Gallery: "covid-19"

This is a longer post than usual, as the subject is vast…

Perhaps uncharacteristically, this week I feel more optimistic about the future than I have for months. It’s only December, so forget New Year resolutions such as losing three stones by Easter, becoming a millionaire by the time you’re 40, or developing the charisma of Cary Grant … but it looks like we may soon have several vaccines which are effective against Covid-19.

Once we get through the pandemic and meet ourselves again on the other side, things will look brighter. After all, growing up in Thatcher-era Britain we became used to problems which could seemingly never find a solution: Cruise missiles, The Troubles, Apartheid, the Berlin Wall, the Poll Tax, Acid Rain and the Ozone Hole. Yet the Wall came down in 1989, the Poll Tax was abolished in 1991, the Americans left Greenham Common in 1992, South Africa was freed from apartheid in 1993 and the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

Even more heartening is proof that we can heal our damaged planet, if we make a collective effort. Lost amongst the pandemic headlines in March 2020 was news that the ozone layer is continuing to shrink and has the potential to fully recover, according to a paper published in Nature, which proves that environmental damage can be reversed by orchestrated global action. Similarly, acid rain was tackled and virtually eradicated in Europe and North America, although you don’t often hear about that very much either.

Unfortunately, all the mass media seem to do is repeat bad news stories about the environment, with Barry McGuire's “Eve of Destruction” playing loudly in the background. Yet unless we have proof that we can make a difference, we’re unlikely to make the effort.

 

2021 AD
What will a post-Covid world look like? Making predictions and prophecies about the future is a mug’s game, although it seemed to work out for that clairvoyancy cartel – Old Mother Shipton, Nostradamus and the Brahan Seer. Behind Dominic Cummings’ slogans such as “Build Back Better” and “Green Recovery” is lots of humbug. However, extrapolation of the recent past is a good way to tell what might happen in the near future, and current trends may point the way towards what will happen in 2021.

Towards the end of his new book, Investing for Growth, the fund manager Terry Smith points out, “Looking back, it seems that crises, including pandemics, accelerate some existing economic trends.”  He identifies Covid-19 beneficiaries might include Remote working, Home cooking, Telemedicine, Online schooling and Automation. There are a few more themes to consider…

 

The death of the High Street
Predicting the death of the high street is a popular hobby, and its demise has been announced many times over. The pandemic is just the latest challenge, super·charged by internet shopping. Of course, before the internet, the High Street was under attack in the 2000’s by out-of-town retail, in the 1980’s by shopping malls, in the 1960’s by supermarkets, in the 1940’s by rationing and in the 1920’s by mail order catalogues inspired by Sears Roebuck … it’s always been in flux, under threat and never more so than when their buildings have been sold off and leased back from ground rent REIT's.  They ruin everything they touch, like King Midas in reverse.

The data used to establish the trend of declining activity makes for sober reading. According to the Centre for Retail Research, there were 600,000 stores in the UK in 1950. By 2012, this had fallen to 290,000 and even before Covid it was projected to decline to 220,000 by 2020. At the current rate of growth, the internet will account for 40 per cent of retail sales by 2030, compared to around 17 per cent prior to the pandemic.
 
High-street banks are becoming something of a rarity, and specialised outlets such as toy shops, book shops and tobacconists have succumbed to internet buying or discount supermarket offers. The pandemic has brought forward the debate on what should be on the High Street. There will always be a need for convenience stores, and after a year or more living under Covid restrictions, most of us will return to socialising with a vengeance, mostly likely returning to bars, restaurants, theatres, galleries and everywhere people come together – but perhaps we could find a better home for the Starbucks, charity shops, estate agents, gyms that open 24/7 and 99p stores.  There may be room for niche outlets such as quality butchers too, but along side them are the dreamy ventures of gentrification: fusion fast food outlets, micro·breweries, the yoga studio that also serves dairy-free yogurt, and the barbershop that only shaves beards.

 

Future travel: Electric Aircraft
2020 won’t spell the end for air travel, because people enjoy it and the world will continue getting smaller, as it has done since Leif Erikson discovered America. The world’s airlines have already begun switching from Jet A1 (kerosene) to electric and hydrogen power. Over the years, I’ve done some work with three different aviation firms, including a training organisation, a fan blade manufacturer and a turbine maintenance firm.

From chats with them, I gather that several different electric aircraft are already flying, including an Electric Beaver, the Pipistrelle, a Swedish regional airliner, and a Rolls-Royce-powered racing planeIn addition, ZeroAvia, a California and UK-based startup, is currently working on a 20 seater aircraft using hydrogen fuel cells, which it claims will have a range of up to 500 miles, London to Frankfurt. Hybrid Air Vehicles, a UK company, hope to bring back giant airships to replace air freight (though their modern designs use helium, rather than the Hindenburg’s hydrogen).

 

Hydrogen vehicles
The motoring press think that pure electric vehicles are a stepping stone towards fuel cell vehicles, which are powered by hydrogen.  The latter have the advantage that they have a range similar to a petrol or diesel, 400 or 500 miles, the tank can be filled in a couple of minutes, and we don’t have to worry about “range anxiety”.
 
Pure electric cars have many drawbacks.  Batteries mean heavier cars, typically 300 or 400kg extra, charging times can be anything from half an hour to eight or ten hours.  Battery performance deteriorates over the years, and the quoted 200 or 300 mile range of an EV is fine in California, but in the Scottish winter with lights, heater, fan blower, heated screens and so forth working combined with a low temperature which has decreased the battery’s capacity, the range may only be half that.  Or less.
 
There are over 25 million homes in the UK, and 6 million private sector businesses, so you’d imagine that well over 30 million power supplies and charging sockets would be required for EV’s – bearing in mind you may need a couple of chargers at home and one at work too.  On the other hand, we already have a network of around 8500 filling stations, and provided you can replace the petrol tanks with hydrogen tanks, you have a ready solution which doesn’t involve fundamental re-wiring of the entire country.
 
Most damningly, lithium ion and similar battery technologies require rare earth elements which are typically found in environmentally-sensitive areas.  If we destroy swathes of tundra and the Greenland ice shelf by opencast mining for rare earths, is that any better than chopping down rainforests, or pumping global warming gases into the atmosphere?  There are already hydrogen-powered buses running in Aberdeen, and perhaps fuel cell cars and lorries will overtake electric vehicles in the next few years.

 

Sustainable Power
The difference we’ve already made by using clean power in Scotland goes back for generations. Since the 1940’s, Scotland has constructed dozens of large and small hydropower plants, and recently, approval was granted to SSE (the successor to the North of Scotland Hydro Board) for the Coire Glas pumped storage scheme, their first big hydro scheme since Glendoe, itself the first major hydro scheme built in Scotland for nearly 30 years. At the same time, SSE are developing the world’s biggest wind farm, on the Dogger Bank.  Our power has been "green" for decades, and at some point in the near future, might even be 100% sustainable.

 

Revanchism
A grasp of the subtleties of human nature teaches you that when something is taken away, you try to get it back.  At worst that means propping up a lost cause by “throwing good money after bad” or the so-called sunk cost fallacy.  At the moment it means that while activists/ campaigners/ pressure groups are trying to force through radical change under cover of the Covid pandemic, ordinary folk will simply be happy to emerge from 2020 with their health, plus some hope of retaining their job, their home and some shreds of their way of life.

The Russian Revolution was perhaps the most radical attempt at social engineering during the past 100 years.  It succeeded in ridding Russia of its royal family, and eventually delivered Constructivism, space travel, and the military machine which beat Hitler – but it came at a huge cost.  When anyone speaks about “revolutionary” change, think carefully about what that means.  Revolution is called for by those with nothing to lose; for the rest of us, no-one wants to lose what they feel that they’ve worked for.

 

Anti·bacterial & hypo·allergenic materials
Another side effect of Covid-19 may be a renewed interest in making the environment around us naturally healthy and free from bacteria – without having to resort to face masks, PPE and vaccines. Before we had effective drug treatments for tuberculosis, sanatoria were built in the mountains because the effects of fresh air and ultraviolet light from sunshine were recognised as an effective therapy for some patients. Nowadays healthy buildings might include consideration of innately healthy materials:

Linoleum is naturally anti·bacterial, anti·allergic and anti·static. A few years ago, research carried out by the TNO Nutrition and Food Research Institute in Holland showed that linoleum can destroy or inhibit the growth of two strains of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus areus - also known as MRSA. Forbo-Nairn Marmoleum is already in use at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, the Sick Kids' in Edinburgh, Queen Margaret Hospital in Dunfermline, and Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy.

Copper & bronze alloys are also very effective at killing superbugs, along with influenza and norovirus – bacteria which mutate so rapidly that our vaccines can’t keep up with them. But copper·based alloys such as bronze kill them within a couple of hours of contact, which means that door hardware, taps, switch plates and other frequently-touched surfaces shouldn’t be made from plastic or stainless steel.

Cedarwood is popular for clothes hangers, wardrobes and chests of drawers for good reason: its aromatic scent comes from thujaplicin, a natural anti·bacterial and anti·fungal agent. Some varieties such as true cedar and Spanish cedar have insect-repellant qualities, and cedar wood’s anti·fungal properties make it very resistant to rot, so it has a long life when used as external cladding. Hence cedar boarding, and cedar shingles, neither of which need poisonous timber preservative treatments.

 

A letter to the future from Orwell
The future that George Orwell predicted has arrived, but rather than an all-powerful state acting as Big Brother and carrying out surveillance against our will, we’ve invited Big Brother into our houses, and are paying a monthly subscription for the privilege. The Amazon “Alexa” speaker is a fifth columnist in your living room. Google Latitude software on your smartphone is a stalker in your pocket. GPS in your car’s satnav is the spy in the cab. Your smartwatch is an incubus, monitoring every waking and sleeping hour.

As George Soros predicted a couple of years ago, “The owners of the platform giants consider themselves the masters of the universe, but in fact they are slaves to preserving their dominant position. Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered. Regulation and taxation will be their undoing, and EU Competition Commissioner Vestager will be their nemesis.”

So Margarethe Vestager, rather than Winston Smith, may be our salvation. In dealing with the US tech giants from Mountain View in California, she might free us from the overlords who spy on and record every aspect of our lives via smart TV’s, smart phones, smart watches and through the so-called internet of things, perhaps even smart toasters. A warning from history: if you were a fan of Sci-Fi satire Red Dwarf, you may remember what Kryten did to finally silence Talkie Toaster…

 

Sectoral shifts within property development
More prosaically, some of the changes likely to develop in 2021 began incubating long ago. Rather than abandoning projects years in the making, it seems that developers and landlords may convert half-built offices into serviced apartments and flats. Given the rise of renting in big cities, Build to Rent has become a bigger deal for housing developers than Build to Sell. But the one thing developers aren’t likely to countenance is improving space standards by providing more square footage – even though the way viruses like Covid spread, point to living at lower density being safer.

 

Optimism
Optimism is still with us, even after nine months of struggle against the virus. Yet if we start to lose the faith and waiver, it's worth casting our minds back to two of Scotland's greats.  In his rectorial address to Glasgow University in 1972, Jimmy Reid quoted Robert Burns.

In “Why should we idly waste our prime,” Burns writes:,
"The golden age, we’ll then revive, each man shall be a brother,
In harmony we all shall live and till the earth together,
In virtue trained, enlightened youth shall move each fellow creature,

And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature”.

Jimmy ended his speech by saying - “It’s my belief that all the factors to make a practical reality of such a world are maturing now. I would like to think that our generation took mankind some way along the road towards this goal. It’s a goal worth fighting for.”

 

By • Galleries: Uncategorized, covid-19

For the past decade and a bit, I’ve dabbled in social media. Like most of us, I’m increasingly suspicious of it but at the same time it’s difficult to ignore. However, while “influencers” and commercial companies feel compelled to promote themselves on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, asking us to *like, comment and share*, individuals can make up their own minds.

So my Facebook account is totally locked down. Unless you know me in real life, you won’t be able to find my Facebook page. I don’t share much information on it, because Facebook is mostly a useful way to keep in touch with people, using the Messenger function like an email account. MySpace died about a decade ago, but I wasn’t any more active on that, and I recall deleting the account some time a few years ago.

I liked the idea of sharing personal artwork and photos much better, so I investigated a few websites. I’ve never really got along with Instagram, but I had a brief flirtation with Ipernity then I tried 500px for a while, before realising that it’s a popularity contest driven by uploading a certain type of image – dynamic wide angle shots with super-saturated colour or high contrast monochrome in the case of architectural photography; dramatic mountain sunrises or coastlines with silky smooth seas in the case of landscape photos. The Lee “Big Stopper” has a lot to answer for.

More successful is Flickr, where I’ve posted photos for around 14 years. I just use the free version, uploading photos occasionally to share with friends and acquaintances. I don’t have an online cloud storage account with thousands of images, nor a portfolio website, and the Flickr account is anonymous, in the sense that it’s not under my real name.

I’ve uploaded a couple of images every month, sometimes things that appeal only to me, sometimes experiments that went wrong, or shots that will jog my memory but mean nothing to anyone else, and occasionally images I think might appeal to other people. There’s no set pattern, although quite a few were shot on film because I like experimenting with analogue; whereas most of my images which magazines have published were shot on digital cameras.

Gradually, as I’ve followed some people whose photos I like and some have followed me in return, some of the Flickr images gained a few favourites and some comments. Usually just a few, although very occasionally one gets ten or even twenty “faves”. I’m quite blasé about that. I’m pleased that other people like the photo, although it wouldn’t bother me if no-one did. In that sense, the Flickr account is a personal journal and anything else is a curious bonus.

Since the lockdown began, I’ve been working from home and tried to post something to Flickr every other day, to keep my eye in. It’s interesting to look through your old photos, remind yourself of places you visited and people you met. Occasionally re-scanning a transparency or reprocessing a RAW file, then I’ll upload it, add a few tags and add it to a few Flickr groups. One or two people I know leave a comment, and perhaps next time I log in there’s a little pink star denoting that a few folk have “faved” it.

But today a strange thing happened. When I logged in to upload a photo, I noticed that the Notifications bell was pink. When I clicked on it, the message said “Ansel Adams, David Bailey and 45 others have faved your photo” (Names have been changed to protect the innocent). In the space of a day, this photo has achieved what none of the others have: it’s been picked for “Explore”, which is Flickr’s front page gallery, and the faves have rolled in.

As I type this, more than 100 people have favourited the photo, if “to favourite” is a verb. I felt slightly chuffed for a minute, enjoyed a little dopamine hit, although I realise that I’ve fallen into the trap which Flickr set for me when I joined. Social media runs on a lifeblood of likes, shares, views, favourites, and comments, and today I may have accidentally figured out one aspect of the Flickr algorithm.

Reaching Flickr’s Explore page for the first time in 14 years is probably a reward for me engaging much more with Flickr than I have done before. Due to Covid-19, I log in every other day rather than every other week, and at the moment I’m posting many more photos than usual. Instagram, Ipernity, 500px and other photo or image sharing websites work in much the same way, with you providing the “media”, and other users providing the “social” aspect. The more you interact, the more feedback they provide.

Of course, before long you’ve become a “content provider”, under pressure to post your images, to share them across several social media platforms so that your army of “followers” can see. That nagging pressure to keep up, and the corollary that if you don’t post something, anything, people will forget about you. Before long you’re uploading YouTube videos with clickbait titles, and formulaic photos accompanied by literary quotes or pseudo-philosophical titles designed to make yourself look smarter than the average bear.

I’m sure of one thing, though. While I like the composition and colours in the photo, it certainly didn’t reach Explore thanks to being an artistic masterwork. As photos go, it’s OK, but definitely no more than an average bear.

ps. Please be sure to like, comment and share this article on your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… ;-)

By • Galleries: covid-19, photography

I wondered about using this blog as a “Covid diary” for the duration of the lockdown, perhaps posting much more frequently, as I've done in the past during the Carbuncles judging process. I soon realised I would only be posting much the same stuff as everyone else.  Skype, VPN's, the demands of working from home, furlough. 

It's difficult to find an honest response to the virus when it's so new, there are many unknowns and the risks are so high.  Everyday existence is strange now, although losing some liberty is nothing to losing your life. So instead I'll pick up with some thoughts on urban planning, and how a good view ultimately provides better public health.
 
The city climbs up from its dirty old port through tight-knit streets of shops, factories and tenements.  Beyond them lie the whaling captains’ houses, then Georgian terraces and Victorian feus, and finally post-war estates - but the pattern breaks when you get near the top of the hill.  Circled by stone dykes twelve feet high is an estate once owned by an industrialist.
 
Over the past few months, shares in the company he founded a century-and-a-half ago have dropped by 90%.  The chief executive – someone from a faraway country, because the firm has few links to the city where it grew up – has been fired, but there’s little the board can do.  The company is a hostage to fortune in the American-Chinese trade war.  Yet the wealth it made here generations ago was invested in land and property, and that provides more than financial value.

Space is ideological.  Some people – many of whom are young, poor and urban, plus hipster academics who’ve read Walter Benjamin – advocate living at high density and sharing communal spaces.  We nod and agree that’s a pragmatic way to build cities where land is expensive and good sites command a premium.  Pragmatic, but the evidence points in the opposite direction when people are offered a choice. 

Once they acquire some money, they no longer make a virtue out of the necessity of living in cramped flats in the inner city. Instead, they move up the hill to get cleaner air, longer views and the extra space that money buys.  They climb the property ladder to more rooms, larger rooms, space for their children to run around, and separation from other peoples’ children. Most of all, they buy themselves some Private Realm: space for yourself and its corollary, privacy from other people.

Urbanists often speak about that in negative terms, yet psychologists tell us that the psyche yearns for a sense of agency over our own lives and living space.  Space to live as we wish to: peace to reflect on our good fortune, or a licence to party without bothering anyone else. The chance to live surrounded by PLU or “People Like Us” – and a rapid identification that this is the kind of place you’ll like, if you like this kind of place.

This is difficult territory for planners, politicians and anyone else with a God complex. There are the obvious factors of money, status and self image all of which correlate strongly with the place we live. Some suburbs stigmatise people, others associate you instantly with snobbery. Underlying that, though, are ramifications for how we live and even for how long we’ll live.

The Victorians shaped our cities in a deliberate way: since the prevailing wind in Scotland is south-westerly, factories were built in the East End so that their smoke blew in the opposite direction to houses in the West End. Inner cities may have been mixed use, with workers living close to mills and foundries and shipyards, but the captains of industry kept themselves apart. For good reason – air pollution and TB caused countless premature deaths. Smog, pea-soupers and acid rain were literally death from above.

For the most part, urban planning in the Victorian city was a kind of social engineering, the sort done with money rather than a social or political manifesto which levels things out. It bred resentment, an implicit feeling that money doesn’t only buy you a nice house, but a better standard of living which stretches into a longer, healthier life. The air really is fresher the higher up the hill you go – smoke sits in low-lying areas, temperature inversions hold pollution in hollows, and katabatic winds push smoke down the valley floor.

As you go upwards, there are lots of cues. Roads marked Private, which have never been adopted. High walls, broken only by electrically-powered gates. No Trespassing signs. CCTV cameras fixed to gateposts. But there’s only so much land, and the hill only has one top.

Overflying the hill with a drone, you’ll see that some modern houses are Frank Lloyd Wright transposed to Scotland a century on. Prairie-style bungalows with lots of glass and shallow pitched roofs with sweeping hips clad in blue slates.  They sit on terraces and patios and pools.  Elsewhere is a rambling Victorian mansion with half-timbered gables and rosemary-tiled roof; its grand coach house even has its own gatelodge…

In 1987, the author Frank White coined the term “Overview Effect” to describe how peoples’ perspective changes when they view the Earth from space. Having listened to a number of astronauts, he concluded that observing our planet from a distance changed them: as well as the expected feeling of awe, it fostered a sense of responsibility for the environment and some insight into the interconnectedness of everything.

I wonder if the top of the hill, seen from a helicopter, would make folk feel the same today.

Right now, with coronavirus having forced us to lock down the entire country, population density is a real issue. When we’re out in public we have to stay two metres apart – and if someone sneezes, we should probably be further apart than that. Although the Government mantra is that we’re all in this together, that’s a metaphor for how we could think about getting through Covid-19.

In reality, we’re all living slightly apart. If the pandemic gets worse, we’re likely to edge another couple of steps further away, searching for fresher air and the reassurance of space around us. #seeyouontheotherside is trending on Twitter today. As it turns out, the "other side" probably lies just a bit further up the hill.

By • Galleries: covid-19