The photo with the ingredients of the Photo and the actual Photo

The photo with the ingredients of the Photo:

The actual Photo:

What we have here, photoed five years and a day ago, is one of those window cleaning cranes, and the Moon. In the first photo there, we see all the ingredients, but this is not the Photo itself. It is merely the photo with the ingredients that went into the actual Photo.

Very little is said about window cleaning cranes, and the aesthetics of window cleaning cranes. Yet they often become the biggest feature in a particular scene.

I just wrote the sentence: “There is nothing temporary about them”, concerning these window cranes, but that’s not right. Sometimes they reach up out of their buildings, spread themselves, and dominate the scene. But somethings they fold themselves up into almost nothing. Or, they literally hide themselves inside their buildings, and become nothing.

They are invisible to some, because if you pick the right moment, they are invisible, nearly so or completely so.

They are not invisible to me.

Steven Johnson’s history of what we do for fun

Tell ’em what you’re going to say, tell ’em, tell ’em what you said. I believe that’s the formula that many preachers follow when they give their sermons. The bit from a book below is from the “tell ’em what you’re going to say” bit, in other words the Introduction (pp. 8-11), of Steven Johnson’s Wonderland, which I ordered from Amazon back in October, and am now starting to dip into:

Delight is a word that is rarely invoked as a driver of historical change. History is usually imagined as a battle for survival, for power, for freedom, for wealth. At best, the world of play and amusement belongs to the side bars of the main narrative: the spoils of progress, the surplus that civilizations enjoy once the campaigns for freedom and affluence have been won. But imagine you are an observer of social and technological trends in the second half of the eighteenth century, and you are trying to predict the truly seismic developments that would define the next three centuries. The programmable pen of Jaquet-Droz’s Writer – or Merlin’s dancer and her “irresistible eyes” – would be as telling a clue about that future as anything happening in Parliament or on the battlefield, foreshadowing the rise of mechanized labor, the digital revolution, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

This book is an extended argument for that kind of clue: a folly, dismissed by many as a mindless amusement, that turns out to be a kind of artifact from the future. This is a history of play, a history of the pastimes that human beings have concocted to amuse themselves as an escape from the daily grind of subsistence. This is a history of what we do for fun. One measure of human progress is how much recreational time many of us now have, and the immensely varied ways we have of enjoying it. A time-traveler from five centuries ago would be staggered to see just how much real estate in the modern world is devoted to the wonderlands of parks, coffee shops, sports arenas, shopping malls, IMAX theaters: environments specifically designed to entertain and delight us. Experiences that were once almost exclusively relegated to society’s elites have become commonplace to all but the very poorest members of society. An average middle-class family in Brazil or Indonesia takes it for granted that their free time can be spent listening to music, marveling at elaborate special effects in Hollywood movies, shopping for new fashions in vast palaces of consumption, and savoring the flavors of cuisines from all over the world. Yet we rarely pause to consider how these many luxuries came to be a feature of everyday life.

History is mostly told as a long fight for the necessities, not the luxuries: the fight for freedom, equality, safety, self-governance. Yet the history of delight matters, too, because so many of these seemingly trivial discoveries ended up triggering changes in the realm of Serious History. I have called this phenomenon “the hummingbird effect”: the process by which an innovation in one field sets in motion transformations in seemingly unrelated fields. The taste for coffee helped create the modern institutions of journalism; a handful of elegantly decorated fabric shops helped trigger the industrial revolution. When human beings create and share experiences designed to delight or amaze, they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns. We owe a great deal of the modern world to people doggedly trying to solve a high-minded problem: how to construct an internal combustion engine or manufacture vaccines in large quantities. But a surprising amount of modernity has its roots in another kind of activity: people mucking around with magic, toys, games, and other seemingly idle pastimes. Everyone knows the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but if you do a paternity test on many of the modern world’s most important ideas or institutions, you will find, invariably, that leisure and play were involved in the conception as well.

Although this account contains its fair share of figures like Charles Babbage – well-to-do Europeans tinkering with new ideas in their parlors – it is not just a story about the affluent West. One of the most intriguing plot twists in the story of leisure and delight is how many of the devices or materials originated outside of Europe: those mesmerizing automata from the House of Wisdom, the intriguing fashions of calico and chintz imported from India, the gravity-defying rubber balls invented by Mesoamericans, the clove and nutmeg first tasted by remote Indonesian islanders. In many ways, the story of play is the story of the emergence of a truly cosmopolitan worldview, a world bound together by the shared experiences of kicking a ball around on a field or sipping a cup of coffee. The pursuit of pleasure turns out to be one of the very first experiences to stitch together a global fabric of shared culture, with many of the most prominent threads originating outside Western Europe.

I should say at the outset that this history deliberately excludes some of life’s most intense pleasures-including sex and romantic love. Sex has been a central force in human history; without sex, there is no human history. But the pleasure of sex is bound up in deep-seated biological drives. The desire for emotional and physical connections with other humans is written into our DNA, however complex and variable our expression of that drive may be. For the human species, sex is a staple, not a luxury. This history is an account of less utilitarian pleasures; habits and customs and environments that came into being for no apparent reason other than the fact that they seemed amusing or surprising. (In a sense, it is a history that follows Brian Eno’s definition of culture as “all the things we don’t have to do.”) Looking at history through this lens demands a different emphasis on the past: exploring the history of shopping as a recreational pursuit instead of the history of commerce writ large; following the global path of the spice trade instead of the broader history of agriculture and food production. There are a thousand books written about the history of innovations that came out of our survival instincts. This is a book about a different kind of innovation: the new ideas and technologies and social spaces that emerged once some of us escaped from the compulsory labor of subsistence.

The centrality of play and delight does not mean that these stories are free of tragedy and human suffering. Some of the most appalling epochs of slavery and colonization began with a new taste or fabric developing a market, and unleashed a chain of brutal exploitation to satisfy that market’s demands. The quest for delight transformed the world, but it did not always transform it for the better.

The old black router and the new white router – from normal style back to nerd style

No time for much here today, although I have today done more than I usually do in the way of commenting. Much of the day was spent snoozing in bed while The Guru sorted out the outage, and then with me catching up on all the emails I had failed to respond to sooner.

But, I am at least able to record for posterity the evil behaviour of the black and black-hearted router, the one looking like the one in the picture on the left of these two, which waited until it learned I had lung cancer and then decided that then was the perfect time for it to conk out. Just after Christmas. During Lockdown:

On the right, the new white knight in shining white plastic armour, which, today, in the hands of The Guru, rescued me. Actual photo by me of the actual thing.

On a slightly more serious note, I am interested by the aesthetic direction of the move from the old router to the new one.

I usually expect the aesthetics of electronic gadgetry to go from, in the early days of a gadget, nerd-style looking-like-something-curvey-out-of-a-Star-Wars-battle-fleet, to normal rectangular black box, once the normals get involved in buying it directly, as a commodity that they actually sort of understand. I recall CD players in cheap arrays of not-very-hi-fi treading this path, from freakish to straight black boxes you could pile up easily with all the other related devices. Yet in this case, the direction went from normal to nerd. I wonder why.

And that thought is all I can manage to do here today.

Happy New Year to all my readers and to any others passing by, what with things here having become that little bit more interesting over the last few days.

Piece at Samizdata about the diagnosis/treatment imbalance in the NHS

Not much here today, what with yesterday’s dramas, but I have just ripped off a Samizdata piece, based on my recent medical experiences, entitled On the British National Health Service imbalance between lethargic diagnosis and really rather good actual treatment of serious medical conditions.

It features a link to this mighty beast:

That’s “Brunel”. Brunel has been giving me my first actual doses of cancer treatment, the third dose having been this afternoon. Two more, tomorrow and on the 31st. These treatments have been merely defensive, to stop my spine being damaged by the lung cancer tumor. Next week, if all proceeds as I hope, the actual attack on the tumor and on its spreading consequences will get under way.

Merry Christmas – no sarcasm intended

On Christmas Day and the days surrounding it, my trickle of readers becomes even less of a trickle than usual, so the chances are that you are reading this posting, if at all, not on Christmas day itself, but rather some time in early January, doing a catch-up of what I have babbled and blogged about over Christmas, just as it is your occasional habit to do a catch-up of recent stuff here at other times of the year.

Nevertheless, if you are one of the self-selected few reading this today, only minutes or hours after I posted it, I wish you in particular a very …:

As I reported yesterday, I did a little walkabout yesterday morning, and I walked past many shops. But I didn’t see any signs saying things like that. How could you say that, in the window of your shop, totally closed for the duration, without sounding sarcastic and getting just broken glass or graffiti for saying such a thing? Or worse, of appearing to accuse passers-by of being the kind of heartless bastards who intend to have a merry Christmas and screw the rest of humanity? You couldn’t. Maybe its different in the less affluent parts of London, but in my vicinity, “Merry Christmas” is surely being spoken quietly but it is not being publicly proclaimed, in lights or in any other way.

Which means that above photo is from my photo-archive, having been photoed (in or next to (guess) the then still rather new Victoria Station shopping appendage) in the run-up to Christmas 2010.

I have other Christmassy things that I may or may not get around to reporting from my walkabout yesterday morning, but I just wanted to get that basic message up and posted, especially, as I say, if you are reading this on the actual day itself. Merry Christmas. You won’t want to go around shouting this in the streets to strangers, as I have myself sometimes done in the small hours of Christmas morning when returning home on foot from a Christmas Eve feast with friends. But, I hope you are having one nevertheless.

Keeping up appearances (however odd they were) just off Sloane Square

Here are a couple of photos I photoed earlier in the month, of a rather handsome building just off Sloane Square, just past the tube station as you leave, in the direction of Pimlico, Victoria and such places:

A moment later, I tried photoing a detail at the top of the building, of where the top of the tower seems to collide with the big rectangular chimney under a row of chimney pots. Seems being the word, because you cannot tell from my photo, any more than you can from looking at the photos above.

But my closer-ups didn’t solve the problem. They merely magnified it. Memo to self, blah blah. Go back and check it out.

Well, today I did just that. I was in a bus and in no mood to get off it. I wanted to be home. But luckily for me, the state of the traffic stopped the bus and I was able to photo the exact detail that I earlier didn’t photo properly. It helped that this time around, the light was in the right place:

There was photoshop-cloning in both of the above, but we’re not talking my prowess as a photoer, we’re talking architectural detail, and my photoshop-cloning made things clearer.

I don’t know quite what to make of this. Best guess, the chimney basically has the right of way, because without it the machine-for-living-in that this building is doesn’t work so well. But, that little top-of-the-tower thing has nowhere else to go except to bury itself in the chimney, while actually, in reality being brushed aside by it. Whatever exactly we are looking at, it’s decidedly odd.

It is also unclear whether this is an old building or a fake old building, or maybe a hybrid in the form of a painstakingly restored-exactly-as-was old building.

I say this because a year or two ago, this is how it was looking. This being posting with photos that show a lot of activity going on in what became the inside of this new building. I’m guessing, although it’s only a guess, that they only got planning permission if they left the previous exterior untouched. But this was very hard to contrive, give what they wanted to do behind that exterior. In short, a lot. So they said, can we smash it all down and then build a new building with an exterior that looks exactly like the old one? And that was okay, provided it was exactly like that. So that’s what they did, right up to and including the way this chimney collides with this roof top thingy.

It’s a bit unfair to call this “roof clutter” (as I do in the category list below), but what else can I call it? Maybe a new category is due called Rooves? Or is it Roofs?

On further reflection, I think that what this strange little circumstance shows is that chimney pots have swung wildly back and forth from being just severely practical, towards being highly ornamental (as well as practical) and then back again. Which means that umpiring between a plainly decorative tower top and a chimney gets very … odd.

Or something. Not sure. Just amused.

Crowd scenes

I’ve never been that interested in crowd scenes, until Sod’s Law swung into action and banned them.

So I went trawling through the archives, and to see if I could find any. I found … a few:

Tate Modern 2004, Hampstead Heath 2005, Farnborough 2912;
Trafalgar Square NFL gathering 2011, Blackheath Concert 2018, View from Tower Bridge 2019;
The Dome 2019, Bryan Caplan Lecture London 2019, South of France classical concert 2020.

That’s the trick of photoing. You need to know what is, at any particular time, temporary. In a few years time, I sincerely hope, crowd scenes will seem the most natural thing in the world. Again.

Wooden sheep out east

So there I was, out east, exploring what was happening to the canals in the Bow, Hackney Wick part of London, photoing photos like this, …:

When, rather suddenly, I came upon this:

All that grubbing around the canal being to create the sort of place where Desirable Apartments can be constructed, and Desirable Apartments need Desirable Sheep Sculptures.

Have you noticed how upmarket sculpture, and also upmarket toys, made of wood, make it very clear that they are made of wood? The woodenness is emphasised. Downmarket sculpture, and downmarket toys, are as realistic as they can be made to be, with the how of it left entirely behind. I veer into toys, because this sheep looks a lot like a toy, I think.

I see a connection between this emphasising of the particular material that the Thing is made of, in sculpture and toys, with Impressionism. Posh paintings, like Impressionist Paintings, make it clear that they are indeed paintings, made of paint, as well as paintings of something. I mean, take a close-up look. Paint! Paintings for peasants just look as much like what they are trying to be of as possible.

Another courtyard photo

This photo, from 2004, is another one I enjoyed encountering again. See also these photos.

I appreciate that, for you, it is nothing special. To you it is just some people doing some fairly insignificant and undisruptive work, in a courtyard:

But, this is my courtyard, and the contrast between how my courtyard usually looks and how my courtyard looks in the above photo is, to me, pretty dramatic.

Also, the improvements that these good people were contriving were of direct benefit to me, making the process of putting out my rubbish significantly less depressing and actually even rather enjoyable, because my courtyard ceased from being depressing and became a nice place to visit. This was, and is, no small thing.

The chaos from which buildings arise

It is the sundrenched late afternoon of April 21st 2009, and they’re busy building something:

What I’m getting at with the above imagery is:

(1) This is a construction site, and these people clearly know what they are doing. Constructions almost always turn out exactly as planned.

And:

(2) Look at the state of it!!!

I recognise various individual bits of tech there, like the reinforcing rod tubes, and that big blue propeller for digging holes, to put such things as reinforcing rod tubes in. But all that stuff jammed together in a confined space like that? It looks like someone’s attic for goodness sake.

Yet, it was from this outdoor attic that there duly emerged … the Shard.