Archive for the 'Asides' Category

What the (early) scientist saw

[link] Monday, July 28th, 2014


Robert Hooke would have been 379 today. The British Library has marked his birthday with a nice blog post on how he did his remarkable drawings of tiny organisms while peering through a crude microscope. It includes this astonishing drawing of a flea.

Once upon a time…

[link] Monday, July 28th, 2014

… even huge corporations didn’t know about the Internet. Kevin Kelly pointed me to this Wired piece by Joshua Quittner that appeared way back when. This is how it begins:

I’m waiting for a call back from McDonald’s, the hamburger people. They’re trying to find me someone – anyone – within corporate headquarters who knows what the Internet is and can tell me why there are no Golden Arches on the information highway.

It’s true: there is no on the Internet. No either.


“Are you finding that the Internet is a big thing?” asked Jane Hulbert, a helpful McDonald’s media-relations person, with whom I spoke a short while ago.

Yes, I told her. In some quarters, the Internet is a very big thing.

I explained a little bit about what the Big Thing is, and how it works, and about the Net Name Gold Rush that’s going on. I told her how important domain names are on the Internet (“Kind of like a phone number. It’s where you get your e-mail. It’s part of your address.”), and I explained that savvy business folks are racing out and registering any domain name they can think of: their own company names, obviously, and generic names like and, and silly names that might have some kind of speculative value one day, like

“Some companies,” I told Jane Hulbert, “are even registering the names of their competitors.”

“You’re kidding,” she said.

I am not, I told her, recounting the story of The Princeton Review, the Manhattan-based company that sells SAT prep courses, and how it registered the name of its arch-rival, Now the lawyers are working it out in court. Very ugly. (We’ll get to that later.)

“I could register McDonald’s right now,” I said, pointing out that the name is still unclaimed.

“You could?” she asked, then quickly answered my silence: “You could.”

“So could Burger King,” I said, and Jane Hulbert rang off, looking for some MIS person with the answers.

Those were the days.

Why we need ironic type

[link] Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

From USA Today:

Strawberry fields may be forever, but a pine tree planted in memory of George Harrison will have to be replanted soon.

The original was killed by beetles.

The tree, planted as a sapling in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 2004 had grown to 10 feet in height.

The late Beatle, who died in 2001, was an avid gardener and lived his final years in Los Angeles.

A plaque at the base of what was called the “George Harrison Tree” reads, “In memory of a great humanitarian who touched the world as an artist, a musician and a gardener.” The plaque also contains a quote from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: “For the forest to be green, each tree must be green.”

Perhaps once the new tree is in place, the beetles will let it be.

The great unread

[link] Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014


Lovely reflective piece by David Carr in the New York Times on our changing media ecosystem. Sample:

“For the past six months, my magazines, once a beloved and essential part of my media diet, have been piling up, patiently waiting for some mindshare, only to be replaced by another pile that will go unread. I used to think that people who could not keep up with The New Yorker were shallow individuals with suspect priorities. Now I think of them as just another desperate fellow-traveller, bobbing in a sea of information none of us will see to the bottom of. We remain adrift.”

Quite so.

In my defence, I should add that I often read the New Yorker and the Economist on an iPad.

After the storm

[link] Monday, July 21st, 2014


We’re in Provence, where there have been some dramatic thunderstorms, followed by this lovely peaceful evening.

On not mentioning the war

[link] Monday, July 21st, 2014

The only really unpleasant aspect of the German team’s demolition of their Brazilian opponents in the world cup was the inane commentary of the British TV commentators and pundits. They were as staggered by the comprehensiveness of the Germans’ superiority as were the wretched Brazilian spectators, but lacked the verbal sophistication to articulate a single interesting or original thought. Instead what came flooding out was the incessant burbling of tired cliches. The Germans were “clinical”, “ruthless”, “relentless”, “efficient”, etc. etc.

What these hapless pundits were doing, of course, was expressing the subliminal prejudices of many of their fellow-countrymen (I was going to write ‘fellow-citizens’ until I remembered that Britain doesn’t technically have any citizens; it only has subjects — one of the USPs of living under a monarchy) about Germany. It’s as if Brits are living in a time-warp from which most of the rest of the world has long escaped. You’d never gather from reading the British tabloid media that, in almost every aspect of modern life that matters, Germany has long ago met the criteria for a modern, liberal, democratic, prosperous and sustainable society, whereas Britain remains chronically addicted to imperial afterglow, public and private debt, an overweening financial services industry, housing bubbles, corrupt campaign funding, short-termism and circuses like those provided by Premiership football.

Roger Cohen had a nice piece in the New York Times the other day which makes this point rather well. The world-beating German football team, for example, is the product of long-term planning, of nurturing homegrown talent. And this is typical of the country. Germany, Cohen writes,

does not believe in quick fixes. It is worth repeating because it is an idea that sets the country apart in an age where a quick killing, tomorrow’s share price, instant gratification and short-termism are the norm. Germans on the whole think what the rest of the world builds is flimsy. Anyone who has felt the weight of a German window, or the satisfying hermetic clunk of one closing, knows they have a point. The German time frame is longer.

Why Germany differs in this may be debated. Having plumbed the depths of destruction and evil, having understood the depravity into which a “civilized” country may descend, Germany had to rebuild from the “Stunde Null,” or “Zero Hour,” of 1945. It had to hoist itself up step by step; and it had to build into its reconstituted self the guarantees that ensured no relapse was possible. This took planning. It took persistence. It involved prudence. Even before all this the first German unity of 1871 came only after centuries of strife at the European crossroads. Geborgenheit is an untranslatable German word but no less important for that. It means roughly warmth, home, trust and security, everything that is so precious in part because it may go up in smoke.

Perhaps German success is the result of the immensity of past German failure. I think that has something to do with it, even a lot. Whatever its roots, German success is important and instructive.

It is. Much of what I find admirable in German society is the product of what the BBC commentators found awe-inspiringly weird about the German performance: careful preparation, long-term thinking, persistence, a pride in doing things well. I’m a photographer and I’ve always used Leica cameras, for example. I also use terrific cameras made by Nikon in Japan, but what’s striking about the German cameras is the extent to which those who make them are involved with the products they create. This video for example showing how the Leica M9 is assembled makes the point, as does this video of how the Rohloff Speedhub is made.

Of course one can find examples of wonderful products made in many other countries (think of Rolls-Royce aero engines or Maclaren racing cars in the UK, or Nikon and Canon cameras and lenses in Japan) but these are nowadays, exceptions that tend to prove a rule, whereas in Germany this high-tech engineering culture seems more pervasive.

There is also a radical difference in the managerial culture of German enterprises. Cohen writes:

If you talk to business leaders of the German Mittelstand, the small and medium-sized companies at the heart of the country’s economy, you are transported to another world. You sit in stark boardrooms, so devoid of indulgence they resemble classrooms, with unassuming people leading billion-dollar companies, and they speak of loyalty, 10-year plans, prudence and quality. If one word induces a look of horror, it is debt. The notion of making money with money, of financial engineering rather than engineering itself, is alien.

The contrast with the Anglo-American mindset into which the UK seems increasingly locked is stark. I know which I prefer.

Reclaiming lives from social media

[link] Thursday, July 17th, 2014

Nice opening to a piece by Nick Bilton about time-wasting on social media.

One day in the early 1920s, a young Ernest Hemingway rushed along the streets of Paris seeking shelter from a downpour. He soon came upon a warm cafe on the Place St.-Michel and ducked inside.

After hanging his rain jacket, Hemingway ordered a café au lait, pulled out a notepad and pencil from his pocket and began writing. Before long he had fallen into a trancelike state, oblivious to his surroundings as he penned a story that would later become the first chapter of his memoir, “A Moveable Feast.”

If Hemingway were alive in 2014, he might not have finished what he started writing that day. Realistically, he probably wouldn’t have even put a pen to paper.

Instead, he might have ducked into the cafe, pulled out his smartphone and proceeded to waste an entire afternoon on social media. Perhaps he would update his Facebook to discuss the rogue weather, snap a picture of his café au lait to post on Instagram and then lose the rest of the afternoon to Twitter…

Bilton is now trying to reform. His first step is to read a book first thing into the morning before he switches on his computer. Well, it’s start.

Legal outcomes

[link] Sunday, July 13th, 2014


Perhaps he’s been reading Richard Susskind’s book?

A borderless world?

[link] Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

One of my mantras is that for the first 20 years of its existence (up to 1993) cyberspace was effectively a parallel universe to what John Perry Barlow called ‘Meatspace’ (aka the real world). The two universes had very little to do with one another, and were radically different in all kinds of ways. But from 1993 (when Andreessen and Bina released Mosaic, the first big web browser) onwards, the two universes began to merge, which led to the world we have now — a blended universe which has the affordances of both cyberspace and Meatspace. This is why it no longer makes sense to distinguish (as politicians still do sometimes) between the Internet and the “real world”. And it’s also why we are having so much trouble dealing with a universe in which the perils of normal life are turbocharged by the affordances of digital technology.

This morning, I came on a really interesting illustration of this. It’s about how Google Maps deal with areas of the world where there are border disputes. Turns out that there are 32 countries in the world for which Google regards the border issue as problematic. And it has adopted a typical Google approach to the problem: the borders drawn on Google’s base map of a contested area will look different depending on where in the world you happen to be viewing them from.

An example: the borders of Arunachal Pradesh, an area administered by India but claimed as a part of Tibet by China. The region is shown as part of India when viewed from an Indian IP address, as part of China when viewed from China, and as distinct from both countries when viewed from the US.

There’s a nice animation in the piece. Worth checking out.

The Hedgehog in the Fog

[link] Sunday, June 15th, 2014

Tired of the World Cup? Watch this instead.