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.

Fri, 05 Aug 2016
Judgement Day

By A. S. Byatt

This is a thin book, but not slight. The "thin child in war time" is obviously Byatt herself but it is not really autobiographical, or really a novel.

The child finds pleasure and escape reading Asgard and the Gods by Wilhelm Wägner, a book published in 1880 that retold "tales and traditions of our northern ancestors". The Norse Gods. She prefers these darker, less optimistic and stranger tales to those she is told at church.

One of things that suffuses these tales in the inexorable slide towards the final terrible battle, the judgement and demise of the Asgardians. They know this and accept it.

After a long time, the fire too died. All there was was a flat surface of black liquid glinting in the small pale points of light that still came through the starholes. A few gold chessmen floated and bobbed on the dark ripples.

The Norse myths do not appear to have had any time for a resurrection or an afterlife, at least after the final world destroying, and god destroying battle. The girl finds this oddly satisfying. I think Byatt gets the sombre feeling quite right in her telling of these old myths and, like the "thin child", I found that very fitting as well.

Sun, 31 Jul 2016
Towne's Last Call

The British Museum's prints and drawings room is one of my favourite parts of the museum. It's quieter, away from the hustle and bustle of some of the more popular areas, and the hordes of the mobile-phone obsessed.

The Light, time, legacy exhibition closes in a couple of weeks. I had a final browse at Francis Towne's wonderful watercolours of Rome and Italy, painted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Right: Temple of Bacchus in the Distance, Francis Towne, 1780. View outside Rome (source)

Towne didn't get on so well with the Royal Academy of the day (no election for him). Many there looked down at the artist who also taught art, and Towne and others seemed to think of them as a metropolitan elite (echoes of today). Sometimes, the ancient ruins were seen as warnings not to repeat the mistakes made by the romans that lead to their corruption and fall.

Finally online, the Paul Mellon centre now has an amazing web site devoted to the man and his work. Worth the wait :

Sat, 30 Jul 2016
Gut Feeling

by Giulia Enders

This is not a big book, and it's written in a bright and breezy way that is very easy to get through. I like a good science book but normally stay away from anything too funny or humourous; but I actually found myself smiling, and in some cases even laughing. She definitely has a way with funny asides and descriptions (of things normally swept under the carpet, or into the toilet, as she might point out). Case in point, near the beginning is a section How does pooing work? I think this is worth considering.

Enders has a scientific background, doing a medical doctorate at the Institute for Microbiology in Frankfurt, so has some expertise in the field. She describes a lot of very interesting research done in the past few years that have really highlighted how important our gut health is to us. We are home to trillions of bacteria, most in our large intestine, and this alone is a staggering fact. There might be more to having a "gut feeling" than we think, especially when we factor in the enteric nervous system, a "second" brain that runs through our body and is tied to our gastrointestinal system. Our gut bacteria and their health might govern a lot of things, from diabetes, to obesity, to stress and depression. This also makes diet very important.

Enders is a student who's become a minor celebrity in Germany, where the book became a bestseller on its release two years ago. She's interviewed on YouTube as well (a good, brief overview of her work). Great book to read and quite eye-opening in the implications for our health. Listen to what your gut is saying.

Sat, 23 Jul 2016
Tin Glazed Earthenware

I was at the V & A last weekend, this time looking at Ceramics, inspired by Byatt's Children's Book. The potter's craft is lovingly articulated in her novel.

I've seen and admired this stuff before, but I do like this Italian renaissance Maiolica. Some of it has a real quirky charm, as well as being beautifully painted.

The term 'maiolica' was used in 15th-century Italy for lustrewares imported from Spain. The V&A has one of the greatest collections of Italian maiolica in the world; the Museum holds more than one thousand of these rare and precious objects.

Wed, 20 Jul 2016
Dream Land

The Childrens Book
By A. S. Byatt

I read Possession a while ago, and loved it, so have been wanting to dip into more Byatt books. This was almost as good and like all good books, I looked for reasons to sit down and carry on reading. It is beautifully written and extremely moving in parts.

The story follows a bohemian family, parents, children, friends and acquaintances, for a few years of the late 19th century and into the early 20th. The Wellgood family is a mix of Fabian Society socialists, artists, writers and dreamers, with the mother, Olive, doing most of the earning writing books full of magic and myth. She also writes a story book for each of the many children she and her husband have, weaving their own tale of magical journeys and shape-shifting animals and humans. The real world is boiling with economic and class conflict but many artists of the time were inventing their own worlds. As one of the boys says of all the poverty around, why can't we do something about it?. There's a lot of art, and a lot of discussion but the organising and action is not always present.

The paths of the characters sometimes cross with those of real historical people, like Rodin, Wilde, Shaw and the Webbs. The milieu is one of social improvement, Morris' Arts and Crafts movement and some Utopianism. We watch and partake in the building of the new Victoria and Albert Museum. There are some wonderful descriptions of the craft and art of pottery, and the method of moulding and firing clay. The V&A is a grand museum with a lot of good pots to have a look at.

How do we get out of dreamland? Hic Labor, hoc opus est he said.

"In this task, the labour lies" from Virgil's Aeneid.

Great book, and I've now queued up another of hers: Ragnarok.

This is not the first time I've read Byatt and wished I'd done so on an ereader, so I could highlight a word or phrase and find out what it means. I was not distracted from the enjoyment of reading though, and where I could, I placed a "tag" on the page and checked for meaning later, as with the Aeneid quote above. Some books deserve a bit of study.