Photoers in October 2014

The majority of them being men.

Do you think that my only real interest in photoing photoers is that it is an excuse to photo ladies adopting pretty poses? That’s definitely part of it. As I’ve said several times before, someone should do a ballet based on digital photoers. But me not allowing recognisable faces makes it look more of a bodily obsession than it really is. Basically, I think the entire phenomenon of mass digital photography is a fascinating moment in social and communicational history, and one that has made a lot of people, me definitely included, very happy. And photoing happy, absorbed people is fun.

Which means that photoing men is fun too:

I think there are more men featured in this photo-clutch partly because the weather, that day in October, was rather cold. When it gets colder, women’s clothing gets less interesting and men’s clothing gets more interesting, converging on a single style based on keeping out the cold and not caring about style so much. In plain English: men tend to put on interesting coats and jackets and, above all (in both senses) hats; women tend towards covering up both themselves and their best outfits. (With women’s outfits, less is often more!)

Also, in photo 8, there’s a monkey wearing only shorts.

An architectural contrast

I am fond of writing from time to time, about how people with important jobs to do who spend too much time fretting about mere architecture are liable to take their eyes off the ball. What are we trying to do? This question can get lost when you decide to build, and then move into, a brand spanking new headquarters building.

So I enjoyed reading about yet another such contrast in the book by John Lewis Gaddis On Grand Strategy (pp. 125-6).

The contrast Gaddis mentions is between how much architectural complication Philip II of Spain made for himself and how, in contrast, his enemy Elizabeth I of England meanwhile preferred to keep things architecturally simple.

On the one hand:

Philip personally designed the Escorial, the grandest monastery any monarch would ever inhabit. He then filled it with relics and sequestered himself among them, unable to see beyond the responsibilities that engulfed him, and, as a consequence, the paperwork that swamped him

Elizabeth, on the other hand …:

… didn’t even design her own palace; she simply took over, or borrowed the ones she fancied.

Personally, I wouldn’t find it at all simple to be even borrowing a palace, let alone building one. But you get the point. A little less focus on architecture and a little more attention to Grand Strategy on Philip’s part, and the entire history of the world, no less, might from then on have been very different.

A new Zaha Hadid Architects railway station in Tallin

The perversely lower-case lettered throughout designboom reports that “zaha hadid architects” have won a competition to build a railway station in “tallin”, which will look like this:

At the top of all this is a bridge, so I’m well disposed towards this Thing straight away.

Transport seems especially to suit ZHA. Recall that they are also doing that amazing airport in China.

It’s something to do with the fact that transport positively demands the kind of flowing curves that ZHA always want to do anyway. A train or a plane simply cannot do too sharp a turn. These vehicles simply must shift direction with slow, ZHA type, curves. So, the ZHA style fits. Even a car has to slow down a lot to do a ninety degree turn. Even in the rectilinear architectural sixties, roads would curve, when changing direction. (Think of those amazing motorway intersections.)

Sad, then, that this particular clutch of railway lines in Tallin seems to be dead straight. I bet ZHA ground their collective teeth about that. The ZHA curvilinear style suits curvey railway lines, but a straight railway line (or for that matter a straight airport runway) can do what nothing else in the known universe can. It can enforce straight lines upon ZHA.

Context needed

Some photos are very clear. Here’s a photo. You look at it, to see straight away what it’s of. And, you do see. All is clear. It may or may not be interesting, but it is at least clear.

Other photos can be almost completely baffling, like this one, which I photoed in the summer of 2014:

I say “almost” completely baffling, because you can clearly see Big Ben in there, reflected in … whatever it’s reflected in. Reflected no less than four times. But what are all those bluey-grey and shiny shapes? Is it a car? Guess: yes. But is another car reflected in an original car? Are those shiny reflective surfaces glass or metal? But which surfaces, on what sort of car? Or cars? Side window? Back window? Maybe you can tell, but I just can’t work out what the full story is there.

This is one of those times when I badly need a back-up photo to explain what’s going on, less zoomy, with context. At least we’d know which way up we are, and what the original reflecting object consists of.

What I like best are photos in between the clear ones and the baffling ones, where you can work out what you’re looking at, but only after having given it some thought. (Examples of which may, or then again my not, follow.)

This one is of interest because, simply as an abstract pattern, this does have something going for it. The colours are nice, with the yellow Big Bens brightly lit up by the sunshine of that summer day. The shapes are nice, in a Zaha Hadid sort of way. But, what is it?


So much for logic. More World Cup torture, for England anyway. By the end, it wasn’t even close.

Looking back on it, it seems to me that what England did in this tournament was what France have done more than once in the past. England amazed everyone by beating the All Blacks and thus cleared the way for someone else to win it. Too bad it wasn’t England. I trust South Africans are suitably grateful.

I funked it again, in the sense that I watched it, but couldn’t bear to listen to what the commentators were saying. But on the plus side: my bowels were emptied more thoroughly and rather earlier than usual; I managed to set the date on a newly acquired camera; some washing up got done; various other displacement activities were accomplished, including reading early bits of this rather good book about Shakespeare; I listed more carefully than usual to parts of Record Review, which is still going now (a suitably agonised Shostakovitch string quartet). I mention such personal trivia because this is my blog, but more to the point because I have nothing to add to the rugby expertise that rugby experts will now be lavishing on this event. In a year’s time the only person reading this posting will be me, maybe.

From the look of it, England made too many mistakes, and South Africa just played better.

The soul of this blog will be transmigrating this evening

Yes. Some new sort of payment system means that this blog needs to go to a different server, or something. This shouldn’t affect all of you, but it will mean that this evening I will at some point be advised not to try to add anything to it, until the transmigration has completed itself.

So, to keep me well out of the way of this, and following my something-however-insignificant-every-day rule (which I followed yesterday also, twice), here is a link to one of those optical illusions I like to mention here from time to time, basically whenever I see one I like. This optical illusion, by turning some blue to black next to some white, turns the white yellow. Yellow that is not there but which is plainly visible. Very strange.

It isn’t Friday, which is my usual day for Cats and/or Other Creatures postings, but optical illusions like this make me wonder how the world looks to other creatures. They all see things we don’t, and we presumably see things they don’t. Could a video be made of how some Other Creature sees things, which we could then see?

Happy birthday

Happy birthday to me, that is, because today has been my 72nd birthday. Several emails have arrived noting that various Facebook friends have been wishing me a Happy Birthday. I find Facebook baffling and useless as a means of personal communication, so am unable to access any of these messages on my Facebook feed, where I can detect no sign of them. So let me say here, to Robert L, Bjorn, Tim, Rob F, among others: thanks for all the good wishes.

In this computerised era, everyone is prompted by their various machines to do this, but it still means something that they actually do it.

Also appreciated were various phone calls. It tells you something about the experience of Getting Old (see the category list below) that all of these conversations included, in among the birthday greetings, medical discussions of various bodily malfunctions and of the efforts of the NHS, such as they have been, to correct these. My various friends and family are also Getting Old, you see. Older, anyway.

The general lesson from these medical conversations seems to be: if you want the NHS to start being properly on your side, get yourself classified as an emergency. Let me clarify this. You need to be threatening to die. Then, the NHS seems to stir itself into action. But if you are merely rather damaged and you are able to get worse before death looms at all threateningly, the NHS can’t seem to persuade itself to be that interested. It focusses its attention instead on manipulating the various queues it puts you in, in order to made its statistics look better than they actually are. Basically, it tries to keep you in a queue before it allows you to join the actual Official Queue, the one it wants to keep short, and thereby make itself look good. One of the friends I spoke with today said he had recently photoed a bench in a hospital corridor with the words “SUB QUEUE” attached to it.

Birthdays, when you are rather old, remind you that you are Getting Old. Which might explain why, to celebrate my own birthday, I have, by way of giving myself a present, chosen to have a good old grumble.

Photoing up in The City

I called them “LookingUpInTheCity” but of course I was really photoing up, photoing photos like these:

Spot the Big Things.

For a photo to be included in this clutch of photos, the camera had to be really looking up. Which, or such is my preliminary ruling, there have to be things disappearing off the page, so to speak, in all directions.

I further hypothesise that this means that these photos have no up or down embedded in them. They could be rotated through 90 degrees, or 180 or 270, and we’d not know that this had happened.

The same applies, now I think about it, of photos pointing straight downwards at the ground.

I like these kind of photos for many reasons. One of them is that it turns real world things into abstract patterns. When you look at such photos, especially when you look at the small versions of them that you see in this blog posting, before you open up the photos and start clicking on them, you tend to see not recognisable Big Things, but abstract patterns, not unlike certain flags, such as the English flag and the Scottish flag.

Part of the reason we don’t recognise the Big Things so readily, and instead have to “spot” them (see above), is that we are not used to looking at them in a concentrated manner, in the way that a camera does and that my camera did, from directly below. Oh, we catch glimpses that look like this, but are not good at holding our heads still, in the required uncomfortable posture, so we don’t freeze the image.

It is a lot easier to photo such photos if you have a twiddly screen, as I always make a point of having on all the cameras I buy. With a twiddly screen, you can point your camera straight upwards, but contemplate the screen in the familiar and comfortable way, in just the same way as you would if the camera is pointing in its regular sideways sort of direction.

Strange how “look up” means two quite distinct things.

Stephen Davies on the eflorescences that were stopped and on the eflorescence that was not stopped

I continue to struggle to find ways of communicating my enthusiasm for Stephen Davies’s new book, The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity. But I now think I know one of the reasons why I am struggling.

When you want to enthuse about a book on an historical subject, you probably want also to be summarising it, so that those who read of your enthusiasm but who won’t actually be reading the book itself (what with there being so much else to read (thanks to Modernity)), at least get an idea of what the book is about and why the guy who wrote it is so worthy of praise. I have come to realise that part of the reason for my difficulty in saying how much I liked and continue to like reading The Wealth Explosion is that this book is not only itself about Modernity, but is also a heroically succinct summary, of a big clutch of debates among historians generally about Modernity. What Modernity has been and is, what made it happen when it did and where it did, whether it’s a good thing (Davies thinks it very much is a good thing (as do I)), and whether Modernity will continue. That sort of thing. Almost every paragraph of this book is quotable, because it says so much, and alludes to so much, about so much, with so few words.

Here is a fascinatingly typical example of what I mean, which is to be found under the heading “Why the Later Eighteenth Century” (pp, 53-55):

… [T]here are two big questions that any explanatory account of modernity has to address and try to answer. The first is chronology. Why did the elements of modernity start to occur in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century and not before? One obvious argument is that the critical factor. whatever it might be. appeared just before the takeoff and so led to it directly – this might be the cultural and intellectual changes posited by Mokyr and McCloskey for example. There are however other candidates for that role. Many authors however reject this and argue that the breakthrough after 1750 had deeper roots. going back into previous history.

This is a challenging argument to make at first sight, given that what we have to explain is not a change produced by a continuous process but rather one where there is a sudden change of gear or state that took place in a relatively short pace of time by historical standards. One way is to argue that what we have is a slow, cumulative process that at a particular point in time reached a tipping point where there was a sudden shift to a different level and kind of change. An analogy would be a pot of water on a stove. The temperature of the water will rise slowly but the change from water to water to steam will happen in a matter of minutes once boiling point arrives.

An even closer analogy is that of a primitive atomic pile: as more and more blocks of fuel are added to the pile nothing much happens at first apart from a gradual rise in heat until suddenly there is a critical mass of fuel, i.e. enough material in sufficiently close proximity to sustain a continuous chain reaction. This means that the breakthrough to modernity could not happen anywhere until the various preconditions were in place (either locally or globally) and that this came about as the result of a gradual build-up. Therefore, for example, Julian Simon argues that the key factor was simply the number of people and that the population levels needed for all of the other changes were not reached
until the later eighteenth century and could not have been sustained earlier because of the inability to mechanise agriculture in any significant way.

The other approach is to argue that the breakthrough to modernity could have happened earlier and may even have started to happen, but was stopped. Eric Jones for example argues strongly for this approach. He points out that the central phenomena of intensive growth and innovation are, or should be, the natural result of economic exchange. Moreover we do indeed see them arising at various points in history before the eighteenth century. The biggest example (for which see the next chapter) was China under the Song dynasty and indeed at some other points in its history but there are other instances, such as the central Middle East under the early Abbasids in the eighth and ninth centuries, or the classical Mediterranean civilisation during both the second century AD and the Hellenic era after the death of Alexander. In addition there are also episodes throughout history of what we may call ‘ages of reason’, which see the development and articulation of materialist and sceptical thought – these can be found in the history of China, the Islamic world, India, and classical civilisation. (Their extent is often underestimated because frequently little has survived of their written work because of later reactions).

The point here is that we have earlier episodes of many of the central features of the modern revolution, such as intensive growth, technological innovation, and the ideas of critical rationalism but that these ‘eflorescences’ (as Jack Goldstone calls them) were not sustained. Instead, something choked them off. This is of course compatible with the first approach – the fact that these episodes were not sustained would on that view show that there was, by analogy, not enough fuel in the reactor to keep the chain reaction going. The alternative is, to continue the analogy, that there was already enough ‘fuel’ in the ‘reactor’ long before the reaction finally sustained itself in the later eighteenth century but that before then there was a control mechanism (analogous to the absorbent control rods in an actual reactor) that suppressed the process and stopped it from continuing when it could have.

This explanation in turn can take two different forms. One is that the ‘controls’ that prevented such earlier episodes from sustaining themselves were features of the social, political, and economic order of traditional societies that could have been changed but were not, for various reasons. The strongest candidate is the set of institutions described in the previous chapter, which arose as a response to the Malthusian constraints facing traditional agricultural societies, along with the need to have between eighty and ninety per cent of the population engaged in agriculture. These social practices and institutions seem to have proved very resilient and they had the effect, above all, of preventing sustained innovation. The other way of explaining the termination of ‘eflorescences’ is to emphasise, in addition to wider social obstacles, deliberate policy by rulers or rather the way that the interests of certain social groups and above all ruling classes led them to follow a course that had the effect of terminating such episodes and making them less likely to start in the first place. This is the view of a number of scholars such as Goldstone himself, Eric Jones, and Mark Elvin. The key historical episode for those who take this view is that of China under the Song and it is the failure of that particular ‘efflorescence’ to sustain itself that has attracted the most attention.

The above is one of a number of passages in The Wealth Explosion where Davies is (to me) irritatingly coy about the ways these eflorescences ran out of puff. Let me give the game away. Europe, at the moment when it mattered, was politically divided, while all those other places, and China in particular, was not. China’s rulers could and did end their eflorescence. Europe’s rulers couldn’t, and because they continued competing with one they instead encouraged their eflorescence to continue. Hence the wealth explosion of the tile of this book.

I supplied another slightly longer summary, complete with the punch line that Davies keeps omitting, in this posting at Samizdata.

On the above matter, I wish that Davies had been less succinct. Consider the bit where he says – in brackets, like it’s just a throwaway thought – this:

(Their extent is often underestimated because frequently little has survived of their written work because of later reactions).

These eflorescences, in other words, were a bigger deal than most people think, even quite educated people, because the memory of them was deliberately expunged. I would have liked a whole chapter about the various eflorescences he’s talking about, together with much more in the way of argument to effect that they were indeed big deals, and that lots of evidence of their bigness was indeed expunged. As it is, we have to make do with the one fascinating chapter about just one of these eflorescences, the one that efloresced in Song China. But the scale and significance of each of these eflorescences is central to what this book is all about. Modernity did not get created only in Europe. Modernity was created all over the place. Europe is merely where Modernity was not suppressed.

Read more bits from this terrific book here, here, and here.


Kassy Dillon:

I’m voting for Trump but I wouldn’t be friends with Trump. I’m not voting for Yang but I’d definitely be his friend.

I have no idea who or what Kassy Dillon is, but I think this is an important distinction.

Which is not the same as saying that I would definitely like having this “Yang” character as a friend, or wouldn’t like having Trump as a friend. The point is that voting for someone and befriending someone are two different things.

Trump tweets: “I’m OK with that!” Which is how I heard about this.