Wednesday, 11 December 2013

England is full of apples

Orchard at Monk's House, Rodmell, east Sussex

Saturday, 23 November 2013

People power

When a senior manager at Ford was showing off an automated production line to Walter Reuther, leader of the United Automobile Workers union, in the early 1950s, he asked: "Walter, how will you get these machines to pay their union dues?" To which Reuther replied: "How will you get them to buy your cars?"

From article here.

Friday, 22 November 2013


Speaking in the months after her husband's assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy was so upset with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that she told a friend and interviewer that she could barely look at images of him.
"I just can't see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man's terrible," Mrs. Kennedy said, as part of an oral history series of interviews released this month.
The widowed first lady soured on King as a result of secret wiretaps arranged by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover had told President Kennedy that King tried to arrange a sex party while in town for the March on Washington, and told Robert Kennedy that King had made derogatory comments during the president's funeral, Mrs. Kennedy recalled.
But as for what was actually said by King and his circle, history remains uncertain. The original surveillance tapes involving King have never been released publicly, and are under seal by court order until 2027.
Rep. John Lewis, legendary civil rights leader and friend of King, told ABC News that he believes Hoover concocted damaging material about King to give to the Kennedys because "he wanted to destroy the man."

From the abcnews 2011 report here.

Monday, 18 November 2013

You wait all day for a sustainable superstore and then two of them turn up at once

A 'super green' 'eco store' designed by Chetwood Architects for Sainsbury's and built in Greenwich in 1999, with a design life of fifty years and expected actually to be able to last one hundred (Will we still be buying anything in 2113?), and nominated for the Stirling Prize is to be demolished to enable IKEA to build a larger store on the site, whilst Sainsbury's relocates to a new store three times as big.

IKEA says:

‘We are planning to demolish the Sainsbury’s store, as the current building is not fit for purpose to be turned into an IKEA store. We need a larger space, and therefore inevitably we need to demolish the existing building to provide this. However, we have made a commitment to reuse and recycle all of the salavagable materials from the existing Sainsbury’s store.

(How many bookshelves will it make?)

Sainsbury's says:

‘We are relocating our Greenwich store to a bigger site so that we can offer our customers the full Sainsbury’s range. Our new store, which has already successfully gained planning permission, will be fully fitted with modern sustainable technologies.’

(What would it be like, I wonder, to gain planning permission unsuccessfully?)

The architect (Paul Hinkin, now of Black Architecture) says:

‘It is an absolute outrage. A building with a useful and productive life is going to be demolished. It is an act of vandalism.'

"bombs and architects"

Rem Koolhaas's De Rotterdam

"This is our longest-running project. It began in 1997, but it only became possible to build it during the financial crisis – when the contractors were cheap enough to do it."

But is it anything more than an optical trick, a game of dancing facades best viewed from a distance? "That's all you need to see. The rest is just a cheap office building," he says, before leaving me to explore the interior for myself.

There is a sense of nostalgia in his voice as he drops me on the street corner, before driving off to his next appointment. "The weird thing is that this building might look cold or harsh, but we get grandmothers now writing to us saying they like it. Which has never happened before."

I much recommend Oliver Wainwright's article - all human life is there (well, some of it).

Friday, 15 November 2013

Fifty shades of white

the proposed new Apple 'campus' by Foster Associates. City of Cupertino
“There was a very surreal moment during the development of those glass fins,” recalls a former Foster employee. “There was a $30m mock-up made of a whole section of the facade, with five versions of the fin in different shades of white. The Apple guys were looking at them for ages, saying one's a bit too blue, the other's a bit more cream – but they all looked identical to the naked eye.”

Like Oliver Wainwright, it would seem, I have my reservations about both Apple and Lord Norman Foster, but, as for the whites, I have been there before them. Some years ago I did a job for a London architect, a little less stellar than the good lord, who was fitting out his own stairway and kitchen with shelving and cupboards. Unlike Apple, his intention was not to get the 'right' white (how can it be right when each is different from itself in different lights?), but to use the subtle differentiation of several different shades of white in the same job. The picture does not really do it justice. It is true of course that the one white will look different in different parts of the room, but a single range of, for example, cupboard fronts will all look the same, thus giving the justification for differentiating them with different shades to echo the effect of varying light.

Unencumbered upscale

"The pendulum [for residential development] has swung in favour of east London, Canary Wharf is becoming the truly 21st century part of London because it's unencumbered by the small period properties prevalent in the rest of the capital; developers can create larger, more international-style buildings."

Dominic Grace of estate agents Savils commenting on the news that a £1 billion residential skyscraper is to be built at Canary Wharf. Look for it in the 'Business' rather than the 'Culture' section of the Guardian.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Eats shoots - and leaves

Prone as I am to indulge myself in over-punctuation, I have never felt able to become a signed-up member of the tribe of Lynne Truss, perhaps feeling that if written language is to be purged of inexactitude it requires, not just the application of punctuation marks in a far stricter fashion than ever bothered 'correct' writers in the eighteenth century, but the wilful re-spelling of many common words to ensure that the same one cannot mean both 'departs' and those green things hanging on plants.

So whilst I agree 'Eats shoots and leaves' means something quite different from 'Eats, shoots and leaves', I do not think the latter totally unambiguous and the dash in my title attempts, not entirely securely, to establish 'leaves' as a verb and not as a noun in an after-thought.

But, to get to the point, yesterday saw the announcement in one day of two pieces of momentous economic news.

The first was that a new record for the sale price of a work of art at auction had been established when Christie's sold Francis Bacon's triptych of Lucien Freud for £83 million - it hardly matters what the exact figure was. That was a lesser price than the recent private sale of Cezanne's Card Players, but, hey, it's a big number and a record, so what does it matter.

It is a further tribute to the power of language to introduce unintended interpretations that I have never been able to believe entirely in the achievements of anyone called Bacon. Perhaps it is the unfortunate meaning of a type of pig meat that does it, but I think actually it is the fact that some people persist in telling us, against all sense, that a Bacon wrote all the plays of William Shakespeare.

Francis Bacon

Nor have I ever been able to rid myself of the idea that the numerous modern members of the  tribe of Freud (including that rather dubious banker who inhabits some ill-defined circle of the British government) have been called into existence solely to provide case studies of the ideas of their illustrious Viennese progenitor.

However that may, or, more likely, may not, be, (see how the commas breed like rabbits - someone should cull them before they infect serious writing) we have a new record and an 'art market expert' (the art market, like Formula One, seems to have a gravitational attraction for confident women) was on hand to tell us that the sale demonstrated that art had become 'recession proof', by which she presumably meant just that there were now sufficient people with sufficient personal fortunes chasing a sufficiently limited supply of assets.

The other piece of news came from the graver source of the Governor of the Bank of England, who told us that the UK economic recovery had now, officially, 'taken hold' and that one no longer needed to be a certified optimist to regard the metaphorical economic glass as 'half-full'.

Time was, not so long ago, when such announcements were made by elected politicians rather than out-sourced to a foreign head-hunted head of a quasi-independent agency. Time past - or passed, but still these metaphors have to be chosen with care before being offered ceremonially to the attending multitudes.

Not so long ago one politician was consigned to life-time ridicule for affecting to identify the 'green shoots' of economic recovery prematurely. As if he were a country parson writing to The Times in February claiming to have heard the First Cuckoo of Spring when all he had actually heard was a wood pigeon. 

Back then the multitude were true believers in the rite (and right) of recovery and it was a grave offence for the high priest to offer a false augury to the people. Now few care, and the fate of a pair of modern artists whose work the populace actually finds rebarbative (never mind the art, think of the money) flutters more brain cells.

It is not so much that Dawkins has made atheists of us all as that, whilst the rich, with their yachts and bacon, have become 'recession-proof', most other people have become 'recovery-proof' in the sure and certain knowledge that, even if more people are making money again (or perhaps just the same people are making more money), it's not going to include them.

A yacht made of bacon - designed by Zaha Hadid

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The sharpest tool in the box

There has been an interesting discussion recently on the furniture designer-makers' forum about tool sharpening systems. There are some quite cunning bench mounted grinding and honing machines available.

Bear with me: it gets more interesting.

As often happens, what started as a 'Which is the best one to buy?' enquiry opened out into a 'Do we really need this?' discussion.

Amongst interesting postings about the details of the performance of rival apparatus there was a distinct element, coming mostly from more senior members, of 'I just use a dry grinder and a honing belt - those machines are just for teachers who have to regrind 40 mangled plane irons before the lesson starts.' (Declaration - I write as one who still has, and uses, his Washita, black Arkanas and even Charnley Forest stones and never got to grips even with Japanese water stones.)

There is clearly a deep, emotional attraction to free-hand skill, the skill of risk. My wife recalls, decades ago, the university joiner at Aberdeen who never seemed to measure anything but whose shelves always seemed to fit perfectly. But then, one senior but rather maverick member of the forum asked why was it so unacceptable to use a jig for getting the right angle on plane irons and chisels when we used jigs for almost everything else in our work - in our making.

Why indeed? In making we have opted for the skill of control. which reaches its apotheosis in computer controlled machinery. Such machinery can even be programmed to simulate the variation of hand work, but that is little seen. perhaps because it lies at the extreme of such capabilities, perhaps because we do not want it. 

We have reached this state at the point in cultural and technological history that has seen the emergence of 'design' as something distinct from (though possibly, at least theoretically, fusible with) making, or craft, or art. Design, and the making that goes along with it (especially as practiced by furniture 'designer-makers') is no longer the free exercise of individual skill so much as a process of 'problem solving'. Making is no longer something that one just does, but something broken down into a series of steps along a path from A (intention) to B (object). 

That shift seems to me exactly to mirror the technological and perceptive shift in our society from analogue to digital. The 3D printer, digital fabrication, looms, or more than looms. The least frightening aspect of the news that a firm in Austin, Texas has manufactured a fully functioning gun in metal is that it is a gun. More of that in earlier and later posts.

Moreover, our espousal of the skill of control allows us to celebrate skill in making in either austerely minimalist work or in the kind of elaborately sophisticated work so often exemplified in fine furniture -'upscale' furniture as I believe the Americans call it, not afraid to make an allusion to social and economic metrics. Everything in between, which includes the kind of Morris-Gimson-Barnsley work in which furniture designer-makers, at least in this country, usually claim to find their spiritual roots, is left looking faintly ridiculous - or dead - by the skill of control. And what Morris or Ruskin would have thought of it in relation to the life of the maker hardly bears thinking about.

The rule of law in the UK

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Cluster think in the USA

Janet Yellen on employment.

And a jest that currently circulates on the web:

Our Fed
Who art in Washington
Yellen be thy name
Thy printing come
Thy will be done by Ben as it is with Janet
Give us this day our daily 3 billion
And increase us our debts
As we bail out our debtors
And lead us not into inflation
But deliver us from down marke
For thine is the printing, the bubble and the euphoria
Forever till taper

Monday, 4 November 2013

Architecture in the City

gleaming spires ...

... or looming towers?
It depends upon your point of view.

Friday, 18 October 2013

spam, spam, spam ...

It's good to know that it's not just the little people who are plagued by spam in their emails. the following is from a report in the Washington Post:

"Spam has proven to be a significant problem for the NSA — clogging databases with information that holds no foreign intelligence value. The majority of all e-mails, one NSA document says, “are SPAM from ‘fake’ addresses and never ‘delivered’ to targets.”
"In fall 2011, according to an NSA presentation, the Yahoo account of an Iranian target was “hacked by an unknown actor,” who used it to send spam. The Iranian had “a number of Yahoo groups in his/her contact list, some with many hundreds or thousands of members.”
"The cascading effects of repeated spam messages, compounded by the automatic addition of the Iranian’s contacts to other people’s address books, led to a massive spike in the volume of traffic collected by the Australian intelligence service on the NSA’s behalf.
"After nine days of data-bombing, the Iranian’s contact book and contact books for several people within it were “emergency detasked.”"
The report is headlined "NSA collects millions of e-mail address books globally". That's "globally" as in technically anywhere outside the United States, and "millions" as in 250 million per year:
"During a single day last year, the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unspecified other providers, according to an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation. Those figures, described as a typical daily intake in the document, correspond to a rate of more than 250 million a year."

Friday, 6 September 2013

Leslie Stephen

"I was more like him than her, I think, and therefore more critical, but he was an adorable man, and, somehow, tremendous." Virginia Woolf, his daughter

Thursday, 5 September 2013

first light, dawn, sunrise, daybreak

"The flotsam of the nation is washed together into an unrecognised, nameless, formless secret society. There isn't much that the bits of scum can do to help one another, but at least they can cling and keep silence. And dawn, I think, is the hour when the pariah goes out. Not for him is the scornful morning with its crowds pointing the fingers of their minds at him, nor the evening when all but he may rest and be merry; but the peace before sunrise cannot be taken from him. It is the hour of the outlawed, the persecuted, the damned, for no man was ever born who could not feel some shade of hope if he were in open country with the sun about to rise."

Geoffrey Household, Rogue Male (1939)

How has it been so far?

"What do you reckon to the digital age so far?" baldly asks one of the more widely thinking contributors to the furniture makers' forum to which I subscribe. Perhaps predictably the responses as yet have all been in the form of jokes. So let me introduce a note of solemnity.

If one thinks about it very generally it seems surprising that we have been so ready to forsake the analogue for the digital. It is a massive change in the way in which we look at and mediate the world, quite unprecedented. The analogue might be thought to embody many of our highest values and processes: sophistication, quality, metaphor and judgement. There is no satisfying activity in human life that does not involve the exercise of personal judgement, whether it be the highly paid corporate executive venturing billions or the man in the betting shop putting on a fiver each way.

Why exchange judgement for computation? There is no analogue computer, which is perhaps our problem. Yet I also remember how, in the early days of digitally recorded music, it was almost universally admired for the clarity and brightness of its sound, whereas now people will spend vast amounts of money on vinyl and valves. Nowadays the capability digitally to manipulate almost anything, sound, vision, objects, to create, recreate or destroy has become a source of wonder, delight and dismay. As the contributor to my forum puts it, "It has become a great liberator for the untalented." The target now is not so much "virtual" as "enhanced" reality.

Yet even more importantly, in the wider world, we have been seduced, or over-whelmed, by the power, capacity and rapidity of the computation. The power is so great that, in important respects, it is beyond our ability to control it with the exercise of full judgement, or the avoidance of unwanted consequences, as we see in fields as various as financial trading and government surveillance of communications. And so we enter a spiral of ever increasing computation with the chimera of "artificial intelligence" at its black-holed centre.

Such developments can seldom be turned back but in this case also something has been created that empowers both the included and the excluded, the talented and the talentless, the powerful and the powerless, thus ensuring a perpetual conflict.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Time future contained in time past

In 1975, when the future US President Obama was in his mid teens, Senator Frank Church's Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities published its reports.

"The Committee finds that the domestic activities of the intelligence community at times violated specific statutory prohibitions and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens. The legal questions involved in intelligence programs were often not considered. On other occasions, they were intentionally disregarded in the belief that because the programs served the "national security" the law did not apply. While intelligence officers on occasion failed to disclose to their superiors programs which were illegal or of questionable legality, the Committee finds that the most serious breaches of duty were those of senior officials, who were responsible for controlling intelligence activities and generally failed to assure compliance with the law.
"Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that...the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.
"While the declared purposes of these programs were to protect the "national security" or prevent violence, Bureau witnesses admit that many of the targets were nonviolent and most had no connections with a foreign power. Indeed, nonviolent organizations and individuals were targeted because the Bureau believed they represented a "potential" for violence -- and nonviolent citizens who were against the war in Vietnam were targeted because they gave "aid and comfort" to violent demonstrators by lending respectability to their cause.
"The imprecision of the targeting is demonstrated by the inability of the Bureau to define the subjects of the programs. The Black Nationalist program, according to its supervisor, included "a great number of organizations that you might not today characterize as black nationalist but which were in fact primarily black." Thus, the nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference was labeled as a Black Nationalist-"Hate Group."
"Furthermore, the actual targets were chosen from a far broader group than the titles of the programs would imply. The CPUSA program targeted not only Communist Party members but also sponsors of the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee and civil rights leaders allegedly under Communist influence or deemed to be not sufficiently "anti-Communist". The Socialist Workers Party program included non-SWP sponsors of anti-war demonstrations which were cosponsored by the SWP or the Young Socialist Alliance, its youth group. The Black Nationalist program targeted a range of organizations from the Panthers to SNCC to the peaceful Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and included every Black Student Union and many other black student groups. New Left targets ranged from the SDS to the InterUniversity Committee for Debate on Foreign Policy, from Antioch College ("vanguard of the New Left") to the New Mexico Free University and other "alternate" schools, and from underground newspapers to students' protesting university censorship of a student publication by carrying signs with four-letter words on them."

Monday, 26 August 2013

Time present and time past

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus in your mind.
                  But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

Fond as I am of the word 'perhaps', I do wonder why Eliot had to include it here. Where was il miglior fabro? (I also wonder what Eliot, the jewel thief as Pound called him, actually knew about mud and axle trees, or even garlic and sapphires, come to that.)

But enough of that. What I wanted to remark was that we are living, now, in a historic moment. An historic moment? A truly historic moment? Perhaps even, for some, the last truly historic moment.

For we have arrived at the point perhaps where we began, where is is now formally recognised by the discerning that the word 'historic' can apply to anything in the past that we can only investigate, report and ponder upon. All time is unredeemable. Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour. To what purpose?

And so, at last, everything in the past qualifies for history, subject only to the interest of the news media, permission to disturb the dust on the bowl of rose-leaves. Mainly it involves police reports of socially egregious and criminal behaviour that formerly was tolerated.

It leaves us only to reflect whether the gratingly new usage is actually not less contentious than the old, although less useful - what is wrong with 'past'?

Saturday, 24 August 2013


'Jaron Larnier, the author and inventor of the concept of virtual reality, warned that digital infrastructure was moving beyond human control. He said: "When you try to achieve great scale with automation and the automation exceeds the boundaries of human oversight, there is going to be failure. That goes for governments, for consumer companies, for Google, or a big insurance company. It is infuriating because it is driven by unreasonable greed. In many cases, the systems that tend to fail, fail because of an attempt to make them run automatically with a minimal amount of human oversight."

'"We don't yet have a design for society that can run this technology well. We haven't figured out what the right human roles should be."'

"Don't I know your face?"

It seems there is a role for humans still, pending the development of facial recognition computer technology. (Isn't Apple's next phone expected to turn on when it recognises its owner's face looking at it?) But meanwhile, just as those 'analysts' sit at their desks in the NSA and GCHQ, the Metropolitan Police has humans watching us from afar.

'More than a million people are expected to descend on the Notting Hill carnival this weekend – but watching overhead will be a team of police "super recognisers" who have been selected for their ability to spot known offenders among the crowds.
'But as the two days of celebrations get under way along the carnival route, 17 specialist officers will be holed up in a central control room several miles away in Earls Court monitoring live footage in an attempt to identify known offenders.
'Chief superintendent Mick Johnson from the Metropolitan police said it was the first time the "recognisers" – who have been selected for their ability to remember hundreds of offenders' faces – have been used to monitor a live event.
'"This type of proactive operation is the first one we have done in earnest in real time so we are going to be looking at it very closely to see how effective it is and what we get out of it," he said.
'The Met has 180 so-called super recognisers – most of whom came to the fore in the aftermath of the London riots when they managed to identify more than a quarter of the suspects who were caught on CCTV footage.
'The officers will have access to 80 cameras that can zoom in to track suspects as well as roving police camera teams. The aim is to spot known offenders or potential flashpoints and direct officers on the ground to prevent crimes being committed.
'One of the super recognisers on duty will be Patrick O'Riordan, who says he has had an ability to pick people out in a crowd and recall faces since he joined the Met 11 years ago.'

Friday, 2 August 2013

Only collect

As the latest installment in the revelations of western governments' ability to strip mine our private lives hits the news-stands (never mind, it will all be ploughed in and grassed over in 1 month / 3 months / 6 months / 5 years) the furniture designer-makers discussion forum is once again asking whether social media, Facebook, Twitter, Printerest and their like, are a good thing for us to be exploiting professionally (or is it commercially?). Can they make us rich and famous, when all else has failed?

Beyond a strand of reluctance to get involved and a sense of scepticism, the general feeling seems to be that if it is there and it's free - and it's new - one ought to use it. It used to be said it's not what you know that counts, but who you know. Now, apparently, it's how many you know. 'Counting' is no longer analogue - it's all become digital.

Though the saviour of one's soul may log onto one's social media page, it all seems part of the spread of largely redundant and superficial connectedness that now increasingly defines our society. The trouble is, it needs a National Security Agency to make sense of it.

Nobody on our forum seems to make the connection. I don't mean that if we put up our latest creations on Facebook we should fear a visit from men with baseball caps and name tags: just that from time to time one has to take a look at one's inner being.

Incidentally, I wonder if others have been struck as I have by the contrasting appearance of Bradley Manning, done up to the nines, almost like a Ruritanian general if not quite up to North Korean standards, and the butch and scruffy sub-fusc of his minders - no medals for them - who look like something from the mafia or from Blackwater. Perhaps they are. There is a learned article to be written on the semiotics here, but the essential message is that Bradley Manning has subverted the full panoply of the American state, with which he was trusted, but the government has Bruce Willis on the case and all will be well. An even larger treatise might be written, considering how it is that the United States population can buy into wholesale the evil characterisation of its government agencies depicted in such movies as The Bourne Inheritance and yet still side with the real-life versions of the bad guys. Perhaps it's all down to the skills of central casting - or perhaps things are changing.

Of course the NSA and its likes know that counting is, like taxes, for little people. We may watch anxiously the numbers of our visits or supporters or followers, but they, heck, want it all. They know that after the collecting comes the connecting. As one of them said, how can we connect the dots if we don't have the dots? In other words, how can we explain (to the judge or whomever) why we want it before we have it? 

Unfortunately their idea of connection is little more sophisticated than the way in which the caveman's club connected with the woolly mammoth. So, pacĂ© our good and reassuring Malcolm Rifkind, although we indeed should not fear that the analysts are listening in to our fireside chats with our grannies, we should fear that if we innocently acquired enough dots, or spots, like that poor Algerian airline pilot who shared some unfortunate spots just after the demolition of the twin towers and was held for months in high security without there being any actual evidence against him, someone will be connecting for us. 

He added: "If you had the impression we are reading millions of emails, we are not. There is no intention in this whole programme to use it for looking at UK domestic traffic – British people talking to each other." The source said analysts used four criteria for determining what was examined: security, terror, organised crime and Britain's economic wellbeing."The vast majority of the data is discarded without being looked at ... we simply don't have the resources."

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Getting the toothpaste back in the tube

In my no doubt peculiar view, an ebb-point in the recent history of industrial design of consumer goods was reached when, in one of those moments of pervasive group fashion that flourish like a secret underground fungal growth beneath the expressions of commercially creative people, it was silently agreed that the tops and caps of squeeze tube and plastic bottles should not be figured as discrete items but had to be formed as continuing projections of the form of the tube or bottle.

The benefits brought to us by this demonstration, if ever one were needed, that forms follows not function but form, are a greater consumption of plastic, the near impossibility of screwing caps back on almost depleted tubes, and the ability to stand bottles and, more importantly, tubes on their ends. The last has become almost necessary with tubes, since they have become mostly made of plastic not metal, in pursuit of the expression and use of the last contents of the tube - but only until the advent of the 3D printer produced tooth paste tube squeezer when we finally reach the sun-lit uplands of individual digital empowerment. However, that leaves unaffected the true reason for standing tubes on their ends, which is supermarket shelf display - as witnessed by the fact that labels are often printed that way up. But when we finally but everything online even that becomes redundant.

So will the tide ever turn? Is the pope a catholic? - they might ask in the pub bar. Or can you get the toothpaste back in the tube? Well, you could quite easily before the tube was made of plastic.

Monday, 22 July 2013

A modern miracle; Stalinism in Stratford

"a very alien place"
'"It should be like the surrounding neighbourhoods spilling in," she says. "The objective is that no one will ever know where the fence was." Given that the site is cut off on all sides by canals, railway cuttings and elevated roads – a secure island that made it particularly attractive to Olympic planners – this will be a struggle.'

'Despite all the blunders around the edge of the site, there are reasons to be optimistic. The communities within could yet be successful. But an uneasy fact remains: that building on the site of a global event – making workable streets from tarmac wastes and weaving housing around velodromes – is a difficult and expensive way of producing a good city. When it comes to building careful, generous places, do we really need the Olympics as an excuse?'

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Trojan Horse and the Great Gasp

Generally speaking, digital manufacturing (3D printing) is seen as a benign development. People may be bewildered – how can it possibly work? – but underneath they accept that in some way they do not understand clever people will make it work and that it will be, somehow, liberating for ‘ordinary’ people.

What threatens our liberty, our autonomy, our ease with the world and its objects now is not so much the methods of manufacture as the economic and commercial structures of society within which those methods are set.

So our attitude to digital fabrication is at odds with public attitudes to new methods of manufacture – machine manufacturing – a century and a half ago when machines were seen as the new way in which ordinary people’s lives and livelihoods would be constrained and destroyed.

The tide has turned. It has turned already in the sense that few people now have much direct or meaningful involvement with the processes of manufacture. The machines won decades ago. As far as people now are involved in manufacture they are likely to be a minority of the population, their roles probably confined to tedious and uncomprehending assembly, probably not in our society but in third-world countries. In our own countries those who are meaningfully involved in manufacturing, those who actually produce objects, are likely to be marginal relicts – like furniture ‘designer-makers’.

So the 3D printer will set us free – one in everyone’s basement. It is a sign of the slight unreality of the debate that we think of basements, when few, in our country, have one. But, never mind, the general thought is valid.

How will we use them? Some people can, and are using them already, but the horizons are limited. Some part on your toaster, say, breaks. If you have another you can 3D scan it and print a replacement. Very useful, but essentially housekeeping – the duplication of trivial objects.

If it is a more substantial or larger object it is likely to require a design made available to you and your machine, which you can download. It may be available for free and thus begin to threaten commercial interests. It may enable you to vary in particular ways – size, additional elements for example – but essentially you are constrained by the design you have been ‘given’ – or maybe bought.

You may have the skills to create your own design from scratch to feed into your printer, but there is little sign that any but a small minority of the population are being educated to the level of computer skills necessary for that.

Nevertheless, manufacturing has come to our basement. You have choice. You can even choose your material – to some extent – including, if your machine is advanced enough, the manufacturing medium. It could even be wood, but it must be ‘engineered’ wood. Essentially, as I understand it, the manufacturing process requires that the material be mashed up, or melted, or dissolved so that it can be extruded or laid down in thin layers. So the connection with the material is lost not just by the fact that there is no hand involvement in the manufacturing. The process requires that the material, if it is not plastic or something similar in its properties, be denatured.

Manufacturing, fabrication, hitherto has largely evolved from the consideration of the particular properties of materials – wood, brass, stone, glass – and the invention of tools and methods to manipulate them. It is staggering to consider that such a vast array might be swept aside in digital manufacturing.

Amongst those larger and more substantial objects that might be considered for this new process, furniture plays a leading role. Substantial, universally required, various in appearance and not very complex in structure. What could be better? And perhaps the prime candidate amongst furniture types would be the chair. Essentially we would be making our chairs out of MDF. Not unprecedented but perhaps not ideal in use. The most extreme – and crudest – stage in the development of engineered timber whereby pieces of material that would formerly have been too small or substandard to be used are combined in manufacturing processes and with machines of staggering accuracy and complexity that hand skills, no matter how highly developed, could possibly emulate – thus covering our extinction of material of higher quality.

The chair is the Trojan Horse of furniture. Designers and architects have elevated its status to art object, design paragon or moral exemplar. Amongst furniture it has unique requirements for structural strength and, desirably if not essentially, ergonomic correspondence. All the rest of furniture – cupboards, tables, shelves – has relatively modest requirements in those directions and the qualities that shape its appearance and our relationship with it concern more the choice of form and pre-eminently the nature of the material, to the extent that material properties govern structure. Material properties, at least in wood, struggle to keep up with the engineering demands of the chair. The chair demands so many joints and joints are wood’s point of weakness.

The chair is a Johnny-come-lately in the world of furniture – there were tables and cupboards and benches long before it appeared and allowed the pretensions of designers, engineers and architects to find their expression, crowding out the skills and knowledge of mere furniture-makers – humble carpenters (who also built houses in the days when their engineering requirements were simple) and relegating them to an inferior or outdated status. We don’t have books published titles the Cupboard or even, I think, The Table, but there must be many books called The Chair (or perhaps 100 Chairs).It is ironic, but not of course contradictory, that the chair becomes the supreme example of ergonomic design and is also the piece of furniture that does most damage to our bodies: it is not desirable to spend much of one’s life sitting in even the most ergonomically designed chair.

Digital fabrication is the latest stage in that process. As yet it produces objects with a low quality of finish but one can be sure that will rapidly change and this will be another mechanised and automated process of manufacture that achieves things impossible for even the best tooled hand. In this respect also the chair has become the supreme furniture type for showing off such achievements. Often in contradiction to the ergonomic chair, the virtuoso maker’s chair, sumptuous and fantastical, clamours for our attention and bankrolls the reputation and status of the star craftsman in a way in which mere tables and cupboards struggle to keep up – though in this case they make the attempt.

Much has been achieved in the pursuit of the immaculate object by hand skills in the past twenty or thirty years (and of course in earlier times and cultures) but one suspects that, once the human hand is firmly excluded from the computerised machine’s operating cabinet, new heights will be reached by methods incomprehensible to most men.

When the reaction is the gasp of incomprehension or disbelief rather than the murmur of informed understanding what shall we have lost? What will be the point?

Wheelbarrow 3

Wednesday, 26 June 2013


"In some strange way we devalue things as soon as we give utterance to them. We believe we have dived tt the uttermost depths of the abyss, and yet when we reurn to the surface the drop of water on our pallid finger-tips no longer resembles the sea from which it came. We think we have discovered a hoard of wonderful treasure-trove, yet when we emerge again into the light of day we see that all we have brought back with us is false stones and chips of glass. But for all this, the treasure goes on glimmering in the darkness, unchanged."

Maeterlinck: the epigraph to Young Torless by Robert Musil

Saturday, 22 June 2013


Amongst the newspaper revelations of the truly vast quantities of personal communications that are hoovered up electronically by the US National Security Agency and by our very own GCHQ at Cheltenham (neighbours of the Ladies' College and no slouch at these things) comes, almost predictably, first the official assurance that our GCHQ "scrupulously" observes the law and secondly the unofficial insider's assurance that the "analysts" are not actually sitting down with a cup of tea and a biscuit to listen in on your two-hour conversation with your granny. No, this monument of electronic data is sifted by computers for tell-tale signs of suspect terrorists or serious criminals who are about to blow up your granny, rob her of her life savings and radicalise her pussycat.

Nevertheless the stuff is there, cosily within the security service's reach and any individual in the future who for any reason became the object of the state's ssupicion or dislike could find themselves hideously exposed.

Elsewhere in the same newspaper is the revelation of the fact that yet another long-term police insider mole, who penetrated an environmental protest group, in this case Greenpeace London, in between fathering a few children in his relationships with female activists, had a major role in writing the pamphlet for which McDonald's spent years and millions in the famous McLibel case prosecuting the two other authors and therby trashing their own reputation.

One remembers other instances where police or perhaps security surveillance has been focussed on apparently harmless individuals (never mind that they were also innocent ones) in the most doggedly persistent and trivialising manner. It would seem that the characteristics of the Stasi are the natural tendency when the state begins to spy on its own citizens. Why should it be any different when it is done with computers rather than hidden microphones and binoculars?

Meanwhile, in this topsy-turvy world, we hear that the arch spy has filed espionage charges against Edward Snowden.

Postscript - information gathering:

Peter Francis, a former undercover police officer turned whistleblower, said his superiors wanted him to find "dirt" that could be used against members of the Lawrence family, in the period shortly after Lawrence's racist murder in April 1993.

He also said senior officers deliberately chose to withhold his role spying on the Lawrence campaign from Sir William Macpherson, who headed a public inquiry to examine the police investigation into the death.

Francis said he had come under "huge and constant pressure" from superiors to "hunt for disinformation" that might be used to undermine those arguing for a better investigation into the murder. He posed as an anti-racist activist in the mid-1990s in his search for intelligence.

"I had to get any information on what was happening in the Stephen Lawrence campaign," Francis said. "They wanted the campaign to stop. It was felt it was going to turn into an elephant.

"Throughout my deployment there was almost constant pressure on me personally to find out anything I could that would discredit these campaigns."

Postscript 2:

Beyond the detail of the operation of the programme, there is a larger, long-term anxiety, clearly expressed by the UK source: "If there was the wrong political change, it could be very dangerous. All you need is to have the wrong government in place. It is capable of abuse because there is no independent scrutiny."

Friday, 7 June 2013

World domination in Watford

What newspaper do participants in the Bilderberg conference favour?

Terrorist, terrorism, terror, security

“The collection is broad in scope, because more narrow collection would limit our ability to protect the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it may assist counter terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities.”

Jame Clapper, United States Director of National Security

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The great Shout

Margaret is staying at Shottesbrooke Hall now, in this grey November, when The Wedge has suddenly  come into my possession.

I note that when I first set down my Story, I speculated that there may have been more than one Beginning to it. I suggested indeed Five Beginnings. For I understood then that no life begins only when it begins, but has many additional inceptions, and each of these determines the course of what is to come.

And now I see with equal clarity that a man's life may have more than one Ending. But alas, the endings I may have earned present themselves to me, each and every one, in a sombre light. If there are five, as there were Five Beginnings, then these must surely be they.

An Ending through loneliness...

An Ending through Poverty...

An Ending through Poisoning...

An Ending from Suicide...

An Ending through Meaninglessness. This, I think, is the prospective ending that most dismays me. Despite a most almighty Struggle with God and my Vocation, endeavouring always (as once exhorted by the King) to discover my own Usefullness and Purpose, I arrive very frequently at the suspicion that my life is a trifling thing, ill-lived, full of Misjudgement, Indulgence and Sloth, leading me only deeper and deeper into an abyss of Confusion and Emptiness, in which I no loner recall why I am alive. And a man who has lost this particular recall must surely be destined soon to Ultimate Oblivion.

Today, Margaret is returning to Bidnold.

He managed to lift himself up a little. But when he looked up at me his gaze was all bewildered, and then, on a sudden, as I had him sitting up, he gave a great Shout, which sounded almost like a clap of laughter. And there was such a wild and vibrant Echo to the Shout that I seemed to hear it carried out of my window into the air and fly westwards along the river, past the boats crowded at Southwark Steps, past the commerce milling at Black Friars' past the gates of the Temple, and sounding on and on and on above the water, until at Whitehall it faded and was heard no more.

And he was gone in that instant of the Shout. It was his last sound on earth.

I closed his eyes and laid my head next to his, and held him to me and wept. The steam from the boiling Coppers shrouded us and made all the air around us white.

I could ardently have wished that he had not passed away so sprawled as he was upon a heap of dirty Laundry, but there I could do nothing. The World is as it chooses to be and he was one who knew it well.

from Merivel: a Man of his Time by Rose Tremain, chapter 2 and epilogue

Thursday, 23 May 2013

1953 and all that

"Before setting out on the expedition Tenzing Norgay sought the blessing of his mother, Kinzom, at the Thyangboche monastery. She wanted to be sure he was fit and well enough to go; having satisfied herself, she returned to her home>"

How green are the shoots?

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Swivel eyed loons 1

Michael Gove, secretary of state for education, champions the government's relaxation of planning controls because "we cannot think of our built environment without thinking of beauty" and we should welcome the prospect of new Chatsworths, NashTerraces of Regent's Park, Edinburgh New Towns, and Salisbury Cathedrals that the government "reforms" are about to unleash upon us. These new buildings of "grace and beauty'" will not only "ravish the eye and lift up the soul" but will provide new affordable housing for thrifty, aspiring, freedom-loving, socially mobile families. (Why be mobile when you live in a Chatsworth?) "No-one who believes in social mobility, in aspiration, in pro-family policies, in thrift and in freedom can be anything other than delighted by the release of more land for housing." The fact that "too few modern buildings can aspire to real beauty is a challenge to the architectural profession". That is the architectural profession which he has recently shouldered out of the business of designing new schools. The property developer "profession", hitherto bound hand and foot by those wicked mediocre architects, is not mentioned, but it is believed to be as delighted as Mr Gove.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

People's Daily architecture

What do they call this in Beijing?
Signature buildings are now everywhere. As one looks downstream in Dubai-on-Thames, crossing Waterloo Bridge, the cityscape is now dominated by them, even as the monstrous 'Walkie Talkie' rises still to its as yet unreached bloated heights, making the slender and much talked-of Shard appear almost insignificant. The Gherkin still holds its sway, appropraitely, as the building that, whatever its merits or demerits, opened the way to a host of clamorous successors, a signal that conspicuous architecture cannot divorce itself from Mammon. The public is right to ascribe nicknames to these buildings, which may, some of them, be 'world class' (if that is a good thing) when seen from a distance, but are seldom world class to the folorn pedestrian who skirts their bases- or even pause to afford him a minimal respect.

Turner Contemporary, Margate - a question of respect?
'World class' was a phrase much beloved of Michael Heseltine, the tory politician and perpetual would-be prime minister who famously (and unacceptably to patrician tories whose extinction we now lament) 'had to buy all his own furniture'. I found myself momentarily warming to the late Margaret Thatcher (who also must have bought her own furniture) when I read that she supposedly said of Michael Heseltine that he had all the attributes necessary fro political success except intelligence.

Donald Winnicott, about whom BBC radio recently ran a programme, used to applaud the ordinary 'good enough mother'. Perhaps we need more ordinary good enough architects. Sadly we are likely to find them, as we find ourselves, as we are so often reminded now by our politicians, in a 'global race' on every side (a phrase that has won out over 'world class' in the great uplifting cliche flat race). We are, however, seldom, if ever, told what lies at the winning post of these global races.

Tweets without end

The end is less nigh than we thought - or maybe not.

I read (in a newspaper) that it is possible to subscribe to a service that coverts tweets into a link, thus freeing them of the limit to 140 characters.

Apparently as the Chancellor of the Exchequer was leaving Margaret Thatcher's funeral service in St paul's Cathedral (though perhaps not quite on the steps), where he was caught on press cameras with a tear trickling down his cheeks, he felt obliged to tweet a comment on how moving the occasion was, in order to regain seeming control of the perception of things. Is there a new career path as tweet-writer for the great and mighty opening up?

"...we came across the word 'twitter', and it was just perfect. The definition was 'a short burst of inconsequential information,' and 'chirps from birds'. And that's exactly what the product was." – Jack Dorsey

Sunday, 5 May 2013

More on sherpas

True Sherpa
See the link in the caption for more information.

A decade or so after the Ascent of Everest, so well coincided with the Coronation, the British idea of a Sherpa was a British Leyland delivery van.

British Leyland Sherpa

If not now, when?

'[British Foreign Secretary] Hague has yet to make a statement since Obama's pledge [to renew his effort to close Guantanamo], but Tory MP Jane Ellison revealed that, during a meeting with MPs campaigning for [Shaker] Aamer's release, he had raised the option of upping the ante through a public plea.'

'Concern is rising about the health of Aamer, who has spent more than 80 days on hunger strike.'

'Aamer's lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, said he was growing increasingly worried about the seriousness of his physical condition. Last week Stafford Smith twice attempted without success to contact Aamer via US authorities, prompting fears that Aamer, who is significantly beyond the point at which a hunger strike can cause "irreversible cognitive impairment", may be seriously ill.'

'Aamer, who has been held for more than 11 years, was cleared in June 2007. US documents dated November 2009 told him that the "United States government intends to transfer you as soon as appropriate arrangements can be made".'