Sun, 25 Sep 2016
Traquair Murals

I was recently in Edinburgh again, and visited the Traquair center again.

This is to see the great Phoebe Anna Traquair murals of course. I've been here before but I could come back again and again to see them. Beautiful and inspiring. They're only open a few days a year (more during the festival), so it is worth timing your visit. The open day schedule is on their web site.

More on my visit to the city later, I always manage to cram in a lot of culture, and coffee!

Sat, 17 Sep 2016
Permuting the Human

Permutation City
By Greg Egan

Greg Egan writes a form of science-fiction often labelled as "hard", meaning that he's careful to use believable science close to what we think is real or possible, at least potentially. It might also mean that his work is sometimes quite difficult to understand. Having to think a little is a good thing sometimes though.

Permutation City concerns a mid-21st Century future where we can scan ourselves and create a digital "Copy" running on a computer. This is not a new concept of course, but it is explored in new, and sometimes slightly unsettling ways by Egan. Your flesh and blood self might die, and your "Copy" is all that's left of you. Is it "you"? What if your "Copy" decides to clone or copy itself, running another copy, perhaps in a simulated computing system inside a computer.

In this world, after being scanned, you wake up with a marker pen message scrawled on your arm : "you are not the copy". If you wake and look for this message, expecting to find it but don't?

I really enjoyed this novel, even though I had to stop trying to understand the "theory" behind a lot of it (Egan has a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page for some of this stuff). To me, it is a "mind-blowing" type of book: something that makes me think about odd scientific and existential concepts. Philosophy as well. I think this is a worthwhile thing to do.

The first novel I read by Egan was Diaspora, another far-out, mind-bending bit of science-fiction. The first dozen pages were hard going as I tried to get my brain around what was actually happening. From the synopsis :

In 2975, the orphan Yatima is grown from a randomly mutated digital mind seed in the conceptory of Konishi polis.

Not your average novel, but science-fiction does throw up some amazing work sometimes. It's a shame that the "genre" (is this the ghetto?) gets side-lined or looked down on so often. These are very memorable books exploring some deep philosophical concepts.

Mon, 05 Sep 2016
Engineers and Architects

Ove Arup, engineer, architect and designer, called the way he worked "Total Design". He meant to express the importance of the engineer, as well as the architect and designer in the the task of construction, whether opera houses, penguin pools or bridges. Total Design is the sub-title of Engineering the World at the V&A.

The exhibition takes place in what appears to be a big meccano set, which is perhaps fitting. The framework is actually made up of (so called) gerberettes: a suspended beam and a short propped cantilever. This design was used for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, an Arup engineering building.

Early work included the Penguin Pool at London Zoo (see left). Designed by Berthold Lubetkin and Arup in 1935. Complicated to build, and the V&A shows off some handwritten maths working it all out to prove it.

During the war, Arup worked on air-raid shelter design and also a component of a floating harbour used at D-Day. Some of his air-raid shelter designs were to protect a lot of people underground. Post war, he suggested they could be used for car parking.

On the left, the street level is at the top of the image.

This is not the sort of show I'd normally visit but it was very interesting. Ove Arup was a Dane (although born in Newcastle) who moved to the UK in his 20's and spent the rest of his life here. He studied philosophy first in Copenhagen before starting on engineering and as the show states, he formulated his own philosophy, something he called "Total Design": the architect and the engineer should be the closest collaborators from the start.

It is strange to think that the usual way of working in his early days was for the architect to produce designs with no input or thought to the engineering. Consider Jørn Utzon's design of the Sydney Opera House, little more than rough sketches originally. Many thought the design was impossible to build, and indeed changes were needed. But Utzon, Arup and his team managed to do it (against quite a few odds).

On the right, a Pegasus Mark 1 computer from 1957.

The mathematical calculations used to design the London Zoo Penguin Pool are on show, the long-hand mathematical scrawls hopefully correct, and hopefuly keeping everything in order. Computers started being used in the early sixties and made an immediate impact. Arup was a funny and engaging character and we can listen to a speech he delivered in 1967 as a "christening" of a computer he called "Mumbo Jumbo" (a funny acronym actually). "Mumbo" or "Mum" for short :

When in trouble come to Mum, Mum will do your little sum.

These early computers are large cabinet sized things, greatly superceded now by the smartphone in your pocket. Note the 1960's analog clock on its side.

We can see some of the company's current work on London's Crossrail, as well as a window into its software development, such as crowd simulation or air flow. The Pegasus 1 would have you waiting a long time for results to these sort of equations (to say nothing of the amazing visualisations we now have). We also have a Soundlab room that lets us see and hear work done to simulate and improve the acoustics of buildings: not just theatres but railway station platforms.

Arup the company is still going strong, but the man himself died in 1988.

Ove Arup, 1895-1988  

Sun, 04 Sep 2016
Yellow Crane

A very large, yellow crane on Tottenham Court Road yesterday. I think it was dropping something onto (or into) the building being completed on the right-hand side.

Earlier on, there were a couple of guys walking on the gantry being carried over on the middle-right. I don't think I'd be happy doing a job like that: I don't have much of a head for heights. Beautiful day for it though, and it must have been quite a view. "Crane operations" are quite common in London at the moment.

Sat, 03 Sep 2016
The Wise Ape

By Yuval Noah Harari

A popular book, displayed in the bookshop prominently and also heard discussed in its aisles. It has all the usual laudatory blurbs on the cover but I try and train myself to ignore these as much as I can. They're a bit like film trailers: completely unreliable indicators.

Harari's book covers a very long period (millions of years initially, then tens of thousands) as he traces the rise of homo sapiens (the "wise man") over all our brother and sister humans (erectus, neanderthal etc.). We've been very successful but some of that success as come at a great cost to other things, including other animals. Perhaps we're reaching the limits of our ape brain : cue his new book Homo Deus (Guardian article), "A Brief History of Tomorrow".

I enjoyed the book, particularly the way he discusses things like our "cognitive revolution", when our brains grew and we developed tools, technology and better organisation. Also, his description of Sapiens sharing myths that bind and enable such large scale group organisation. These "myths" might include the usual things such as religion, but also the value of money or even the Limited Liability Company. Some of his discussion grates slightly though, such as his use of a phrase like "some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred". Well, in context, perhaps. But such a needlessly provocative way of expressing this here will alienate people.

Above : Cave of Hands, Argentina. Paintings of human hands from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago.
From wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

The book is best during its first half, as it becomes more a sociological and current affairs discussion in later chapters. Interesting and thought provoking though, just not as deep as some might think.

Thu, 25 Aug 2016
Portrait Award 2016

The BP Portrait Award 2016 is on at the National Portrait Gallery. Always worthwhile, and always very humbling seeing how much good work there is around. I've been twice now.

Below are two of my favourite paintings, but there were five or six others.

Left : Francesca by Daniele Vezzani (here)
Right : Pearl in the Morning, Ready for School by Samantha Fellows (here)

All the paintings are on the NPG website.

Mon, 22 Aug 2016
Bullshit Jobs

The future of work has been in the news off and on for a while, especially as AI and robotics start to make more of an impact. Lorry drivers are one profession said to be threatened by self-driving vehicles, but many white-collar employees are also at serious risk. For instance, computers can do very efficient legal discovery (and a lot more cheaply). We might start seeing higher unemployment, more underemployment, lower wages and the need to work much longer. Tornadoes weaving a path of destruction through the workplace?

A couple of years ago, The Economist magazine talked of :

Just as robots became ever better at various manual tasks over the past century—and were therefore able to replace human labour in a growing array of jobs, beginning with the most routine—computer control systems are able to handle ever more of the work done by human administrative workers. Jobs from truck driver to legal aid to medical diagnostician to customer service technician will soon be threatened by machines. Starting with the most routine tasks.

The article above starts off quoting David Graeber on his labelling many jobs as "bullshit jobs" (Strike Magazine), massive swathes usually administrative jobs in areas like health administration, human resources and public relations. A very different type of economy from the "classic" one of people designing and making things. I might argue that this has really always been the case however, at least since the Industrial Revolution.

David Graeber (author of Debt: The First 5000 Years and LSE Professor) :

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

Maybe the French have a word for this :

ennui : a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.

I was at the V&A on Sunday looking at some ceramics and glassware. The sixth floor was almost empty, apart from me and three or four other people (later). But there are still guards around, all day, every day. Lots of interesting things to look at and read, but the job seems to be very very dull.

Some glass ornaments and sculptures were extremely striking :

Above: Deep Blue and Bronze Persian Set by Dale Chihuly, 1999.
From the museum label :
Originally reminiscent of the tiny core-formed bottles of ancient Egypt and Persia, the 'Persians' series was begun on 1985. Since then Chihuly has developed the series into a range of different shapes , the outer ones often of enormous size.

Sun, 21 Aug 2016
Watching David

From the New York Times :

Standing in front of the David was, by far, the most powerful experience I had ever had with a work of art. The statue is gigantic: 17 feet tall, three times the size of an actual man, the height of a mature giraffe — another fact that no one had ever told me. I had always assumed, based on the images, that the David was life-size. To find otherwise seemed like a category error, like arriving at the Taj Mahal to discover that it is actually the size of a walnut. There was an existential snap in my brain, a sudden adjustment of the relative values and proportions of every other object in the world, including me.

I know the feeling. It is an absolutely stunning work and many years ago I had the same reaction on my first view of the statue: amazement that it was so big.

The article describes some serious problems with the giant statue though, weak ankles that may make it susceptible to collapse in some circumstances. What a disaster that would be, even though we have a full size cast replica at the Victoria and Albert Museum (as does Florence itself of course).

Maybe things are not as bad as they can seem, although the museum director does worry about earthquakes. But as the outgoing director says :

We have known about these cracks for more than 100 years, he pointed out, and they aren’t getting any worse. The David is now perfectly upright, and he is one of the most closely monitored artworks in the world.

Let's hope the Italian's sort out the "antiseismic base" soon though. There is a good page on Michelangelo’s David at the site.

Wed, 17 Aug 2016
I'll be Gone, You'll be Gone

Other People's Money
by John Kay

In Edinburgh, Kay remembers the old days as a schoolboy in the 1960's when a career at "the Bank" or "the Royal Bank" was an aspiration for boys whose grades were not good enough for admission to a good university. As he details in his recent book, things are very different now, with a career in Finance attracting the best and the brightest. The world has changed, much for the worse. These things might be linked.

Kay's an excellent writer and every page has something worthwhile on it, and quotable. He's scathing about the way "financialisation" has taken over the financial industry. A tremendous amount of money is now floating around the system and a equally massive number has inflated the pay packet of large numbers employees in the finance industry. This does not include the average retail bank employee though: closer to shop assistants now. Lots of money to be made "trading" though, but, as Kay asks, what is all the trading for?

There seems to be a huge disconnect now between the needs of the real economy and the financial system today; a system that trades mostly with itself and, seemingly, mostly for its own benefit. And the bottom line is that all this is with other people's money. Prudence is weak or non-existent and abuse easy, widespread and unpunished. After all, fines levied are paid with other people's money.

The title of this post, I'll be gone, you'll be gone is another of the sticks he uses. Like much of politics today, there is a mostly short-term outlook taken and people know that the results of their activities will be felt long after they've left the industry, usually amply rewarded. I'll be gone, you'll be gone.

"We are investment bankers. We don't care what happens in five years."
  Vincent Dahinden, head of global structured products, Royal Bank of Scotland in Institutional Investor, 12 February 2004. Quoted in Ian Fraser, 2014. Shredded. Inside RBS, the Bank that broke Britain p 222. Royal Bank of Scotland was bailed out by the UK taxpayer four years, eight months later.

Depressingly, Kay is pessimistic and thinks that we missed the opportunity to fix things. It was right to backstop the system and prevent a collapse in 2008 but :

They might have used the control of the finance sector they achieved in the aftermath of the crisis to restructure the industry. But they did not, and that makes it certain that they will get another chance - perhaps to make similar mistakes again.

Great book, well written. I wish there were more people like Kay around, and I hope our politicians, financial regulators and economists listen. As The Economist says :

Above all, the finance sector should be judged on the same basis as other industries; if an activity is unprofitable without taxpayer support, it should not occur. “Our willingness to accept uncritically the proposition that finance has a unique status has done much damage,” the author wisely says. Let us hope those in authority will listen.

Tue, 09 Aug 2016
Ancient Greek Characteristics

The Ancient Greeks
By Edith Hall

Edith Hall is a professor of classics at Kings College in London and has appeared on television and radio, including many episodes of In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg. So, having seen and heard her, I knew she had expertise and also a skill in communicating it.

In her recent book, she introduces us to the ancient greeks and their world using ten characteristics she identifies. These are such things as curiosity, humour, a distrust of authority and a love of excellence. The book is up to date on new research and discoveries in recent years and includes a number of observations and facts that were new to me. There is no shortage of writing on this particular subject, and I've read quite a few, but this book is a worthy addition and very well written. Not over-long, but still erudite, and highly recommended.