Sunday, 14 September 2014

Birdie Yum Yum

Yesterday I travelled to oh-so-trendy Shoreditch in East London to be one of the speakers at Birdie, a photography conference for the passionate snapper. This was an event aimed at both professional and amateur and the speakers covered a wide range of subjects and approaches. It was a really great day; very relaxed, very informative, very casual.

After an intro from the chair of the conference, Dan Rubin, we had our first talk of the day from the amazing Kevin Meredith - known to many as Lomokev due to his love of lomography (look it up if you don't know what that is) - who spoke to us about making the move from amateur to professional photographer.


I should stress, as Kev did, that the term 'amateur' wasn't being used as a measure of quality but as simply meaning 'not being paid for it'. His own story was fascinating, stressing the importance of doing projects because they are the things that get noticed and land you the work.

Next up was Dan Rubin being interviewed by Tom Seymour, editor of FLTR magazine. The guys talked about the future development of camera-related tech including smartphones, wearable devices such as the new Apple watch and Google glass. Both men were early adopters of new tech in the past and spoke about how tech that was once viewed with suspicion or at least a jaded eye is now ubiquitous. We were left with the impression that things are going to get very exciting.

Then came an often hilarious talk by music photographer Katja Ogrin who shared her journey with us from snapping acts at jazz festivals in her native Slovenia to her move to England and to now being a professional music photographer. We saw some amazing action shots of band like The Hives, Linkin Park and Katy Perry and this band (see above), whose name eludes me, but whose lead singer had a thing for swinging upside down off the chandeliers.

Copyright is an issue that affects all creative people and helping us to tiptoe through the minefield was Naomi Korn, our next speaker (after a nice break for tea, coffee and chat). Naomi somehow managed to make the subject both understandable and even fun. A marvellous speaker and very knowledgeable. I know have a pretty good bead on what I can and cannot do by law. And, indeed, what people can or cannot do with my stuff. She was followed by the very affable Conor Macneill who travels the world finding the darkest places in which to take his extraordinary photos of the night sky. To see what's up there and to know that, thanks to light pollution, the majority of us are robbed of such glorious beauty made me want to seek out the nearest desert and set up camp.

During the lunch break, I had a look around some of the sponsor's stalls and saw some amazing gear. I was particularly impressed by the Instant Lab made by Impossible. This great bit of affordable kit allows you to turn your phone photos into physical Polaroid shots. It's brilliant! I also loved Trigger Trap's 'dongle' that allows you to remotely trigger your DSLR using your phone's button or microphone. We all had great fun in the 'Screaming Booth' where our yells activated the camera. Here's Kev and friend and me and Dan being loud.

I also got to chat to Tom Elkins, CEO of  charity called Photovoice that used photography projects to empower mrginalised individuals and communities. it's remarkable work. I've written about it in more detail on my problem-solving blog that supports my new book Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road? Do have a read here.

After lunch, first speaker up was yours truly giving the delegates a post-prandial alternative and Quite Interesting history of photography that took in laughing Victorians, invisible mums, even more invisible Loch Ness monsters, Lunar calendars, selfie-taking classical statues and Kermit the frog's bottom.

The penultimate speaker of the day was the lovely Agatha A Nitecka, a stills photographer who works almost exclusively on the sets of films when they are in production. Her film-based photos are deliciously atmospheric and many have ended up as the poster art for the films she's worked on, most recently Wuthering Heights and the forthcoming Mr Holmes, Sir Ian McKellen's much-awaited story of Sherlock in his later years. Never less than passionate and truthful, Agatha's talk was spellbinding.

Last but not least, came an old mucker of mine, Chris Wild - best known as The Retronaut - whose hugely popular eponymous website (and now book) shows us that as much as things change, most things stay the same. As Chris says, 'Retronaut is a photographic time machine. It is a digital collection of tens of thousands of pictures from across the past, all with one thing in common - each one has the power to warp your sense of time.' In his brilliant presentation we saw people from the early 20th century who looked like people we'd meet in the street today - all that had changed was the fashions. In the past people laughed, shopped, wept, danced, fell in love and died just as we do. And, of course, for them it wasn't the past; they lived in the present just as we do. It was an extraordinary talk by a man with an extraordinary view of history. And an extraordinary dress sense too as he turned up in what appeared to be clothes from the Wild West. Consider my sense of time warped Chris!

As I said above, it was a wonderful day and I really hope that they do it all again in 2015. Massive thanks must go to Ruth Yarnit and all at White October Events.

Oh, but before I go, I must just throw in a few camera phone shots of my own. Shoreditch and Hoxton are so photogenic these days due to the proliferation of great street art. You can't turn your head without seeing a piece worthy of capturing.

And the arty hipster aesthetic also extended to the Hoxton Hotel where I stayed overnight. The place was full of shabby-chic furniture, handmade soft-furnishings and retro bric-a-brac. And the room sported a fecking huge mirror. In other circumstance, I sure such a thing would have been damned good fun. In this instance, all it meant was not being able to avoid the sight of my own beer gut.

But still, a very nice hotel and one I'd stay in again.

P.S. The envelope was from the Birdie organisers with details for the following day ... it wasn't a payment!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Amazing Creepy GIFs of Kevin Weir

Kevin Weir uses historical black and white photographs  he finds in the US Library of Congress online archive to create these amazing animated GIFs.
His website is here. You can see more of these extraordinary animations on his Flux Machine website.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Terrible lizard, terrible name

Dreadnoughtus Schrani, possibly the largest dinosaur that ever existed, was all over the news today. This new species of titanosaur from Argentina - where all the biggest dinos seem to have come from - is believed to have been over just over 85 feet (26m long) in length and would have weighed up to 60 tonnes. It's a big bugger.

But once again I find myself saddened that no one called it Brontosaurus. Brontosaurus means 'thunder lizard', which is surely appropriate for the largest ever dinosaur (that we know of to date). And the name is available!

When I was a kid, there was a small, select group of celebrity dinosaurs that everyone knew. You know their names too: Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Diplodocus ... and Brontosaurus was there in the dino Green Room with them. Incidentally, you may also have had Pterodactyl in your list. But that wasn't a dinosaur. And it didn't exist. There were pterosaurs - flying relatives of the dinosaurs - of which one small pigeon-sized species was called Pterodactylus. The one with the big boomerang-shaped crest on its head that many people think of when they think 'Pterodactyl' is probably Pteranodon. There is, sadly, also a growing body of evidence to suggest that what we've been calling Triceratops is actually just the juvenile form of the larger Torosaurus. You can read all about it here.

But back to Brontosaurus which, as I said, is available as a name ... because it doesn't exist either.

Brontosaurus was a casualty of the so-called ‘bone wars’ of the mid-19th century in which fossil hunters constantly tried to outdo each other. Two of the main players were Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh (left and right below), whose rivalry was so intense that fossils were sometimes damaged or destroyed in their haste to get them out of the ground. It also meant that, in their rush to be first with any new discovery, they sometimes based their claims on inaccurate or sketchy data.

In 1877 Marsh published details of a partial fossil of a sauropod – a long-necked and long-tailed dinosaur – measuring some 50 feet in length. For reasons best known to himself, he called the animal Apatosaurus or ‘deceptive lizard'. Then, later in the same year, he published again, this time describing a much more complete fossil skeleton of an even bigger sauropod called Brontosaurus, which was some 70 to 80 eighty feet in length. Because the Brontosaurus skeleton was so complete, it was the first sauropod to be mounted in a museum – in this case the Peabody at Yale – which is why it very quickly caught the public’s imagination. No one had ever seen something so huge. However, in his haste to piss off Cope and the other bone men, Marsh had made a huge boo boo. In 1903, a man called Elmer riggs discovered that the Apatosaurus fossil that Marsh had found was a juvenile Brontosaurus. Therefore, applying the rules of ‘first specimen bags the name’, Brontosaurus became an adult Apatosaurus and its previous name was no longer valid.

But Brontosaurus refused to die. The name had become so synonymous with the long-necked sauropods that it continued to be used for toys, in films and TV shows and even in books for decades to come. I have dinosaur books from my school days – some 70 years after the name ‘Brontosaurus’ became void – and there is Bronto, floundering around in a swamp. And, at the same school, we sang a song about a Brontosaurus. Do you remember it? It took me a while to track it down but I found it:

The whole 'Brontosaurus-isn’t-its-real name' issue came to a head, quite literally, in 1970 when John McIntosh from Wesleyan University and David Berman of the Carnegie Museum, discovered that the head that Marsh had mounted on his Brontosaurus was actually the head of a Camarasaurus. And then, to make matters worse, in 1989 the US Post Office released a set of four stamps featuring illustrations of dinosaurs ... and the scientific and education lobbies went nuts. Not only did one stamp feature a Pteranodon, which isn’t even a dinosaur, but one featured Brontosaurus, a dino that officially hadn’t existed since 1903.

It was the final nail in the coffin of Bronto. Despite a last rallying call to save the name by some prominent people including biologist Stephen Jay Gould (who wrote a brilliant essay on the subject called Bully for Brontosaurus) and dino expert Robert Bakker, Brontosaurus was gently put to sleep and all dinosaur-related media now referred to the beast as Apatosaurus.

So that’s the situation today. And, despite a number of new gigantic sauropods being found in the past couple of decades, no one, it seems, wants to re-use the name and give us our Brontosaurus back (see afternote below).

And that makes me sad.

In recent years, as more and more huge dinosaurs have emerged from the Patagonian sands, the names have got more and more hyperbolic, such as Seismosaurus, Supersaurus, and Ultrasaurus to name but three. They don't have the class of Brontosaurus do they?

Dreadnoughtus is a rubbish name.


Afternote: As m'learned QI colleague James Harkin pointed out after I'd posted this, you can't re-use a species name that has been superseded as it is still technically a synonym. It's an annoying rule, but sadly true.

However, if it is a synonym, it must therefore have equal weight. Otherwise, what point is there is having a synonym?

So how about a campaign to replace Apatosaurus with Brontosaurus? I mean to say ... which is more accurate - is it a thunder lizard or a deceptive lizard? I know what I'd plump for ...


To read about my involvement with another sauropod - the London Natural History Museum's famous Dippy the Diplodocus - click here.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

And ... we're back! And off to a flying (st)art!

Hello you, whoever you may be. I have no idea who reads this blog as no one leaves comments - I'm told that the blog is dead in the wake of such things as Whatsapp, Vine, Storify and Snapchat. But I'm sticking with it, if only to create a searchable archive of stuff I like that doesn't clog up my hard drives!

Well, I've been away for two months and have done a considerable amount of work on the two books. I've also been Edinburgh and done something of a live show thingy. All great fun. But now ... back to the bloggy arty, weirdy, sciency stuff.

I start with the wonderfully original art of mother and daughter team of Mica Angela Hendricks and her 4 year old Myla. Professional artist Mica likes to draw people but didn't always approve of Myla getting into her sketchbooks. But then, one day, she thought ... 'Why not? What if I draw the heads and let Myla do the bodies?' The results, once coloured in my Mum, are brilliant! Look!

The result of this fairly unique collaboration is a collection of pictures quite different to anything I've ever seen before. I have been known to colour in one of my children's, and later grandchildren's drawings, thus:

I've also experimented with adding my own drawing to children's drawings - I did an abortive children's book a few years ago that no publisher was interested in about a land where scribble people live. Here's an example:

But anyhoo ... back to the wonderful work of the Hendricks family ...

Wonderful stuff. If you'd like to see ore, do visit Mica's blog at Busy Mockingbird.

My thanks to Chrissi Hernandez for bringing it to my attention. :)

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Absent but not for long

My hugest apologies for the lack of activity on my blog of late. There are mitigating circumstances, I promise.

Firstly, there was the little matter of helping to research and write the 16 shows that make up Series L of QI. And bear in mind that what you'll see in the Autumn is a mere 25% of what we had to write as each show is recorded for two hours. Only 30 minutes (or 40 for the XL editions) make the cut for each show.

Then there were the six episodes of Series 7 of The Museum of Curiosity. They had to be thoroughly researched and written too. And, just like QI, out of each two hour show only 30 mins of material will be used when they are broadcast on Radio 4, again in the Autumn.

And then, of course, there's the work I'm doing for the brilliant Dr Sue Black's book Saving Bletchley Park. That's involved me reading just about every book I can find on the subject and interviewing veterans so that what I write supports and complements Sue's text.

I've also been doing some commercial illustration jobs, a talk here or there, and even found time to occasionally be part of the Colgan family.

And then there's the new book. I've finally got around to writing the book I've been wanting to write for eight years or so. It's called Why did the Policeman cross the Road? and, if you're one of the thousands who saw my The Skeptical Bobby talk last year, you'll know what it's about; how policing can be better. I'm publishing it with Unbound, like I did with Constable Colgan's Connectoscope.

Do go and watch the video, read my description of the book and the sample chapter. Then if you reckon it might be something you like, pledge an amount and help make it happen :)

Click here:

Why did the Policeman cross the Road?

As for this blog ... I'll be back soon. But a 120,000 word book doesn't write itself!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Some stories you might have missed - June edition

33 amazingly useful websites you probably didn't know existed

Simulate the creative environment of a coffee house with Coffitivity

Dinosaur feathers discovered in amber

Casting Call Woe - Bloody hilarious. And also a bit tragic.

It's a plastic world - Fascinating video. And, while we're on the subject, Our plastic waste is changing the geology of the Earth's rocks.

Andrew Shears' excellent blog on the United States that could've been - all the states proposed that didn't happen

And, last but not least ...

Vintage Chocolate Bar Wrappers. How many do you remember?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Bletchley Rocks!

I spent a fantastic day today at Bletchley Park; home of Station X - the code-breaking hothouse that shortened the war by at least two years - and the birthplace of modern computing. I was there at the invite of my good friend Dr Sue Black whose tireless campaign to save the place from falling into disrepair and ruin has finally borne fruit. Today was the official opening of the new visitor centre and, to mark the occasion, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, was in attendance to perform the grand opening and to plant a new tree in the park. The day also marked the end of Phase 1 of the project to save and restore the site.

You may be wondering what my involvement is in this business. I'll explain. Sue has nearly finished writing a book called Saving Bletchley Park (see here). It's a blow by blow account of how the campaign began, who the major players were, and how the money was raised. However, the campaign needed to be set against a historical perspective; to tell the story not only of how it was saved but why it had to be saved. So Sue asked me to research and write this part of the book with her and, as this day marked the completion of the first phase of reconstruction, a description of the day would make a perfect wrap to Sue's story. So I came along, camera in hand, to talk to some of the key players in the campaign and to get some nice 'after' shots to go alongside Sue's 'before' shots of what Bletchley Park looked like when she started the campaign five years ago.

I'm not going to write much more as there's very little more I can say. It was wonderful to walk around the grounds, to chat to veterans and trustees and to see how wonderfully and sensitively they've restored several of the code-breakers' huts.

I should explain that this isn't some Disney-esque theme park attraction; everything has been done as authentically as possible even down to the half-full ashtrays and grime around the light switches. The huts look as if the staff have simply stepped outside for a break and left the place feeling a little like the Marie Celeste. To see the dingy, narrow corridors, the gas masks and scarves hanging on coat-hooks, the rolled-up maps, and the chalkboards scribbled over with arcane codes is to get a sense of what life was really like during the War. Even in Alan Turing's office, with its iconic tin mug chained to the radiator, it feels like the great man is somehow still in residence.

Lunch on the lawn was a splendid affair and also an opportunity for me to chat to the great and the good including the ex-head of the Royal Navy, Baron West of Spithead (who once appeared on an episode of The Museum of Curiosity) and General Sir Michael Rose, ex-head of the SAS. And, of course, I must mention the Duchess of Cambridge who stoically stood smiling through all of the sandwiches and speeches before performing her royal duties.


What's happened at Bletchley Park is testament to Sue and the others who have run this campaign. It's proof that the ordinary man or woman - no disrespect intended - can make a huge difference ... just as the thousands of ordinary people at Bletchley Park did during WW2, despite knowing that no one would ever learn about the extraordinary work they did for a least four decades.

All photos (c) Stevyn Colgan and may only be reproduced with permission