Photography and the Digital Age

My mother has somewhere in her photo box this photograph of her great-grandfather (or my great-great grandfather) William Elliot. He was born (probably) in 1817 and died in 1897 . I don’t know exactly when it was taken, but he looks to be  around sixty  so I think it was probably 1880 give or take five years. It was around that time several of his sons emigrated to New Zealand, so my guess is that it was taken in order that they would have a memento of him.

William Elliot
William Elliot

Looking at William Elliot’s photograph the thought occurred to me, that this may well have been the only photograph ever taken of him. I find it to be a powerful and evocative image. It is carefully composed, and although I am sure he is wearing his Sunday best, it includes elements that show that he was a shepherd, his dog, his crook, and he has his plaid over his shoulder. It would also have been costly to produce. I have no idea exactly how much, but my guess is at least a days wages and possibly more than a weeks. It is a valuable image in every sense of the word.

Do we still make valuable images, in the sense of images that are worth valuing,  today?

As the digital camera, either as a standalone device, or built into our mobile phones, became ubiquitous the volume of photographs taken has since multiplied by a factor of gazillions.

When I was a child, being allowed to take a photograph, with mum and dad’s camera was an unusual event. I might waste a shot by taking a picture of my finger. That wasted shot still had to be processed and paid for. Today four-year olds  happily snap away with mum’s digital camera, because we know that we can just delete any and every image that doesn’t work and keep the one or two that we find amusing.

In all of this we have, I think lost sense of the value that a photograph can have. We rarely take time to compose photographs, we just snap away, knowing, hoping, that one of the 6035 images on the SD Card might just be worth keeping. I don’t think that we in general even think about what we are photographing, and I am not even convinced that we even look at, let alone look properly at the images we produce.

Quite a while ago, before I owned a digital camera, I was sorting through a pile of snapshots that I had taken on holiday. I found that I could barely identify the location of quarter of them. I made a conscious decision that day to take less photographs and make more sketches. When I look back through my sketch books I can recall exactly where I was when I made that sketch. I can remember what was happening around me, and what I was feeling at the time. Because I took ten minutes to sit down and actually look at what I was recording, rather than two seconds to push a random shutter.

I’m not saying don’t take photographs, I still take, I might even say make, but that sounds a bit pretentious, photographs. I know that there are some things that can’t be easily captured in a sketch but are caught in a photograph. What I am saying is look at what you are photographing before you take it. Look at the result after you have taken it. Exercise some kind of quality control before you dump the latest batch of photos on Facebook or Flickr. Possibly restrict the number of shots you allow yourself to take to say 20 per day to force yourself to choose your subject.

If you do manage to produce a valuable image, get it printed, because my mother’s copy of William Elliot’s photo will still be around when my digital copy as vanished into hyperspace.

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On being middle-aged.

The Guardian had an article recently which basically asked people whether they thought they were middle-aged or not. This caused a debate in our house because I do think of myself as middle-aged whilst my wife, who is actually slightly older than me, does not. So how to define middle age. If we take the biblical three-score years and ten then the middle of your life would be at thirty-five years. If we divide our life up into three segments, young, middle-aged, and old the we see that you would be young from birth to twenty-four, middle-aged from twenty-four to forty-six and old from then until you pop your clogs. This won’t do as a definition, because that makes me old, and I’m not old, I’m middle-aged.

Even if we use modern life spans of say ninety years, it still wont do, because that will make me old in four years time, and I have no intention of being old in 2015. So I propose the following; you are a child/young adult till you leave school, you are officially young till you reach forty, the you become middle-aged until you are seventy, and after that you are old.  Either that or you are middle-aged if you feel middle-aged.

Officially admitting you are middle-aged releases you from all sorts of burdens that the young suffer from. You no longer have to follow the trends of fashion. If you find that a jumper and a pair of jeans is what you are comfortable in, then when the ones you have been wearing for the past five years wear out, the all you need to do is buy replacements, as similar as possible to the ones you (or more likely your partner) have just thrown out. The freedom from the strictures of fashion also mean that you are free to buy a pair of jeans from a shops ‘value’ range at £9.99  rather than paying through the nose for a designer label.

An aside:

As a good Trade Union member, I am concerned about the conditions that the workers in third world clothing factories are forced to work under. I also think that in general we pay far too little for the clothing we buy. However when I see that a shop’s value range jeans at £9.99 per pair and the same shop’s designer range at £59.99 per pair are made in the same country, and possibly the same factory, I think I am entitled to assume the £50.00 difference in price is not going to the seamstress in Bangladesh.

Back to the joys of middle age. If you have accepted that you are middle-aged, you have probably also accepted the life that you have. Your mortgage is either paid off or as good as. You have probably decided that you are reasonably competent at your job, but feel no great desire or need to constantly prove yourself or to push for promotion. No you are happy to continue doing a fair day’s work for a fair day’s money, without over extending yourself, for the next ten or so years until you retire. If you are still young, this seems like a recipe for boredom, if you are middle-aged it is a recipe for contentment.

Gazan youth issue manifesto to vent their anger with all sides in the conflict

I read this in today’s Observer

Gazan youth issue manifesto to vent their anger with all sides in the conflict

Gaza Youth’s Manifesto for Change is an extraordinary, impassioned cyber-scream in which young men and women from Gaza – where more than half the 1.5 million population is under 18 – make it clear that they’ve had enough. “F**k Hamas…” begins the text. “F**k Israel. F**k Fatah. F**k UN. F**k UNWRA. F**k USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community!”

Here in Gaza we are scared of being incarcerated, interrogated, hit, tortured, bombed, killed,” reads the extraordinary document. “We are afraid of living, because every single step we take has to be considered and well-thought, there are limitations everywhere, we cannot move as we want, say what we want, do what we want, sometimes we even can’t think what we want because the occupation has occupied our brains and hearts so terrible that it hurts and it makes us want to shed endless tears of frustration and rage!

The text ends with a triple demand: “We want three things. We want to be free. We want to be able to live a normal life. We want peace. Is that too much to ask?”

This seems to me a perfectly reasonable response to the situation that they find themselves in. What I want to know, and can’t quite work out is what can I do to help them achieve their demands?

http://www.youtube.com/v/oawfn73Va6M&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&version=3

My Life in Song

I stole this from Maggi Dawn’s blog, but she stole it from someone else so I guess it’s OK, she is an Anglican priest after all and if she can steal ideas so can I, I hope.

Using only song names from ONE ARTIST OR BAND, answer these questions; be as clever as you can. You can’t use the artist I used. Try not to repeat a song title. It’s harder than you think…”

This is my attempt

Pick your Artist:  Bruce Cockburn

Describe yourself:    Child of the Wind

How do you feel: Open

If you could go anywhere, where would you go:    Tokyo

Your favourite form of transportation:   Mighty Trucks of Midnight

Your best friend is a:   Life’s Mistress

You and your best friends are: Beautiful Creatures

If your life was a TV show, what would it be called: Pacing the Cage

What is life to you:   World of Wonders

Your current relationship:   Great Big Love

Your fear:   The trouble with Normal

What is the best advice you have to give:    Don’t forget about delight

I would like to die… When the Sun Goes Nova

Time of day:  Last Night of the world

My motto:   Listen for the Laugh

I’ve included links to the tracks on Spotify so you can listen to them if you feel so inclined.

Share and enjoy and copy your lists into a comment.

Porridge

 As London grinds to a halt under the effects of a major 10cm snowfall,  thoughts turn to the fact that corn flakes are not quite what is required for breakfast. I should add that I appreciate that other parts of the UK may have had considerably more snow than we have had in London, but what you don’t appreciate is the fact that if it hasn’t happened in London then it hasn’t really happened.

This is the season for porridge for breakfast. Besides all the well touted benefits of eating porridge for breakfast  there is something satisfying about making and eating a bowl of porridge for breakfast. It does take slightly longer that pouring out a bowl of Rice Krispies, but believe me you will be a better person, or at least feel like one, for making the effort.

The first piece of advice I will give you is do not make your porridge in the microwave.

Shortly after I was diagnosed as  diabetic I had a session with a dietician, during the discussion about what were good food choices from the point of blood glucose control, she mentioned that porridge was probably one of the best things I could eat for breakfast. She also mentioned that it could be made in the microwave, but forgot to tell me the most important thing about making porridge in a microwave. My immediate thought was ‘that will save a bit of washing up’. The next morning I proceeded to make my porridge in the microwave.

I measured out my usual recipe,

For 1

  • ½ a cup of rolled oats
  • 1¾ cups of water
  • a generous pinch of salt

put it all into my porridge bowl, stuck it into the microwave, pushed start and went back to drinking my coffee and reading the newspaper. About five minutes later the microwave went ping and I wandered across the kitchen to retrieve my no effort, no washing up porridge, to discover that the bowl was empty and the microwave was generously coated with porridge. I also discovered that it is much harder to remove porridge from the walls of a microwave than it is to remove it from a pan.

What my dietician forgot to mention is that porridge made in a microwave foams up and boils over. So unless you use a bowl that is at least five times the volume of the liquid to allow for this fact, do not make your porridge in the microwave.

I now always make mine in a saucepan. It is just as quick and I think tastes better. So using the recipe above put all the ingredients into a pan bring to the boil, then turn it down to a low heat and allow it to ‘plop’ away happily for about five minutes. Give it a stir now and then. Traditionally you should use a tapered stick, usually with a thistle as a handle, because that is the way we made them in woodwork class when I was at school, called a spurtle and stir it clockwise. I find that stirring it with a wooden spoon anti-clockwise also works. I tend to put the salt in at the start, but some people like to cook the porridge the add salt to taste, all I will say is do not neglect the salt, it doesn’t need much but porridge does need some salt.

For Saturday mornings, or if you are a traditionalist, porridge made with oatmeal  does have a certain quality that porridge made with rolled oats does not quite possess.

The recipe is fairly similar but here are a couple of variations.

For 2

  • 600ml/1 pint of water
  • 100g/4 oz medium oatmeal
  • salt

Bring the water to the boil, add the oatmeal slowly, stirring all the time. Reduce the heat and allow to cook slowly, just giving the occasional ‘plop’, for up to 30 minutes, depending on how solid you like you porridge. Give it a stir every now and again, add salt to taste and serve.

Again traditionally, you should eat your porridge by dipping a spoon of hot porridge into a bowl of cold milk. This is to keep your porridge hot, as adding cold milk to the bowl of porridge will cool it down. Nice though that is I think there are more interesting things to add to porridge.

Here are some of my favourites.

  • Honey
  • Thick natural plain yoghurt
  • Fruit compote
  • A tot of whisky and honey
  • Cinnamon and chopped and toasted nuts
  • Cream

Or of course any combination of them.

Should you make too much porridge, let it go cold and set solid. It is absolutely delicious sliced, fried in a little butter and served with runny honey.

As for washing up the pan, don’t, fill it with cold water and let it soak for a few hours. The porridge sticking to the pan will have come off as a sort of skin which can be scooped up and discarded, leaving a clean and shiny pan behind.

Telling white lies to children

While I was working in a dental surgery yesterday I noticed that on the walls there were numerous posters encouraging children to brush their teeth and to eat non-sugary snacks. Three in particular caught my attention.

The first one was of Pippin the Dog, from the children’s TV programme ‘Come Outside’. Beneath the drawing of Pippin it said

Pippin the dog eats fruit and vegetables to keep his teeth healthy.

I don’t really know what kind of dog Pippin is, but from the drawing I would say some kind of mongrel. So he may be a very unusual dog, but I have never come across a dog that eats fruit and veg.

The second one was of Winnie the Pooh and some of his friends. Beneath the drawing it said

Pooh Bear and his friends only* eat fruit and vegetables between meals. (* my emphasis)

My knowledge of Winnie the Pooh is about fifty years old and my memory may be faulty, but my recollection is that Pooh’s favourite between meals snack was a honey (or Hunny)  sandwich, not fruit and veg.

The third one was of Snow White and beneath that drawing it said

Snow White only eats apples

I don’t know if Snow White only ate apples, but she definitely ate one, and a lot of good that did her.

I fully understand that the purpose of these posters is to encourage young children to eat healthier snacks rather than sweets, but is telling lies to children justified in the greater cause of healthy teeth?

Should we tell children that Father Christmas doesn’t exist, even though the fantasy doesn’t seem to do any harm, and most kids do not seem to be too traumatized when they find out for themselves?

Are any lies justified?  The current Wikileaks data dump seems to show that governments in general think that certain lies, or obfuscations of the truth are justified. I am in two minds about the disclosure, because I do think that there are certain things that it is legitimate for governments, private  organisations, or even families and individuals to keep secret. On the other hand a lot of the material that has been released is embarrassing , The Duke of Pork’s foul-mouthed rant for example, rather than threatening national or international security. And how secret can the data be when it is posted to an Intranet that about three million people, including a Private First Class, have access to?

Ultimately, I do believe that in private life, and government and corporate life, there are things that should only be shared within a small circle, kept secret in fact. However, the bias should always be to openness  and transparency, especially where the information is merely embarrassing. Strangely enough I feel that in the end concealment of embarrassing material ultimately leads to  more embarrassment than transparency. I think that last year’s M.P.’s expenses scandal is a case in point. A fully open and transparent system of expense claims would have never allowed the scandal to occur in the first place, but we did not have that in place and probably still don’t.  The thing that made the release of the documents worse, for the M.P.s involved, was the long and hard rearguard action that they put up in the attempt to prevent the release of material they knew was going to show them in a bad light.

Keep secret only what really needs to be kept secret, and make sure that if it has to be kept secret only the people who need to know have access, otherwise release it all into the public domain, most of it is probably pretty banal anyway. I don’t think that I have read anything on the Wikileaks release that either surprised or shocked me. Sorry I was mildly surprised at the extent of the Duke of York’s vocabulary, but then his father has previous.

Alternative Vote +

AV+

Alternative Vote Plus as the name suggests works in a similar manner to The Alternative Vote system with a top up of members chosen at a regional level from open Party Lists. The system was the one proposed by the Jenkins Commission, set up by the last Labour Government. Roy Jenkins took his brief seriously. Tony Blair’s purpose for the commission was  to kick voting reform into the long grass. He was very successful in doing this.

Basically for elections to the House of Commons the system would involve reducing the number of seats to about 500 with the members elected by the Alternative Vote method , i.e. you rank your candidates in order of preference and as the votes are counted the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and his or her second preference votes are allocated to the candidates indicated. This process carries on until one candidate has over 50% of the votes.

You would also have a second vote on a regional (possibly county) level where you can vote for a party or if you prefer a specified member of that party on the party list. This is the plus part of AV+.  About 120-140 additional members would be elected this way.

Like it’s parent, I can’t get ultra enthused about AV+. It is an improvement on first past the post (almost anything bar a suspension of elections would be) and should give a more proportional outcome to an election.

In its favour:

  • it keeps the tie of the M.P. to a geographical  constituency, albeit a slightly larger one than at the moment, unless of course we want to have more M.P.s.
  • it does produce a more proportional representation than straight AV
  • people other than me would argue that it should keep minority extremist parties out of parliament.

Against it:

  • it is not fully proportional.
  • the ballot paper is more complicated than at present.
  • it would still be likely to produce a single party government.

My objection to it is basically that it adds a lot of the complexity to the ballot paper and counting of the Single Transferable Vote or Additional Member System, without giving the proportionality that they do.

Voting Reform

Voting Reform has been in the news of late.

Various Labour and Conservative ‘Big Beasts’ have united to oppose any change in our current system of electing the House of Commons. I find it interesting to note that the Senior Politicians who have come out against electoral reform are all, well, senior in years, Margaret Beckett, Ken Clarke, David Blunkett, John Prescott to name some of the more prominent members of the group. They hardly represent the coming generation of politicians.

This has raised a few questions that I need to try to answer for myself

So these are my questions to answer.

  • Is the AV system worth fighting for?
  • Should we be looking at other – more radical systems
  • Are the Tory proposals to cut the number of MPs by 50 anti-democratic?
  • Shouldn’t we be doing something about the House of Lords as well?

I’ll make a series of posts trying to answer these questions.

Let us take them one at a time – AV first.

It is an improvement on the current system, in that it allows the voter the opportunity to cast their primary vote positively for their party of choice rather than negatively, voting against a particular party. As such it may help a few Green and UKIP candidates keep their deposits. It also means thy by the time an M.P. is actually elected, at least 50% of the people who actually cast their votes will have expressed some sort of preference for him or her. This compares with the current parliament where I believe only 3 M.P.s even managed 40% of the vote in their constituencies.

We can see from the Electoral Reform Society that had AV been in use at the last election it would have resulted in a few more LibDems a few less Tories and about the same number of Labour. Essentially It would have made no real difference.

Whilst can’t get all that enthusiastic about AV, it would for the first time allow me to cast my vote positively for the party I actually support rather than negatively, to prevent a Tory being elected. (I have somehow or other contrived to live my entire life in areas that are LibDem/Tory marginals.) It is also the only thing on offer so I will be voting for it come the referendum in May.

There are other and I think better systems that I think we should consider which I will get round to discussing in another post.

To list the ones that I think are worth considering :

Art in public spaces

I am a great proponent of art in public spaces. While not every work achieves the iconic status of “The Angel of the North”, I think that public art serves to increase the happiness and well-being of the people who come into contact with it and as such is generally worth the outlay.

It is easy to criticise public art as a waste of money, and is a reliable space filler for certain newspapers. While I do agree that there are a few works that should never have been allowed to escape the artists subconscious, let alone their studio, but they tend to be far fewer than the Daily Mail would have you believe.

During the past few days I have been doing some work in The Chelsea and Westminster Hospital , which has quite a lot of art in its public spaces. The art works at the Chelsea and Westminster tend in the main to be abstract sculptures and paintings. Although it is the sculpture that catches the eye first. They are brightly coloured and essentially serve to make the main atrium and hence the hospital itself a place a place that welcomes you. They perform that function very well. I don’t think anyone would claim that they individually or collectively are great art, but I would argue that as an ensemble they work. It is good art.

On piece of work that I didn’t see is thisBarbara Hepworth Sun Opus 418 piece by Barbara Hepworth whose work I love. But she probably needs another post(at the minimum).

Royal Weddings

Or Why can’t they just disappear of to Vegas and get married by an Elvis impersonator?

I’m sure that the Daily Mail would give me thirty thousand reasons as to why this is not a good idea, but I can’t think of one.

For the next six to nine months this is what we are in for people so brace yourselves:

  • We will really need to know that they are 23rd cousins twice removed, because some past royal had a one night stand with Kate Middleton’s 6xgreat grand-mother. I haven’t actually seen this as yet, but believe me every newspaper, with the possible exceptions of the Guardian and the Independent, is doing the research.
  • We will need to see endless photos of Kate Middleton in various stages of undress taken in an earlier more carefree life.
  • Likewise we will need to hear the remembrances of someone who was her third best friend in nursery class?
  • We need an avalanche of Kate’n’Wills© tat – it is probably the only boost the economy is going to get this year

I think it is mainly the prurience that I am objecting to, but it may be my republican sympathies coming out.

I don’t have a problem with two people who are in love getting married, but outside of family and friends should anyone really be concerned about a wedding? Unless of course you make the argument, which I reject completely, that we, as citizens of the United Kingdom, are, in some magical way, the children of Elizabeth Windsor.

Something else occurs to me, mainly about the timing of this. Our ConDem government is going to be attracting a lot of negative attention in the coming months as tax increases and spending cuts start to bite. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but might just make an exception in this case. This is going to soak up front page headlines for the next six to nine months, and probably a fair while after that. A good year to bury bad news?

Random thoughts, ramblings and rants

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