture.