London day 4

Sunday, 13 December 2009:

We had an hour to kill and we needed a toilet. Looking for a free public toilet in London (and most Western cities) is not a lot different from prospecting for gold. If there’s anything I appreciate about Singapore’s ubiquitous shopping centres, it’s their ready availability of toilets. London’s a pain in this respect. I suggested we walk to the British Museum.

Mission accomplished, we wandered around the African and Ancient Egypt exhibits, coming upon these four statues.

From Ancient Egypt

“Look at the base,” I said to Zhengxi (of The Online Citizen). “There’s a sign here that’s really considerate towards the disabled. The blind have special permission to touch. I don’t think you’ll see anything like that in Singapore.”

The sign says: Only blind people on the Touch Tour are permitted to touch certain sculptures.

“Ha, more likely,” he replied, “there’ll be a sign that says ‘Do not touch ESPECIALLY if you’re blind. You might topple it over.'”

* * * * *

The British Museum on Great Russell Street

Zhengxi was impressed with the size of the British Museum.

“Quite likely,” I opined, “their collection of Ancient Greek, Ancient Egyptian and other artefacts is more extensive than New York’s Metropolitan Museum.”

We considered why that might be so. I jokingly offered this explanation: “The Americans may have money. They may have lots of it, but you can only buy what others are willing to sell. The British stocked their museums in a different way, going out to conquer an empire and carting everything they found back home.”

Might there be a ring of truth in that?

* * * * *

Earlier, I was at the National Gallery, snapping this picture before I was told off: “No pictures!”.

Paintings from 1250 - 1500 CE at the National Gallery

I wonder if anyone under age 30 would notice what I notice: how luminously coloured the paintings are.

But aren’t paintings supposed to be coloured? You might ask, which would only reveal your youth.

Thirty years ago, when I had my first encounters with the great art collections of Europe, most of the paintings hanging in galleries were a dark brownish gray. They were dirty from centuries of soot and other pollutants from candles and oil lamps. Dull, lignite colouration was so common that people accepted such a condition almost as proof of age and authenticity: A painting is not great art unless it is so dim you can hardly make out the drawing. The older the work, the more obscured it was. Works from the medieval period particularly were sometimes barely discernible.

Paintings had been dirty for such a long time that popular belief didn’t even ascribe the dismal tonal quality to soot accumulation. People thought that artists of those centuries actually painted in heavy brownish colours. The common belief was that in those days, bright pigments were simply not available (though art historians would have known better).

In recent decades, a concerted effort has been made to clean them; I guess this was only possible when cleaning technology had improved enough to remove the dirt without destroying the original pigments.

The result today is entire galleries of late medieval art filled with light, playful colours. The dour weighty browns and blacks are gone. Pastels, pinks, azures, leafy greens and shimmering gold fill the canvases. For the first time in hundreds of years, humankind is seeing what those artists intended us to see. Think about that. How lucky we are.

* * * * *

"Climate camp", they called it.

Encamped in front of the National Gallery was a climate change protest; I’m not sure what exactly they were trying to achieve by squatting in the damp cold at Trafalgar Square, though certainly many people would have seen their banners.

I had problems with their messaging though. Some of the banners they had (not seen in the photo) bashed coal-powered utilities and capitalism in general. Their environmentalism slides too easily into anti-capitalism. This over-simplifies what capitalism is about. No doubt reliance on the selfish pursuit of wealth can leave huge and ugly external costs unaddressed, however, the solution isn’t to kick  capitalism, but to harness it with proper policy tools, e.g. carbon trading.

The green movement needs to be more discriminating in their messaging; it may also need more intellectual power, otherwise it easily descends into a romantic yearning for either socialism or pastoralism.

British media is full of discussion about global warming, some quite intelligent. There was a good program on the radio this morning while I was having breakfast. The gist of it was that science is never completely settled, but that does not mean that no conclusions can be relied upon. Even as different ideas have varying degrees of evidential support, the fact remains that some ideas are far better supported than others. Global warming is one of those. Exactly how fast it is happening, exactly how much man’s activities have contributed, may be somewhat debatable, but to say that since scientists cannot agree on every last detail, therefore global warming is utter fiction (or better yet, a conspiratorial lie by some hidden power), is absurd.

Saturday’s edition of the Guardian also has a good commentary by Ben Goldacre on the subject. Link.

The denialists of global warming sound awfully like the denialists of the biological basis for homosexuality. The latter pick on the slightest disagreement among scientists to say: Since scientists cannot prove that homosexuality is inborn, nor have they found the smoking gene, therefore homosexuality is chosen behaviour, and therefore you can unchoose… by attending one of our Bible camps.

There are three non-sequiturs in there, but of course those who mouth such things don’t even care to know what a non-sequitur is.

Ben Goldacre goes further. He gives us examples of what he calls ” ‘zombie arguments’: arguments which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down.” People who engage in this are not engaging in science, whether about global warming or about homosexuality; they are just pressing an ideology.

* * * * *

Sometimes, the riposte to ideology can be witty. Below is a photo I took of a sign painted on a building just adjacent to St Giles’ Church. Christianity has quite decided views on suicide; it has even more decided views about God and God’s Will. In response, this anonymous painter said:

Suicide is Man's way of telling God: You can't fire me, I quit.

9 Responses to “London day 4”


  1. 1 Celine Lim 15 December 2009 at 02:03

    When I was in Edinburgh,England I was surprised when someone came up the public bus with a huge dog and sat beside me. I then asked her if it was legally allowed to do so. She answered yes and the pet could even travel free of charge too.

    There was another occasion in a famous shopping mall just like our Orchard Rd in S’pore whereby there were many tourists shopping around. I saw a man laid a piece of cloth and sat quietly together with his huge dog, without latching him, outside the shopping mall. In front of him, he also placed a hat and any passers-by could make a donation to him. A while later, a nice private car came and this man simply stood up, leaving his dog behind, and went into this car and then he was driven away. After 45 mins of my shopping, I came out of shopping mall and still could not see the man at all but his dog remained lying quietly on the piece of cloth. All the passers-by were truly amazed!

  2. 2 Kim 15 December 2009 at 04:59

    Carbon trading is still a relatively new concept and there is a lot of profiteering and unscrupulous businessmen out there set to make a quick big buck out of this without the necessary follow-ups. It is also an avenue for giant carbon producers (eg. oil companies) to buy a cover for their asses and their own way out of guilt. The idea of it all is good but it remains to be seen whether it really is a viable way to save the planet.

    But your point is still valid. We need to have capitalism with a conscience because capitalism will always exist alongside proportionate growth-associated pollution and so reconciliation between the two is necessary.

    Kim

  3. 3 SN 15 December 2009 at 06:26

    “The green movement needs to be more discriminating in their messaging; it may also need more intellectual power, otherwise it easily descends into a romantic yearning for either socialism or pastoralism.”

    It does get worse. Here in Canada, some would like people to stop having children.

    Regards.

  4. 4 Robox 16 December 2009 at 01:20

    This is such a gem; it describes much of what passes for political discourse in Singapore. I’ll do my best to raise awareness for and popularize it.

    Thank you fror bringing it into Singapore.

    “‘zombie arguments’: arguments which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down.” People who engage in this are not engaging in science, whether about global warming or about homosexuality; they are just pressing an ideology.

  5. 5 KT 16 December 2009 at 09:43

    I would like people to stop having children. What’s wrong with that? Having one more human being is equivalent to using 754.3 trillion plastic bags or 7,583 trillion chopsticks. If you care about the environment, stop making babies!

    • 6 SN 16 December 2009 at 11:37

      Dear KT,

      I can’t tell if you are pulling my leg.

      Assuming that you are serious, why not bring the argument to its logical conclusion. Why not go ahead and kill yourself and save whatever amount of plastic bags or chopsticks which you will invariably consume during what remains of your lifetime?

      Regards.

  6. 7 KT 17 December 2009 at 09:53

    There’s nothing ‘logical’ between not making babies and killing someone. Killing you – a much better choice than myself, from my perspective – would be doing harm to a human being. I do not condone that. Just as I do not condone doing harm to the environment. Not making babies, however, does no one any harm, at least not actively. For couples or singles who are childless by choice, it’s in fact a great joy. Making babies harms the environment. That’s a fact. What’s the carbon footprint of a new baby with an 85-year life span, living in an urban environment?

    • 8 SN 19 December 2009 at 00:32

      Dear KT,

      That’s fair enough.

      So, if the reproduction of the human race grinds to a halt, for whom are we preserving the environment?

      Regards.

  7. 9 KT 19 December 2009 at 22:23

    Sigh! Must everything serve a purpose for humankind? Just preserve the environment for the environment’s sake! You don’t have to preserve the environment for *somebody*. Like I’m not killing you, period. It’s not for anyone, nor is it because it’s illegal. Animals, plants, rivers, the oceans, they all have the right to existence in a natural state, irregardless of humankind’s objectives, appreciation and other encumbrances. Do you think the beauty of nature has no purpose, and therefore can be destroyed, if man weren’t there to say, ‘Hey, that’s beautiful’?


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