Monthly Archives: August 2011

A contrarian view: the rioters are a skilful mob

I heard something on the radio as I was lying in the bath this morning. For days, the news has been about the riots affecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere in England. It isn’t pleasant listening, and it is making many people question our society.

But what I heard made me think about things a little differently. (Lying in the bath can do that.)

Before I want to go on, I feel I must express my disgust, horror and fear at the behaviour that the rioters and looters have displayed over the past couple of days. It is close to home – literally: I live two minutes from Wood Green Shopping City. The rioting in Tottenham has devastated an area I know quite well and where friends have lived for many years. It is hard to comprehend the harm done in cities throughout England – especially to small businesses struggling with the economic downturn. (Here’s a link to what people can do to help those harmed by the Tottenham riot, and a similar site on helping those affected by the disturbances in Croydon.)

But, as I say, I heard something on the radio this morning that made me look at things with a slightly different perspective. A pundit was talking on BBC 5Live Breakfast about, I think, disturbances in Birmingham. What he said was something like “the looting was planned and organised”. Planned and organised.

Planning and organising is something I do a fair bit of. It isn’t easier to co-ordinate the activities of people working a project together. Getting people who one can command to cooperate to work together. So the rioters are clearly skilled – despite the stereotypical views one might have of them.

This got me thinking: what skills might these people have? And could we learn from them? This is what I’ve thought of so far…

  1. Planning and organising. Well, the guy on the radio said that. He described looters as gangs of eight or nine youths (pretty close to the optimum number for an effective team – maybe teamwork should be added to the list, too) who would attack a shop, disperse as the Police arrived and then congregate elsewhere to start again. On the fly, therefore, they were making plans and organising themselves effectively.
  2. Communication. This clearly needs effective communication skills. They may not be able to communicate outside their peer group [and I’d recommend reading this post for its views on those rioting], but within it they must do very well.
  3. Technologically literate. They may be functionally illiterate, but they clearly know how to use technological tools at their disposal. Apparently, extensive use of Blackberry Messenger and other social media tools was made by rioters and looters to coordinate their activities. (Fortunately, the riotwombles and their use of the #riotcleanup twitter hashtag also used social media to organise, and have been one of the most positive things to come out of the riots so far.)
  4. Adaptable. The looting in Wood Green was apparently opportunistic – taking advantage of the Police being occupied dealing with the riot in Tottenham. The looters saw that authority was occupied elsewhere, and took advantage. Their attack-and-retire action, regrouping elsewhere as described on the radio shows that the rioters were adapting to changing circumstances. (They may be innovative, too, and problem-solving.)
  5. The power of crowds. The madness and wisdom of crowds has long been known. The looters and rioters have demonstrated what people can do together; better, so have the riotwombles. Together, we can achieve a lot.

There are things in the looting mob to admire, then. That list of skills could come straight out of the list of competencies used by any organisation. What is distressing is that the mobs’ energy is put to such destructive objectives. If our communities – if the mob – could harness that energy for positive ends, think what they could achieve.

I wish I could think how to do that…

[As well as the blogs I’ve linked to in the body of this post – and I heartily recommend reading Rosamicula’s post, “most of the kids are alright” – other informative posts on the rioting and looting include: Inspector Winter for a policeman’s view; Dib Lemming and Caron Lindsay on some political aspects; and Mindhacks on the psychology of the mob.]

Addendum: I had followed the crowd and assumed that the looters were like the failed school pupils described in Rosamicula’s post, as have most of the media. Many may be, but this report of court proceedings indicates that looters also included students, journalists, an estate agent, an aspiring ballerina, and a would-be social worker. Rather different to the usual view of rioters. It could be that these people were just the ones that got caught, of course…

A technical photography question: discrepancies between zoom lenses

I haven’t written about photography here before, but I have a technical issue and I thought this would be a good place to raise it…

I use two lenses with my DSLR: an 18-50mm zoom and a 55-200mm zoom, both Sigma. Before I went on holiday in June, I bought one lens to cover the same range – another Sigma, 18-200mm.

When I got home, I wanted to compare the new lens quality to my old lenses. I set it to 200mm and took a picture; then did the same with my 55-200mm.

The quality wasn’t an issue; but the two pictures had quite different fields of view – despite both being “200” mm. I estimated that at its full extent, the new lens was equivalent to c. 130mm on the older lens.

I wasn’t happy about this – having just forked out a couple of hundred quid, I had failed to duplicate the full range. I took the lens back to the shop, where we duplicated the test, and the salesman agreed that the field of view was significantly less than I had expected. He explained that this was because the 10-200mm lens was not a zoom but a “versatile” lens. This sounded like saleman’s flannel – surely 200mm should be 200mm? (He was good enough to refund my money, and I would recommend them for good service and prices.)

My brother was visiting this weekend, and he has a Nikon 18-200mm zoom, so we repeated the experiment – with exactly the same results. The image from the Nikon lens had a much wider field of view, equivalent to about 130mm on the Sigma.

Here’s the image from my original lens, set at 200mm:


Here’s that from the Nikon 18-200mm, set to 200mm:


Here are the two overlaid, the Sigma image resized (not a perfect fit):

DSC_8618 v 8617

And here are the outlines of the two, for comparison – the Nikon 18-200mm in red, the Sigma 55-200 in blue:

200 comparison

The metadata recorded by the camera says that both lenses were shooting at 200mm.

Clearly, 200mm is not always 200mm. I don’t know which lens is truer to 200mm: I don’t have access to a fixed 200mm lens.

Does anyone have an explanation for the difference between the lenses?

Any views appreciated!