Photography ... astronomy ... art ... design ... technology
(... and the odd rant)

All of these make my world go 'round, to some extent, and they will all be found here at some time or other. Some of the photography can be purchased from my Redbubble site. I can also be found at Tempus Fugit (no longer being updated).

Monday, May 12, 2014

Time will tell

There has always been a bit of a left-of-centre* streak in my photography, albeit with plenty of straight-down-the-middle conventionalism to balance. I studied photography in a 3-year diploma course, specialising in applied photography in my final year, and encountered all sorts of photographic possibilities along the way. That course led me into employment at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh; not your average job for a freshly-minted young photographer. (* When I say 'left-of-centre', I suppose I should say 'right-of-centre' as well, since I dabble with 3D stereo pairs, but that's another matter; you can investigate here.)

Laser dispersed through flashbulb

When I started snapping in the early 70s, you took a roll of plastic material (coated with dry gelatin & suffused with silver halide salts) and inserted it into a camera. That's right: the back of the camera opened up, and a roll of film went inside, which allowed you to take a limited number of photographs—usually 8, 10, 12, 16, 20, 24, 36, 48 or 72—before you had to stop and reload. Imagine a memory card that limited!

As an aside, whenever I use film these days, the smells take me right back to 197X; they were just an incidental part of the photographic process until the 90s, but now they are an incredible nostalgia trigger. I should get a bottle of Paterson Acutol, just so I can open it for a sniff every now & then. (I don't miss the benzene-based colour chemistry of the 70s & 80s; it just smelt psychoactive.)

So, how did my left-of-centre radicalism manifest? Often, it was just through taking a shortcut to a result, such as shooting a pic on a cut-down sheet of enlarging paper, rather than load a whole film. Or processing in a developer not intended for the job, just because it was available. Sometimes though, I'd shoot pictures with the question 'what if?' in mind. I was always an advocate for the idea that, never mind what the rule book says, have a go, and see what works. I suppose it's surprising, given that attitude, that I never took to cross-processing, but there you go. I wouldn't want to be predictable, would I?

These days, as well as doing less and less photography as time goes by, I use traditional materials on a very infrequent basis. One thing that does get me loading a camera with light-sensitive silver-based materials is pinhole photography. It is possible to do pinhole with digital, but the small sensor size—even if using a full-frame DSLR—is rather limiting, as is the field of view. So, when I see a piece about anyone using traditional materials, or cameras before electronics really took over, I'm immediately interested.


 Extreme-wideangle pinhole selfie

Pinhole photography is photography almost at its most basic (I'll allow that photograms are even more basic): no lens, no shutter, no aperture, no light meter, no viewfinder. Just photographer and instinct. In practice, I might use a hand-held light meter to gauge the right exposure, but it's not absolutely necessary, after a bit of experience. There is something very satisfying about creating a photograph without all that modern technology has to offer.

When I read of a project to create pinhole photographs with 100-year exposure times, I was therefore immediately interested. For a few years, folk have been creating solargraphs—year-long exposures that record the Sun's movement, both east-west and north-south. These photographs are taken using photographic enlarging paper, but are not developed in the normal way; instead, they are scanned as soon as the camera is opened, to record the image that has appeared on the light-sensitive material.



A typical solargraph - source article

Now, somebody has come up with the idea that you could load a simple camera with black paper, and expose it for a hundred years to create a record of urban change during that period. Not black photographic paper, mind you, just black paper. Photographers, as well as scrapbookers, generally like the idea that a photograph will last for a very long time, if processed and stored properly. Cheap paper can contain acid from the manufacturing process, and will consequently not last for a very long time if exposed to light (the acid will also harm any other materials stored with it, but that's another story). Papers intended for archival use will last much longer, but ultimately, papers exposed to light—especially UV-loaded daylight—will fade or turn yellow, and that will be the mechanism that's relied upon in this project.

To anyone who has used that lovely material, Cibachrome, there may be a resonance here. Unlike every other photographic material where exposure, followed by development, created an image with either granular silver or colour dye, each Cibachrome print began with a sheet of enlarging paper that contained all the dyes already in place; it looked brown before exposure etc. The technical beauty of Cibachrome (for me) was in the process of developing a silver image and then bleaching that image and the dyes associated with it, leaving only the dyes that weren't affected by the exposure, leaving a direct positive image (it was used for printing from colour slides, not negatives). (It also meant that the image was sharper, as the dyes in the unexposed emulsion limited light scatter.)


I just loved the brilliance (both literal and metaphorical) of the Cibachrome method, and thought that it had been discontinued years ago, after it had been renamed Ilfochrome; however, the Ilford site says that it is still available. This chap seems to think that it was on the way out, and shows the material being used for original in-camera photography, rather than for printing.



The point about that apparent digression is that the photographer behind this project is using black paper, which should gradually be bleached away to a positive image; or so the theory goes. There are many questions, of course, about this project: will the cameras still be there in 100 years; will the exposures actually work; will the images be worthwhile, in any broad sense of the word? If all goes to plan, it might make for a fascinating exhibition/book/blog post; it if fails, then likely very few people will notice or care … but I suspect that's art for you.

Read about the project here: petapixel.com/2014/05/09/100-cameras-will-photograph-berlin-ridiculous-100-year-exposure-times/

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In search of caffeine

When we lived in Edinburgh, one of our favourite pastimes was to go for a drive through East Lothian. We'd just pick a road and head down it; with plenty to choose from, we'd have a different journey each time. East Lothian is a coastal county, bounded to the north by that well-known Scottish linguistic joke, the Firth of Forth. It is a green place, containing both coal-mining towns and pastoral land—and even the odd site of historical importance (a hoard of Roman silver was found on Traprain Law in 1919).

 Ripening Harvest, East Lothian

Having moved to the New South Wales north coast 16 years ago, we found the opportunities for similar explorations a little more limited, although we did have a few favourite roads through the Coffs coast hinterland. Four years ago, the move to Brisbane's southern suburbs reduced the opportunities even further, although we have taken the occasional meandering route home through some of the older suburbs, to enjoy a glimpse of the city's older residential architecture.

More recently, we have been nursing a notion that moving inland to a large country town might be a good idea. Although there is no mandatory retirement age in the Brisbane City Council, I start drawing my UK Civil Service pension in less than five years, with the old age pension 5-10 years beyond that (depending upon how far those particular goalposts are moved by government policy).With that notion in mind, we finally took a trip to Toowoomba, having said many times that we should.

My introduction to Australia (apart from the few days in Sydney after arrival), was two years spent in the small country town of Coonabarabran, the local centre for staff working at the UK Schmidt Telescope, to which I had been assigned for a while. Coming from the cultural sophistication—not to mention the ancient roots—of a city of 300,000 people, I felt as if I'd arrived in the Wild West. The strange shop awnings, some unsealed roads, and huge cars that you could play 5-a-side football upon, were a world away from the Georgian architecture and horizon-to-horizon asphalt of Scotland's capital. However, I took to it pretty quickly: the change was refreshing, and I grew to like living among just 3,000 people, in a simpler, more honest way of life. In a way, this place seemed to have a lot in common with the in-your-face bluntness of Glasgow, than the behind-closed-doors cliqueish attitudes of Edinburgh. And, because Heather had grown up in such places, whenever we travelled thereafter, we would compare places to Coona', which seemed like the 'real Australia'.

It is partly with that feeling in mind that we feel drawn to smaller town life, although I would also welcome a move to the drier side of the Great Dividing Range, where tools don't go rusty and camera lenses (among other things) don't do mouldy, like they do in a humid coastal environment.


The Warrumbungle Mountains, on the Great Dividing Range

In between our first planning to see Toowoomba, and our actually going there, Heather had gained a friend just an hour further west. The visit was therefore to kill the proverbial two birds. We could have done with another day or two, but it had to be something of a flying visit—which just means we have an excuse to do it again later on.

So, what's important in our choice of town? I've said for some time that I could pretty much live anywhere, that home can be where I hang my hat. Coming to Brisbane has been enjoyable, although that might not have been the case had we not managed to find a home in the suburb that we settled upon. Here, there is easy access into and out of Brisbane, on relatively uncongested roads, and the public transport is good; my journey to work is a fairly trivial run of less than 20 minutes, and the suburb itself is good. Retiring to a country town though, there will be no drive to work, and the way out of town will be pretty straightforward anyway.

We have few vices, but one that we do have is the pleasure of seeking out a cafe that makes a good coffee. There is plenty of average coffee around, but I can make that at home, if I'm being sloppy. Joining the Brisbane Coffee Lovers Meetup group introduced us to a few places, and we have found more ourselves. So, we would hope that anywhere else that we settle has at least one place we can repair to, for a well-made cup. After a terribly long drive from home (OK, about 90 minutes), we therefore stepped into the first likely place that we saw, to slake our coffee-flavoured thirst. Sadly, it was quite average. Not bad, but not great. After that, we went walkabout, to see what the town centre had to offer, stopping to buy some things for lunch on the way, which we later scoffed in the botanic gardens. Good, there is at least one excellent deli in town.


Nature, ignoring unnatural boundaries


Nature, being natural

The day soon went, as we meandered about both on foot and by car. We had agreed to be at our friends' place for 6, so leaving around 5 was the plan, but we had need of another coffee, after a hard day swanning around†. We spotted a place that looked like it was trying to be a Melbourne lane cafe, and after a quick butchers inside, decided that it seemed authentic enough. Sadly, the coffee wasn't to my palate, so another one was crossed off the mental list.


Urban retro-chic

After our night in Dalby (where the sky was dark and the stars bright), generally chewing the fat evening and morn, we headed back east around midday. This late on Anzac day, the ceremonial parades had finished, and we found Toowoomba to be mostly closed. After another walk around town, we had a delicious lunch at the Biriyani Hut, followed by ice cream and sorbet at the corner cafe, followed by … wait for it … a gorgeous coffee. We'd found it at last, and know where to go next time. The iced delicacies were very good as well, so no complaints there at all. Mission accomplished.

The drive home took us back across flat pastoral land, with cotton, sorghum and who-knows-what-else? Coupled with a blue sky scattered with meteorological cotton-wool above the agricultural kind, a few photos were called for. I dare say I'll be back for more.


Cotton-wool clouds after the harvest

Do swans 'people around', when they're on a long lead?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Nocturnal lunacy

Time was, we counted the passage of time in Moons. It's a convenient measure: short enough that one is 'only recently' but long enough that a dozen or so will take you through a set of seasons. 'Moons' in this context, means lunar months—or more specifically, the synodic months from New to Full and back again to New; a period of 29.5 days. (The other lunar month is the sidereal one, when the Moon returns to approximately the same position among the stars.)

The Moon is endlessly fascinating. Whether you are watching a Moonrise over the bay with nothing but your eyes (and possibly a glass of something convivial), or you are studying it at high magnification through a large telescope under a crystal-clear dark rural sky, it has a universal appeal.

For my part, I have watched with telescope and without; with binoculars; with camera; and with all sorts of permutations thereof. I have watched its phases come and go. I have watched the Sun's light slowly creeping across that distant landscape, illuminating crater floors and mountain peaks: a constantly-changing chiaroscuro that Buzz Aldrin described from its surface as 'magnificent desolation'.

Purbach, Arzachel & the Straight Wall


In 1976 I was given a second-hand 6-inch (150 mm) reflecting telescope. I had arrived. At last, I had an instrument with a proper mount, driven to follow the movement of the stars (actually, the rotation of the Earth, but let's not quibble), with which I could employ substantial magnification upon celestial sights near and far. By that time I had already decided that I needed to learn about photography, so that I could record what I was seeing through the eyepiece. Little did I know the challenge ahead...

I did try to mate my somewhat ancient SLR camera to the telescope, trying to get decent photographs of Moon and planets, but the results were generally disappointing. Fuzzy, shaken images discouraged me and until I was introduced to the Thomas Cooke 6-inch photovisual refractor at the City Observatory in Edinburgh, I did no more telescopic photography. The Cooke was a fine instrument in a poor situation. Murky city skies and poor 'seeing' were constantly conspiring to reduce image quality, but I did dabble a bit, and even recorded the second Scottish image of Comet Halley with it in 1985.

Copernicus, Eratosthenes & Appenines


I have the good fortune these days to work at the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium, which is equipped with a Zeiss 150 mm refractor. The beauty of that instrument is that it sits on a coudé mount, which means that the viewing end doesn't move with the telescope, which in turns allows any camera to be mounted without upsetting the balance. The drawback to this telescope is its optical system: as an ordinary 'achromat', it is subject to incompletely-corrected colour, so that when taking photographs there tends to be a blue haze around bright objects. (The Cooke, with a 'photovisual' triplet objective, was corrected for red, green and blue light.) So, after trying for a while to take some decent lunar photographs through the Zeiss, I find that unless I want to discard the blue channel and go for a greyscale image using just the red and green, it's of limited use. Which is where I come back to the old reflector (the 'CF', it having been manufactured by the old Charles Frank company in Glasgow).


The Zeiss refractor, with Yours Truly observing the Moon.


The reflecting telescope was devised by Isaac Newton as an alternative to the simple lens telescopes of the day, which were even more plagued by false colour than any modern achromat (a-chromat ... meaning no colour, but they don't quite live up to that name). I'd never achieved much with mine in the past, but would a modern digital camera make any difference?

One of the great benefits of digital imaging is the immediacy of it: you can see the image without waiting for a film to be processed and printed. So, when you need to assess the accuracy of focus, exposure or subject targeting, you have almost instant feedback. If the camera has live view focusing then the focus can be refined before shooting, under high magnification (although even then, checking the images on a large monitor allows a final decision).

Fortunately, the image scale of the CF is almost perfect for a crop frame DSLR: the Moon sits comfortably in the frame, while allowing some room to move; it's effectively a 1200mm long-focus 'lens'. I have become enamoured of hitching my Canon 40D to it, and recording our nearest natural neighbour, although it's hardly ground-breaking stuff. No two images will be the same though, due to the changing phase and libration—the apparent east-west and north-south wobbling that allows us to see 59% of the lunar surface (even though the Moon keeps nominally the same face to us all the time).

Here then is a set of images taken over the last month or so, as well as a 3D stereo pair using another image from last year. Enjoy.


 The Moon's size varies because of its elliptical orbit. A so-called 'supermoon' is a Full Moon when it's at its closest distance from Earth, although it's only about 14% larger than the opposite extreme.

Waxing and waning gibbous phases. The images have been processed to enhance the subtle colouration due to different mineral composition; the Sea of Tranquility is noticeably more blue than its neighbours.

 
The total eclipse of 15th April 2014. 5 minutes before the end of totality (left), and about 30 minutes later, in partial eclipse (right); the latter image has been HDR-merged from 3 separate exposures that cover the great brightness difference between the shadowed and sunlit portions.

A crescent Moon in two bites, showing the 'Earthshine' that brightens what would otherwise be the dark side.

It might just look like 2 Full Moon images, but this is a stereo pair. Try crossing your eyes, then bring the middle of 3 images into focus. If you can manage it, you should see a round Moon instead of 2 flat images.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A public bookmash

I discovered the art of the bookmash—a.k.a. book spine poetry—via Stan Carey, who maintains the blog Sentence first. I have dipped my toes only briefly into the bookmash pond, as it were, and not for some time. Today, however, I found myself in one of our regular charity shops, and thought: bookmash!

I once introduced the owner of one of Brisbane's second-hand bookshops to this practice, and even perused her shelves in search of an example, but have never—despite threats to do so—rearranged any retail bookshelves to satisfy this particular creative urge.

If you're not familiar with it, the idea is simple: look at book titles and find an arrangement of them that seems in some way poetic; Stan has his collection here. Today's effort was put together fairly quickly, with all of the books already in one small section of the shelf; all that was required was a little shuffling. Judge for yourself if this is poetry:




Tangled webs, kiss, pillow talk.
Lies I told about a girl, tangled up in you.
The dance of anger; Sunday's silence.
The road.


Whether or not anyone else noticed this ephemeral poem is a matter for conjecture … but I doubt it. It's just our little secret.

Monday, March 4, 2013

More kitchen fumbling

Faced with a need for evening sustenance and a relative dearth of raw materials, I delved into the cupboard and the bottom of the fridge. It should be noted that whenever I do this, I will almost certainly produce something that I am more than happy to eat; whether others are keen to join me, might be another matter.

What did I fancy, and what did we have? Well, I fancied something hot or cold, that could be eaten with or without cutlery. I'm easily pleased.

Salmon. From a tin, certainly, but I have fond memories of Mum's salmon sandwiches, so it's a definite contender. Vegies: well, there's a courgette (or zucchini, if you will), 2 shallots, carrots aplenty, a few measly cloves of garlic, a red capsicum - oh, and a tin of brown lentils. Aaaand... brown rice. We rarely eat it, although I really like it (but I don't think the others share my liking to the same degree).

So, the assembled cast:

1 tin salmon
1 tin lentils
1 carrot
1 clove garlic
1 courgette
2 shallots
half a capsicum, cut into large chunks
dollop of olive oil
shake or two of Portuguese seasoning

Grate carrot & chop courgette, capsicum & shallots. Crush & chop garlic. Add all to pan with oil & seasoning and soften over low heat. Before courgette is reduced to mush, stir in lentils & salmon. At some point, start boiling rice, then in the fullness of time, mix all together and serve.

I have no photograph, but it was sort of beige-coloured with various colourful highlights, as one might expect. I toyed with the idea of adding a dash of balsamic vinegar, but decided against. A Lindeman's shiraz did it no harm at all.

It was acknowledged as worth repeating.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wedding Vows

"Do you take this man...? Honour... obey... Till death..."

All that palaver: promises of lifelong commitment (pre-nups notwithstanding), joyous union, emotional mothers, sodden uncles and wayward children under the table, peering where children ought not to, and so forth. Time-honoured stuff. What if the parties involved are out of the ordinary? Special? Idiosyncratic? Idiotic? What might the vows sound like then? Here are some possibilities:

The Teenager

"Do you, Kevin, take Mandy--"
"Yeah, whatever. Chill, dude ... We done now? *hey bro you cool for a wave? c u l8r kev?*"

The Pessimist

"Do you, Reginald, take Gladys..."
"Yes, but what's the point? It won't do me any good, will it? Besides, it'll all end in tears. Or divorce. Or bankruptcy."

The Mechanic

"Will you, Mick, take this woman--"
"Yeah, no problem. I can take a look next Thursday, but won't know for sure until I've checked underneath. Judging by the bodywork, there's a few miles on the clock, and clutch parts can be difficult to get hold of with these older models. Could be expensive, too, if the rack needs work. Might need to get me mate Barry to take a look; he's worked on these before... sort of hobby of his, like."

The Lawyer

"Do you, Justin,  subject to the provisions set out in Annexe 'A', and without prejudice to your rights at law, take this person, known hereinafter as Felicity; and all of her goods and chattels as agreed heretofore in the Memorandum of Understanding set out in Annexe 'B'; acknowledging an attachment deemed to be of mutual benefit and with equal share of risk to be borne jointly and severally, but without burden of responsibility on either part towards the parties to be known henceforth as "The In-Laws"; wherein this ceremony represents, whole and comprehensively, a binding agreement not to be rent asunder except as provided for in Annexe 'C', under the powers granted by the Secretary of State for-- [etc, etc, and so forth, blah, blah, gasp, wheeze, yawn, shuffle...]

The Scientist

"Abstract: This experiment is intended to demonstrate the long-term miscibility and covalent bonding stability - expected to be in excess of 25 years at 20 degrees Celsius - of 2 unique and volatile organic reagents, in the presence of a varying admixture of organic and inorganic contaminants, catalysts, coagulants, heavy metals etc.; such agents being introduced to the mixture at random intervals throughout the experiment. The presence and action of a variety of alcohols is an utterly unknown factor, the effect of which will be closely monitored, and which may prove pivotal to the outcome of the experiment as a whole."

The Art Critic

"This is a collaborative work that brings a beautiful dichotomy into sharp focus, while casting a murky veil over the consciousness of personal identity and ambition. It references duplicity-as-singularity - a veneer of cooperation in the public eye - while alluding to stark contradiction in its purest form. Ultimately, we are left with the burning and very contemporary question 'Is this a good idea?'"

The Wine Buff

"This is a blend - an audacious one, if I may say so - of widely-differing characters in an attempt to produce something that is at once both volatile (almost shockingly so), and deeply soothing; something with a certain je ne sais quoi, or perhaps je n'ai pas la moindre idée. The liaison between a bright, cheerful component with a light body and long finish, and a heavy - almost thickset - tart and astringent one that ends all too soon, is bound to surprise at first, but time will tell. Probably best laid down for several days, somewhere dark and quiet. Left for too long though, the delicate (and, let's face it, rarely perfected) balance of Magnolia blossom notes with somewhat brusque tobacco overtones and a whiff of ripe Adriatic seaweed could be a disaster in the making."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Bliss

It's winter. The tail-end of it, anyway. Mid-August, and winter, so I'm clearly not in Scotland. Not that August in Scotland couldn't be wintry, although that would be more likely in June. June snow! Summertime, supposedly, and yet you can see gravity-assisted ice crystals without being fundamentally suprised, just indignant.

No indignation here, now. Not a trace. Except possibly directed at my coffee cup, which has had the temerity to empty itself.

This is suburban Brisbane, and at this moment it's deeply pleasing. Blue sky with more than a smattering of cumulus fractus. There is a wind too, possibly around Force 2. If it gets above Force 4, most Australians seem to start complaining; "shitty weather" was a phrase I became familiar with some years ago. Try the east coast of Scotland in February, when the wind is coming off the North Sea (having previously deposited any and all of its warmth over Russia); then you'll learn what shitty weather is. Mind you, I suppose in Alaska they'd scoff: "Scotland? Paradise with whisky."*

Today, it's about as pleasant as it gets. The mercury is probably sitting around 23, and suburban Paddington is simply a haven. Sitting on a ridge, in my favourite bookshop/cafe, overlooking palms and a variety of broadleafs - deciduous and evergreen - and any cares and concerns I might have, have made themselves scarce. My son's happy place is the beach, in the surf; mine is here, but it's hard to define precisely why, so I won't try. I shall just return in a week or three for another dose, when my batteries need to be recharged.

* Yes, I know; that seems tautological.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Faster, Higher, More Sedentary

OK, so I'm not a committed blogger. Mea culpa. It's a fair cop, guv. For a while though, I was dabbling elsewhere (ausalba.weebly.com) and may yet continue.

...

The Olympic Games are on as I write, in a land far away. Mind you, they could be just down the road, for all the difference it would make to me. I used to watch a bit of football in my teens, if I had nothing better to do, and Wimbledon used to hold some fascination, but it's many a year since I felt drawn by either. Later on, I found televized lawn bowls appealing - though goodness knows why, given its inherent lack of obvious drama (I find Stephen Fry's attachment to darts quite bemusing) - and have even rolled a bowl or two, with a surprising measure of success. It has to be said though that I am not a huge fan of sport, as either a spectator or a participant.

Surely the Olympics are different? They are inspiring, aren't they? All those super-fit, single-minded paragons of sporting prowess and excellence, giving their all. Sounds about right... Many years ago, in school, we were asked to write a composition about the future of the Olympics. Well, in asking me, the teacher was asking the wrong person, given my ambivalence towards the subject. However, after due consideration, I wrote something about the increasing cost of hosting the event, and opined that it would become prohibitively expensive for many nations. As it is, we see the massive undertakings becoming exercises in brinksmanship, with facilities being completed barely in time, not to mention the failure to recover a sufficient portion of the cost though ticket sales. Still, we love the Games themselves, don't we?

What I didn't comment on, 40-odd years ago, was the issue of performance-enhancing drug use. To me, that makes a mockery of the whole shooting match (ironic moment: haven't heard of any shooters being chastized for drug use), as there is always the nagging doubt: 'yes, but did s/he win fairly?' It may take years for that question to be answered, if testing procedures have yet to be developed for new doping agents.

The other thing that niggles me is the constant examination of which nation has most medals. I really don't give a monkey's whether China has more medals than the UK, or Uzbekistan. Nations don't win medals, competitors do. If Mark Spitz or Daley Thomson (that dates my interest...) wins a neckful of gold (and does it cleanly), then I salute their achievement. If the USA sends a crop of hopefuls that ends up collectively more successful at acquiring gold, silver or bronze than their Australian counterparts, so what? Nationalism strikes again.

I wish all fair competitors the best of luck, and congratulate those who have already stood on the winners' podium, but the simple fact of their being accomplished enough to get to the Games marks them as being something special in the first place. To further divide them by hundredths of a second or by being millimetres closer to a bullseye, seems almost superfluous.

It has to be said that I shall be far more interested in whether or not the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity rover land safely on the Red Planet tomorrow afternoon. Hitting a 3km-wide target at a distance of 250 million kilometres (as the crow flies), and doing so in a controlled manner, is a significant achievement. My fingers will be crossed. For those equally interested, Catherine Q has a post about Curiosity here: Mars Rover's Risky Ride.

Monday, May 30, 2011

In pursuit of bodily harm

Horses and fishing rods. At first glance, they don't seem to have much in common. One's got legs and can run like the clappers; the other's good for throwing food to the fishes. Each of these disparate things, however, gives me cause to fear and respect them.

Other than a brief few moments as a tiddler, placed in the saddle of a horse that my sister was about to ride, and a trip along the beach on a donkey a few years later, I have only ridden a horse once. Similarly, I have been fishing on only one occasion that I can recall. It is perhaps significant that I was not the prime mover on either occasion, but was encouraged to take part by well-meaning friends or family.

Memories of my equine experience were brought back only too clearly when watching some youngsters about to disappear on a morning's trail-riding. As each horse-child pair was saddled up, strapped in and otherwise properly prepared for the impending adventure, a number of them gathered in front of me, waiting for the off. I watched the nearest horse plodding around, browsing on the grass at its feet, and generally filling in time. As it did, it turned this way and that, bobbed its head up and down, swayed around, and generally did as it pleased, with the passenger taking no part in the proceedings. It brought back in a vaguely unsettling way, my own experience some 20 years earlier: that horses have their own minds, desires, intentions and agendas, plus the nervous system and musculature to put it all into practice. In short, unless you are absolutely in control, with sufficient authority - and the ability to convey this to the horse - you are on a slippery slope.

With a car, you can generally turn off the ignition and the car will stop what it was doing up to that point; this does, of course, require good judgement, care and attention on the part of the driver to ensure that it is not done at the wrong time, but there is absolutely no doubt who is in control. Any misbehaviour: it's engine off, and bye-byes. With a horse, you have to say, "Look here, I say, would you mind not doing that - YES, THAT!" and so on. Any mistakes and you're cactus. Oh, and by the way - the horse will be quietly laughing at you.

A loaded fishing rod, it has to be said, has similar undesirable qualities in the hands of a novice. To be precise, it has a curved piece of metal with a very sharp barb on the end, flailing about on some very fine nylon. Said barbed metal is furthermore designed to become lodged, and remain firmly embedded, in flesh - nominally piscean flesh, but any flesh will do; the hook's not fussy.

Now, old hands at the fishing game are presumably possessed of at least one of the following: (a) fine motor control - that in a deaf signer would represent perfect enunciation, syntax and fluency - coupled with the eyes of a hawk; (b) a devil-may-care attitude in respect of vicious puncture wounds; (c) no nerve endings below the elbow; or (d) membership of certain recreational clubs involving leather restraints and whips and an associated pleasure in maltreatment of personal tissue. This must be the case, because when a rod is in the process of being prepared with lead weight and hook (some of which, you may be astonished to learn, have more barbs than a caffeine-deprived shock-jock), the business end can develop a mind of its own that a horse would be proud of. It can appear that the hook/weight assembly regards Newtonian physics with utter disdain: there can be much comical to-ing and fro-ing of hand and line, trying to ensure a satisfactory confluence of the two without dermal perforation, while the hand holding the rod gradually joins the rest of the body in a rising panic, ensuring that proper coordination and control become merely wishful thinking. At such times, if my advice be sought, it would be prudent simply to throw the whole contraption in one direction while leaping quickly in the other. Of course, this does not guarantee an injury-free outcome, but at least the torment and uncertainty will be brought rapidly to a conclusion.

If you are determined to give fishing a try, I would suggest fly-fishing, on a day with moderate but steady wind. Simply stand with your back more or less to the wind, then because the fly has no associated lead weight, it will be carried safely off away from your body, should you happen to lose control of it; in that situation, dropping the rod will put everything out of harm's way. Of course, you eventually have to cast your fly towards the fish, which seems to involve waving the rod around in a somewhat cavalier fashion, with the possibility of all manner of mayhem occurring anywhere within umpteen metres of you.

Tell you what: take my advice, and leave horses and fishing rods alone. Photography and aerobic poetry are fairly safe and surprisingly diverting; there is every chance that your body will remain undamaged in such mild pursuits. Afterwards, you can drive your car to the fishmonger.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A little something to keep me going

A gaming table, somewhere in 18th-century southern England...


John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, sits with a few choice companions – all movers and shakers (either that or just rich and idle). He is holding a handful of playing cards... a shrewd move on his part, as his associates are doing the same, and he does not wish to appear different – or indifferent. There is the aroma of tobacco and of port, walnuts and bandaged gouty feet; a heady mix at any hour. The hour is late, but it is not yet pyjama time or the wytching houre. All eyes are on Sandwich, save for those on the fine bosom of a serving wench, or those searching for a glimpse of a neighbour's cards.


Characteristically, the Earl of Berkshire spoke first: "Come on, Sandwich! You have been sitting there like a haunch of mutton for fully five minutes now. Either play or resign."


Sandwich, being the Noble Fellow that he was – not to mention the holder of such illustrious offices as First Lord of the Admiralty and Postmaster General – dismissed this discourteous interjection with barely a twitch. He moved only let go a silent one and to take a pinch of snuff. After further deliberation and scrutiny of his options, he played a card, sat back in his chair, and gestured for his valet. "Higginbottom," he said, for no other reason than the man's name was Effingham, "I am hungry. Kindly prepare me a plate. I rather fancy the mutton, or roast beef if perchance there is no mutton. Wait though – my hands will be greasy upon the cards, and I cannot bear that, so be creative. Chop chop! I won't have that scoundrel Buckingham winning because I am weak from lack of sustenance."


The play continued, with the Good Earls doing their best to acquire a considerable pot that was there for the taking, gods willing. Presently, Higginbottom/Effingham returned with a large plate, piled high with what appeared to be a compôte of sliced bread and meat.


"What the Devil is this?" demanded Sandwich.


"My Lord," fawned Higgingham, "it is the mutton, as you requested, but I have taken the liberty of enclosing it in some fresh bread, that you may keep the grease enclosed and under control."


"Capital! First rate! You hear that, Buckingham, you old fool? A manservant who can think for himself. I should think you green with envy, if you weren't already green with a bilious attack." Effingbottom relaxed almost imperceptibly, stiffening with pride at the same time. "What do you call this... creation, Effingsworth?"


"My Lord, if I may make so bold, and given that my family name is–"


"Excellent, splendid! 'Sandwich' it is. There you go, Buckers, how are your pork scratchings now, eh? Not only can the man think for himself, but he is also modest and loyal. Har, har. I say, Higginsworth, my goblet appears to be void... as does the bottle, since the Earl of Idiocy here just knocked it over."


"Certainly, My Lord."


Sandwich selected a 'sandwich' from the top of the pile, studied it briefly and then took a hearty bite. "Mmmf... it'f goob; weawy goob!


"I say, you fellows," he declared, once the Noble Mouth was empty, "I think this 'sandwich' thing could be quite something. Possibilities for a business here, don't you think? Damn fine idea."


Moments later, Bottomsworth reappeared with a large boxy-looking affair in his hand.


"What on Earth have you brought me now, Hilary?"


"My Lord, I have been thinking for some time about this, and felt the time was ripe to try it out, if you will pardon the pun."


"Yes, yes, of course, but what is it?"


"My Lord, I have devised a container that can serve in place of a bottle, so when the Earl of – I mean, so that in the event of any mishap at the table, the wine will not be spilled."


"Extraordinary! How does it function?"


"In brief, My Lord, I have contained a fresh – but not too fresh – pig's bladder full of wine inside a case made of stiffened parchment, and fashioned a kind of valve at the base, to allow the wine to be released only when required." Effingham demonstrated for the Good Lords, to quiet muttering and comment. After a few seconds, Sandwich piped up.


"Bottomsworth, I fear you are on a genuine flight of fancy here. Kindly take that contraption from my table and bring me a proper bottle of wine, as God intended. If He had meant us to serve wine from such an abomination, He would have called this land Aus– ... Austral–... oh, something else! It's England, man, England, dammit! Now be off with you, and spare us all your fanciful notions."


***


In due course Effingham, now a humiliated and dispirited shadow of the servile man he once was, fell foul of the law and was transported to the colonies; one of the very last to suffer that fate. Once there though, he applied himself diligently, kept his nose (and many other parts) clean, was granted his freedom in due course, and went on to start a chain of wine dispensaries. Several generations later, a great, great nephew had a brilliant idea based upon an old hot water bottle, a cornflake packet and a bottle of cheap shiraz...