A rearrangement

Around three days ago, GodDaughter2 and I fixed to meet up, face to face, for the first time since Lockdown began, and before she disappears to the South of France for a month. We agreed on: Royal College of Music, 2pm. I would have preferred somewhere different, like somewhere nearer to where she’s been living over the summer (Acton), because I like having reasons to journey to and photo new places, and because the College is a bit of a walk from South Kensington tube and a walk I’ve now done many times. Also, a couple of hours later would be better, because I’m a lazy old bastard. Plus, I don’t mind long train journeys because I can sit and read a book, undistracted by the Internet, which I don’t do nearly enough of. But what the hell, RCM 2pm it is.

But, this morning, an email from GD2 arrives. She’s running a bit behind, and could we possibly (grovel grovel xxx) make it Acton Central Overground Station, 4pm?

Yes. I can do that. No problem. It’ll be fine.

Whatever I say in such circumstances will sound like a polite lie and a big old sacrifice, even though it’s nothing of the kind. Sometimes, when your Jewish Mother says to you: “Don’t you worry about me, I’ll be fine”, what she really means is: “Don’t you worry about me, I’ll be fine.”

Flying cars are stupid

Apparently some idiots in Japan have tested something they describe as a flying car. What it really is is an aircraft capable of lifting a car. Big bloody deal. Why would you want to combine a car with an aircraft? They’re two different things. Cars are compact, to avoid occupying too much road. Aircraft reach outwards into the air, with big propellers or with big wings, to grab hold of the air and push themselves upwards. Two totally different things. Oh, you can build a “flying car”, that is to say a car which always carries a huge set of wings or propellers around with it. To put it another way, you can make an airplane capable of travelling on a very long runway shared with lots of other vehicles, by, you know, folding up its wings or propellers really really tightly. Yes. And you can make a baby pram that can also mow your lawn, really quietly so as not to enrage the baby. You can make a toaster that can also do the ironing. You can make an umbrella that doubles up as a snooker cue. But what the hell is the point of doing two such distantly related things, both very badly? Why not just do each thing separately, and each thing well?

I tried googling “flying cars are stupid”, for the first time just now. The least silly thing I read was this called that exact thing, by someone called James McNab. McNab ignores the point I just made and makes a whole other point, which is that flying cars would need to be driven by people as careful and skilful as pilots are now, rather than people as careful and skilful as car drivers are now. “You can’t handle flying cars!”, is how he puts it, referring to that movie where Jack Nicholson says “You can’t handle the truth!” Which, now I think about it is actually the same point as my point, but put in another way. Why waste a pilot driving a mere bus with hideously low mileage for half his working day, merely because, if you are rich enough and stupid enough, you could preside over such an arrangement? Makes no sense. We’re back to cars and planes being different.

Another big flying car idiocy is that flying cars will get rid of traffic jams. No, they’ll just create bigger and jammier traffic jams in the sky.

McNab also makes another point, which concerns why people who ponder innovation often start thinking that innovation has slowed down and may soon stop.

One source of innovation pessimism would be if you “invent” something that you think ought to have happened by now, like a flying car, note that it still does not exist, and say that therefore “innovation” itself has stopped. No mate. It was just a stupid idea, that did not happen for bloody good reasons. There’s plenty of non-stupid innovation going on nowadays. You are just fixating on stupid stuff. McNab accuses Peter Thiel, no less, of this non sequitur, when he goes from the non-arrival of flying cars to the slowing down of all innovation.

Interestingly, the writer of a book called The Rational Optimist has since written a book about innovation which ends rather pessimistically, in just this kind of way that McNab talks about. Matt Ridley’s fixation is on genetically modified crops, which don’t now work as well as they could because a lot of governments don’t like them. But those same governments have allowed plenty of other new stuff to happen. One of the features of a successful innovation is that it doesn’t piss off politicians too much. It sneaks under the political radar, and by the time the politicians have noticed it, the people already have millions of the things.

As you can surely tell, I am stream-of-consciousness-ing about this, thinking in internetted words. Which is one of the things this blog is for.

Woodcat and Oscar

Am I becoming a cat lady in my old age? Probably. Although it may be more that, as I get older, I become less bothered about pretending not to be a cat lady, having always been one.

That’s Oscar, and a wooden cat, photoed just as I was about to leave GodDaughter2’s family in the South of France last January, and head for Carcassonne airport and back to London. I was all packed up and read to go, and waiting. So I filled the time photoing the two cats in question.

The reason I show so many photos of this photo-session is that if I merely showed you one of the last two, of Oscar next to Woodcat, you’d be assuming that Oscar was there, and I put Woodcat next to him. But, the above chronologically displayed photos show that I was photoing Woodcat, who remained immobile throughout, and then Oscar joined in. Rather obligingly, I think.

Two videos I enjoyed

Both of them quite short, and both of them reached via favourite bloggers.

First, one of David Thompson’s clutch of oddities linked to last Friday. (There’ll presumably be more such tomorrow.) This particular addity was about Who invented toast? As Matt Ridley (whose book about innovation I’ve been reading recently) would have predicted, lots of people. Toasting took a long time to catch on, as did the toaster. Key step towards it: mechanically sliced bread. Both had early drawbacks as well as advantages and were consequently slow to catch on.

And at 6k, watch a video about Iceland, and the matter of whether the Arctic Circle happens and will continue to happen in Iceland. The Arctic Circle moves, apparently. Whether the arctic circle happens and will continue to happen in Iceland depends on whether a very small island to the north of the main island of Iceland is still above water. My favourite bit in this video went something like this: “The only way to find out was to charter an airplane. So, I chartered an airplane.”

“War” in the category list below because Iceland and Britain had one about cod.

Quota photo of a sign about Croydon Spaceport

Whatever that is.

Busy day ahead. That to-do list (see previous posting) is already demanding that I go off and do various things, which leaves little time for blogging now.

So, quota photo time, and it’s very strange:

I already like the building, but I tried internet searching about this Croydon Spaceport stuff, and am not much the wiser. Basically, I can’t tell how serious they’re being. Are they promoting Croydon, which is a place I’ve always loved? Or space exploration, which I also strongly favour? Either way I’m for it, but am still a bit baffled.

No time to do much linking now, but may add some links later.

LATER: I am none the wiser.

Taxis-with-adverts photoed five years ago

For quite a while now, I have been curious as to when my habit of photoing taxis-with-adverts kicked in. I’m still not sure, but by August 2015 (August 15th 2015 to be exact) this habit had evidently become well established, because on that one day, I photoed all of these photos:

Why do I like such taxis? Why do I like photoing them? And why do I like displaying arrays of such photos here at my blog? Similar, yet different. Identical shapes, but highly variable decor. I’m sure there must be some sort of psychological test that could be inflicted upon me, basically one for identifying nutters (“people with mental health issues” seems to be the latest iteration of such parlance), in which I would score heavily enough to cause a bit of concern, more so than if most of you mere readers of BMNB were made to take such a test.

Regular commenter here Alastair said of an earlier such taxis-with-adverts array that some sort of art might be contrived with these photos. My first reaction when I read that was that this was merely a polite way of saying what I just said in my previous paragraph, given what art often is these days. But Alastair had something political in mind, concerning how privileged and capitalistic these taxis are, in whom they serve and in what they advertise.

But my interest in taxis with adverts is aesthetic. I simply like how they look. Out there in the streets of London, and in my photos.

Home cinema is just so much better than regular cinema

And David Burge tweets one of the many ways in which this is true:

I’ll go back to movie theaters when they install pause & rewind buttons.

To be boringly pedantic, this wouldn’t make things any better, because presumably, in a cinema, everyone would have to have this right. Burge’s idea only makes sense if I have this facility, but nobody else does. But if everyone has it, nightmare, for everyone else. I know, he was only kidding. He identifies a real and serious problem, then cracks a joke about how it could be solved, which he knows wouldn’t work.

Aside from the above insoluble problem, the other insoluble problems with regular cinema type cinemas are: “home cinema” screens have got massively bigger, better and cheaper in recent years; “home cinema” content is infinite and chosen by you; home is much easier to get to from home; home is a much nicer place. And I’m sure there are several other totally deal-breaking drawbacks to “cinema cinema” that I’ve not mentioned because they’re so obvious I couldn’t even think of them.

Matt Ridley tells how vaccination became established in England

I have started reading Matt Ridley’s book about How Innovation Works. Here (pages 50-55) is his description of how vaccinating people against smallpox went from being fiercely criticised by the medical experts of the time, to becoming standard medical practice:

In the same year that Thomas Newcomen was building his first steam engine, 1712, and not far away, a more romantic episode was in train, and one that would indirectly save even more lives. It was much higher up the social scale. Lady Mary Pierrepoint, a well-read, headstrong young woman of twenty-three, was preparing to elope in order to escape the prospect of a dull marriage. Her wealthy suitor, Edward Wortley Montagu, with whom she had carried on a voluminous correspondence characterized by furious disagreement as well as outrageous flirtation, had failed to agree a marriage settlement with her even wealthier father, the Earl (later Duke) of Kingston. But the prospect of being forced by her father to marry instead a pecunious dullard, the Honourable Clotworthy Skeffington, persuaded Mary to rekindle the romance with Wortley (as she called him). She proposed elopement, and he, despite thus missing out on her dowry, and in a fit of uncharacteristic impetuosity, agreed. The episode turned to farce: he was late, she set off for the rendezvous alone, he overtook her at an inn but did not realize she was there, but after further mishaps they found each other and married on 15 October 1712 in Salisbury.

After this romantic start the marriage was a disappointment, Wortley proving a cold and unimaginative husband. His bride – learned, eloquent and witty – cut a swathe through literary London, writing eclogues with Alexander Pope in the style of Virgil, and befriending the literary lions and social tigers of the day. Joseph Spence would later write: ‘Lady Mary is one of the most extraordinary shining characters in the world; but she shines like a comet; she is all irregular and always wandering. She is the most wise, most imprudent; loveliest, disagreeablest; best natured, cruellest woman in the world.’

Then smallpox marked her skin and made her reputation. This vicious virus, humankind’s greatest killer, was constantly a threat in early-eighteenth-century London. It had recently killed Queen Mary and her nephew, the young Duke of Gloucester, the last Stuart heir to the throne who was not Catholic; it had almost killed the Electress of Hanover, Sophia, and her son George, destined to be the next king of England instead. It killed Lady Mary’s brother in 1714 and very nearly killed her the next year, leaving her badly scarred and lacking in eyelashes, her beauty cruelly ravaged.

But it was smallpox that would bring her lasting fame, for she became one of the first, and certainly one of the most passionate, champions in the Western world of the innovative practice of inoculation. In 1716 her husband was sent as ambassador to Constantinople and Lady Mary accompanied him with her young son. She did not invent inoculation, she did not even bring the news of it for the first time, but being a woman she was able to witness in detail the practice among women cloistered in Ottoman society, and then to champion it back home among mothers terrified for their children, to the point where it caught on. She was an innovator, not an inventor.

Two reports had reached the Royal Society in London from Constantinople of the practice of ‘engrafting’ as a cure for smallpox. According to the correspondents, Emmanuel Timonius and Giacomo Pylarini, both physicians working in the Ottoman Empire, the pus from a smallpox survivor would be mixed with the blood in a scratch on the arm of a healthy person. The reports were published by the Royal Society but dismissed as dangerous superstition by all the experts in London. More likely to spark an epidemic than prevent it; an unconscionable risk to be running with people’s health; an old wives’ tale; witchcraft. Given the barbaric and unhelpful practices of doctors at the time, such as bloodletting, this was both ironic and perhaps understandable.

It seems the Royal Society had been told of the practice even earlier, in 1700, by two correspondents in China, Martin Lister and Clopton Havers. So there was nothing new about this news. But where these doctors failed to persuade the British, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had better luck. On 1 April 1718 she wrote to her friend Sarah Chiswell from Turkey with a detailed account of inoculation:

The smallpox, so fatal and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of engrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of women who make it their business to perform the operation … When they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of smallpox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much venom as can lie upon the head of her needle … There is no example of anyone that has died in it, and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of the experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England.

Lady Mary did indeed engraft her son Edward, anxiously watching his skin erupt in self-inflicted pustules before subsiding into immunized health. It was a brave moment. On her return to London she inoculated her daughter as well, and became infamous for her championing of the somewhat reckless procedure – a sort of version of the trolley problem so beloved of moral philosophers: do you divert a runaway truck from a line where it will kill five people to another line where it will kill one? Do you deliberately take one risk to avoid a greater one? By then, some doctors had joined the cause, notably Charles Maitland. His inoculation of the children of the Prince of Wales in 1722 was a significant moment in the campaign. But even afterwards there was furious denunciation of the barbaric practice. Misogyny and prejudice lay behind some of it, as when Dr William Wagstaffe pronounced: ‘Posterity will scarcely be brought to believe that an experiment practised only by a few ignorant women amongst an illiterate and unthinking people should on a sudden – and upon a slender Experience – so far obtain in one of the politest nations in the world as to be received into the Royal Palace.’

In America, the practice of inoculation arrived around the same time, through the testimony of an African slave named Onesimus, who told the Boston preacher Cotton Mather about it, possibly as early as 1706, who in turn informed the physician Zabdiel Boylston. For trying inoculation on 300 people, Boylston was subject to fierce criticism and life-threatening violence, abetted by rival physicians to the point where he had to hide for fourteen days in a secret closet lest the mob kill him. Innovation often requires courage.

In due course inoculation with smallpox itself – later known as variolation – was replaced by the safer but similar practice of vaccination, that is to say, using a related but less dangerous virus than smallpox, an innovation usually credited to Edward Jenner. In 1796 he deliberately infected an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, with cowpox from blisters on the hands of a milkmaid called Sarah Nelmes, who had caught it from a cow called Blossom. He then tried to infect Phipps with smallpox itself and showed that he was immune to it. This demonstration proof, not the vaccination itself, was his real contribution and the reason he had such an impact. The idea of deliberately giving people cowpox to immunize them against smallpox was by then already thirty years old. It had been tried by a physician named John Fewster in 1768, and by several other doctors in Germany and England in the 1770s. It was already probably in use among farmers before that date.

So, yet again, innovation proves to be gradual and to begin with the unlettered and ordinary people, before the elite takes the credit. That is perhaps a little unfair on Jenner, who, like Lady Mary Wortley, deserves fame for persuading the world to adopt the practice. Napoleon, despite being at war with Britain, had his armies vaccinated, on the strength of Jenner’s advocacy, and awarded Jenner a medal, calling him ‘one of the greatest benefactors of mankind’.

Elon Musk’s rockets are cheap because he wants them to be cheap

I have had this article open (see this) for quite a while, and I now see that it dates back to January 2012. What a difference it makes when you can dig up old articles like this. I learned a lot from reading this, which is perhaps because I am now playing catch-up concerning Elon Musk and his many activities, and this piece feels like it was written when a lot of people were first learning about this guy.

In addition to being about Elon Musk, this piece focuses in on why Musk’s rockets cost so much less than the regular rockets that the US government has been buying up until now for its space endeavours. It turns out it’s not been rocket science. Basically, they are cheap because Musk is the first person who has tried to make them cheap:

United Launch Alliance, the consortium of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that produces both the Delta and the Atlas, does not make its prices public. But budget documents show that in 2010 the EELV program received $1.14 billion for three rockets—an average of $380 million per launch. And prices are expected to rise significantly in the next few years, according to defense department officials. Why? Musk says a lot of the answer is in the government’s traditional “cost-plus” contracting system, which ensures that manufacturers make a profit even if they exceed their advertised prices. “If you were sitting at a n executive meeting at Boeing and Lockheed and you came up with some brilliant idea to reduce the cost of Atlas or Delta, you’d be fired,” he says. “Because you’ve got to go report to your shareholders why you made less money. So their incentive is to maximize the cost of a vehicle, right up to the threshold of cancellation.”

I recall once upon a time GodDaughter1’s Dad, who is a structural engineer, telling me how depressed he was that his firm got paid not according to how much extra effort and cleverness they put into designing good structures, but according to how much concrete and steel they wasted, by not putting in that extra effort and cleverness. The good news was that, like Elon Musk, he and his mates were trying to change that.

See also this earlier posting here and in particular Michael J’s comment on it. Musk is now covering himself in glory. Boeing and Lockheed are covering themselves in something else.

Big red bike

I seem now to be following the rule here, for the duration of You Know What, of two postings or more a day rather than just the one. So, here is a quotor, to adapt a word, motorbike.

I think we can all agree that this motorbike, the one on the right of the two, is a Honda Goldwing:

I photoed this motorbike in the town of Vannes, on the south coast of Brittany. The French do love their giant midlife crisis motorbikes, and I do love to photo these motorbikes.

My family used to holiday at a place called Saint Gildas, which is near to Vannes, so I visited Vannes a few tunes as a kid. When in Quimper in 2014, I went back to see it again.

See also the first comment, from Rob, at this posting, which included a yellow version of the above, that I encountered in London in 2013.