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 I can also be found at Tempus Fugit (no longer being updated).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, November 30, 2015

Bagpipes: an anatomical overview

A colleague sent me a link to a Scottish comedian's performance in Sydney; said it was a good giggle. I was a bit dubious, given that he went by the name of "Danny Bhoy", which really suggested more of a Hibernian heritage, but whatever. When later he asked if I'd seen it yet and I said no, m'colleague went on to describe some of the highlights, including the intro, which was amid swirling mist, with the sound of the pipes, and Danny himself backlit in the dramatic scene, carrying what looked like a set of bagpipes. Colleague continued the narrative, including the revelation that the supposed pipes were just a bar stool with some ribbon tied to the legs, and Danny was also hold a wee tin whistle. It sounded good, right enough.

Recently I had a few minutes while waiting for a program to think about a process, so I followed the link to see what the fuss was about. Sure enough, it looked like a piper, but you you could tell it was a spoof as the camera zoomed in so you could see his left hand fluttering away at the 'whistle'; no piper, he. All was revealed a few moments later, and the intro joke concluded successfully. Now Dear Colleague, about that 'whistle'...

Colleague really should have known better, given his Irish heritage, even if their pipes are a little different. The 'whistle' turned out to be the appropriate item for the job after all: the chanter. The chanter, Peter ... chanter; from the French, 'to sing'. A slightly flared pipe of ebony or somesuch, perforated and finished in ivory, which is played as you might play the recorder, except at waist level—it being connected to the bag, not directly to the mouth.

The chanter is the part that produces the song; the melody. The twiddly stuff that either lifts the spirit and stirs the soul—simultaneously raising the hackles on the back of your neck—or irritates/scares/panics anyone within earshot. Maybe that should be ears, shot...

There are tunes, written for the pipes, that just sound right. They are often assertive, vigorous, and have a direct connection to every one of your red blood corpuscles - and, quite possibly, some of the white ones as well. Depending upon your disposition and ear for a tune, there may be something about them that you can't put your finger on, but it's no big thing. Until a well-known tune, written for a more conventional instrument, is played on the pipes. Then, it may seem that the piper either doesn't properly know the tune, or is being unadvisedly free with performing his own version. The reality is that the pipes do not have a wide range of notes available; no, the frugal Highlanders have made do with just nine. Furthermore, there are no 'chromatic notes' (no, I don't know either) on the Great Highland Bagpipe—a' phìob mhòr, if you're a Gael. This lends pipe music a limited sound, but I often felt that Joni Mitchell was similarly afflicted. So, the pipes are stirring, alarming, and slightly* edgy to anyone with a remotely musical ear in a modern, western sense.

 * this word is really superfluous here

Back to the chanter though. Its job is to produce the intricate stuff; the notable part of the piece, which you might be inclined to whistle, if the mood took you. In a battle situation—and remember that in the Great War, the Germans referred to the Scots pipers as 'the ladies from hell'—the chanter is used to produce the main assault on the enemy, the part that says "we've had our breakfast and it wasn't really what we wanted so we're a bit pissed off now, and now we're coming to pick a fight with you." And so it goes; hell is raised with a leather bag, a few wooden pipes* and some reeds. One side of the piper's stern face may be blown out into an alarming bulge, while his fingers beat a 'fuck you' rhythm** that is translated into a no-nonsense assault tune.

 * nowadays, synthetics are becoming more common
 ** a former colleague, ex-Scots Guards, used to 'play' his pen like a chanter, during committee meetings; perhaps he was quietly expressing the same sentiment.

Seaforth Highlanders with piper

That's what the chanter does.

The pipes though, have a secret weapon: the drones. These 3 longer pipes are not played as the chanter is; instead, they simply emit a constant note for as long as the bag is full of air and under pressure ... not unlike a politician. Their function & purpose is therefore quite different to that of the chanter. While the enemy is being given fair warning of the impending fight (Scots soldiers are nothing if not fair—it's the Highland ethic), they are simultaneously confused by the background noise, the drone. There is no tune to this. Think instead of a teenager whose voice has just broken, and who is in full flow with a moan against everything: parents, school, food, lack of internet, the entire Universe. It's a noise that nobody should have to suffer without the opportunity to decline.

The pipes therefore have this two-pronged approach to putting the enemy on edge: the chanter and the piper's nimble fingers are saying "right; here we come, ready or not," while the drones are mentally hitting them for six. They can't quite work out where the moaning is coming from, and about what, so they are now mentally, if not physically, completely out of step with everything else that is happening. Bombs, machine guns, mortars and the whine of incoming shells are all straightforward and to be expected; bagpipe drones are not. It is a singular weapon that was probably banned under the Geneva Convention.

So, Colleague, the chanter. Not a tin whistle. That just wouldn't cut it.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Personal artistic expression and greatness

Recently, Dan K posed a question on Twitter:

The question brought various answers and comments, and then this response from Dan, which set me thinking:

I know what he was getting at: if the words aren't your own, how can you be expressing yourself by singing someone else's words? His own response is arguably more provocative: the question about greatness seems to be general, rather than specifically about photography, but then the brevity of the Twitter format may be responsible. Then there is the assertion itself: that he will never be great, whether it is in photography, writing, or whatever.

Can someone express themselves with words or music written by someone else? I think they certainly can, if they are up to the job. I'd say the expression is distinct from the act of creating the original text or score, but there is certainly expression in performing someone else's work. Think amateur theatre compared with Blanchett, McKellen or Olivier; the performance is not just presentation, but interpretation as well. Or in music: it is said that Dylan declared Hendrix's All along the watchtower to be the definitive version. And if you have ever seen Sid Vicious performing My way, you'd have to admit that it wasn't anyone else's way but Sid's. Some of the words may have been changed, and may not have been written by Sid, but are we in any doubt that he was expressing his anarchistic, cynical self, behind the theatrics? In all of these cases, the base expression will be that of the writer or composer, but it is necessarily overlaid with the expression of the artist that performs the work.

How many great speeches are heard and either admired or loathed for their content, when they are delivered by someone other than the writer (I'm talking paid speechwriters, not plagiarists)? And yet the message is delivered and perceived as the expression of the orator's own sentiments and emotions—and if the oration is any good, the message will be seen as being totally owned by them, and doubtless is in at least some cases ... but with politicians, who can tell?

Maybe the most genuine expression is in performing someone else's work. It at once affirms an association with the work and any meaning it may have, and allows the performer to overlay their own brand on the material. If the performance stirs something in the listener, then it is likely that not only is the work of some merit, but the performance is adding something extra. Cover versions come to mind: if every cover version sounded exactly like the original, you'd have to ask “what's the point?”, but if the cover is an individual and novel performance (as distinct from merely a novelty*), then it must contain some individual expression on the part of the performer.

* But even a novelty version (Barron Knights, I'm looking at you) is in itself an individual expression.

Still, I grant that your own words, performed by yourself, are nothing if not expressing yourself.

The second issue is the question of greatness in one medium if you find yourself 'naturally' expressing yourself in another. Why should one preclude the other? However, there is a personal resonance here, which is probably what prompted me to dwell on this, in the first place, and to respond in words, in the second. I never used to be much good with words, be they written or spoken, and still find that to express myself most effectively, I need to gather my thoughts and round them up on paper/monitor. I suspect in fact that the introduction, in 1986, of Yours Truly to Mr Word Processor was a turning point in my desire to write anything of substance. I did write a few humorous lines in the early 80s, with a typewriter, but I was frustrated by the business of having to either get it substantially right first time—notwithstanding the corrective magic of the Tippex papers—or rewrite another version. 1st Word on the Atari ST changed all that, and I was free to express myself, and it was legible to others where my handwriting was not. Of course, there was that small matter of creative merit to get right; 29 years later, I think I might be getting close.

The fact that polymaths and multi-talented individuals are something of note does provide an answer to the question within Dan's thesis, but it's not necessarily the only one. It is entirely plausible that Dan may excel in photography or drawing as well as writing (and so, for that matter, might I), but what governs that outcome? If there is any spark of talent at all, is it not possible to develop it to a significant level by study and practice? Maybe the answer lies where the heart does. For some time, I've had the realisation that although photography was an early passion—which later became a profession—I do get particular satisfaction in expressing myself in writing. It is also a pursuit that can be carried out no matter where I am, whatever the time of day, whatever the light (as long as there is some), and without darkroom, chemicals, expensive optics or huge amounts of RAM. It can also be a several thousand-word technical document or a six-word story; each gives satisfaction in the completion.

Dan went on to say “I just feel if images were my primary medium of expression I'd be more prolific...” What if you take but one photograph in your career, or shoot just one film, but the outcome is the photographic equivalent of To kill a mockingbird? I'd venture that greatness is not so wedded to quantity as quality. Still, point taken.

It is also clear to me that merely reading about photography gives pleasure beyond simply the acquisition of knowledge. The vicarious pleasure of photography by proxy? It is similar to looking at good photography, but not quite the same. Should I be worried? I should perhaps be more worried by an inkling a couple of years ago: it occurred to me that I could possibly derive much pleasure in simply walking around with an empty camera; aiming, composing and firing the shutter (a proper mechanical shutter, that is, not the electronic sound file that digital cameras are endowed with), and enjoying that very process, as well as the thought of the photographs that I'd 'taken'. There would be a huge benefit: no expense on film and processing, and no hours afterwards in going through the negatives and either scanning or printing them and trying to get the best out of them; naturally, the photographs would all be great. I'd also have more room on the walls for Steiglitz, Weston, Adams...
The architect wrote the lyrics, but the final expression is mine

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Yet more kitchen capers

Occasionally, when either necessity dictates or the mood takes me, I set to in the kitchen, and concoct something that I hope will be edible. I dislike using recipes, so tend to either stick with standards (meat, veg and multi-ingredient mash; fish and whatever; bolognese, con carne, or just stuff mixed and cooked in whatever time-honoured fashion is appropriate... you get the picture) or invent something as I go. The latter can be a risky venture, leading to unpalatable or just disappointing results, but thankfully I can usually pull off something worthwhile.

Tonight, I fancied something inspired by a simple rice-and-lentils meal we enjoyed with friends years ago, when we dropped in with little warning. It was tasty and simple, and despite their disclaimer that it was nothing special, I liked it very much. Why I should wait 22 years to attempt something similar is beyond explanation.

Here's the gist of it:

Lentils with rice and vegetables

• 1/4 cup green lentils
• 1/4 cup brown lentils
• 1 cup rice and ancient grains (or just brown rice)
• 1 onion, chopped
• 1 carrot, grated
• 2 cloves of garlic, mashed
• a dozen or so round beans, chopped
• 1/2 small red capsicum, chopped
• handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
• 1 can chopped tomatoes
• small amount of chopped salami, cabanossi, etc, if desired (I desired)
• sprinkle of basil and oregano

Simmer lentils for about 10 minutes, then top up with cold water, add rice and simmer for another 20-30 minutes or until cooked.

Saute onion until soft, then add garlic for a minute or so. Add carrot, beans, capsicum, chopped tomatoes and herbs (and meats if used), and simmer while rice & lentils are cooking. When all is nearly done, add cherry tomatoes and simmer for another 5 minutes or so.

Drain rice & lentils when ready, rinse with hot water, and add vegie mixture with salt & pepper to taste.

If daughter is not eating with you, add mushrooms to the vegie mix, or anything else that she would otherwise object to.

It was scoffed satisfactorily, and Young Man of item-with-daughter status ate his before leaving the kitchen, then obliged with preventing a leftovers situation from arising.

It's what's called a result, I believe.

There was no photograph, so here's something completely different.

Lunar occultation of Saturn, 14 May 2014

Sunday, October 25, 2015


I virtually always carry a camera with me; two, if you count the one in the phone. Very often, I also carry a desire for a coffee. Not that I'm a caffeine addict: at home, I drink decaf - it's simpler, as Heather doesn't do caffeine if she can avoid it, so we only have to have one jar in the cupboard, and that decaf is as satisfying as a legit cafe brew.

When we were in Ipswich some time ago, we were gasping for a cuppa, and couldn't seem to find anywhere that looked like they served a decent brew; when we finally found somewhere, it was pretty disappointing, so we effectively wrote off Ipswich as a coffee-free zone. Since then however, we have found a few places worth a second visit.

One such is Nourish Real Food Cafe, in Brisbane St. It's fairly new, light, airy, and the tables aren't crammed in together. The food is adventurous and the coffee perfectly good. The building was renovated about 18 months ago, and they have gone for the bare brisks look, contrasted by a faux laneway to one side, presumably going to other premises.

My camera eye can be drawn by all sorts of things, but the play of light and shade is usually pretty tempting. Once, at a gallery, I was as fascinated by the shadows cast by a series of exhibits mounted on a row of small shelves as I was with the art itself. There was no artist statement attaching to the shelves. Here, it was the clean lines and subtle shadows on a textured white wall that stopped me in my tracks.

Inside the cafe, it was the walls that fascinated me. Nothing new or terribly unusual about bare brick walls in a modern establishment, but it was the pattern that seemed unusual. Heather knows a thing or two about bricklaying bonds (who'd have thought?), but this didn't seem like a bond that would have made it through building control. What would I know? The apprentice's first attempt?

The last few posts have touched on my inability to abandon film photography, but these were taken with the digital camera that I usually carry. I suspect that in the next five years it may expire; it's unlikely to last another ten. However, I have just bought a bulk load of black & white film, and shall soon run it through some cameras still going strong after 40 years or more. After film camera values plummeted in the last decade, they are becoming valuable again as a new generation of photographers discovers the appeal of traditional non-digital methods.

I shall also be exploring the world of developing the film in coffee and vitamin C—a combination known as Caffenol—which sounds nuts but is chemically quite plausible and has a growing number of advocates and practitioners. And why not do something different, if it works? Watch this space.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


A bright, clear crescent Moon did shine down last night, and with a young man interested in seeing through the big scope, I stirred myself to grant his wish. While looking at the ancient surface, I noticed that the seeing was pretty good, so got the camera mounted for a few snaps.

There's nothing groundbreaking about a pic of the crescent Moon, of course, but it's always pleasing and never looks the same twice—unless you wait a long time and look at every possible opportunity. On this occasion though, there was a pinprick of light inside a large crater, evidence of day breaking upon a central mountain peak ... and who doesn't like a mountain sunrise?

The telescope is effectively acting as a 1200mm f8 long lens, which is pretty big on a crop sensor camera (Canon 40D). At ISO-400, the exposure would be reasonably short, except that I wanted to make the most of that little sunlit mountaintop, so took exposures of 1/13, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/200 second, to get detail in both highlights and dark areas near the terminator (the day/night boundary). I then combined all 5 exposure levels to make an HDR image.

The southern highlands, at top, appear more heavily cratered as they haven't been overlaid with lava,which process produced the dark 'seas' in the northern hemisphere.
Maurolycus, with central peak lit

The crater trio Catharina, Cyrillus and Theophilus, beside the Sea of Nectar
Sea of Tranquility; Apollo 11 site circled


Sunday, October 18, 2015

A peripatetic camera

It's been far too long since I've posted here, so here's a post I made as a guest on the 35mmc (35mm compact camera) blog. I became temporary custodian of a point and shoot camera ("The Traveling Yashica"), and used that quaint but not-yet-dead medium, photographic film. It was fun, even if I didn't love the camera. The premise is simple: receive the camera and shoot a film, then blog the results:

"I have decided to send my Yashica T5 around some of the nice folks I cross paths with on twitter, get them to shoot a roll of film then send the camera to someone else who wants to take part.
All I ask is that anyone who ends up with the camera sends me some photos and a little bit of a backstory to go with them." -- Hamish Gill

As I still love the look and palaver that goes with using film (I never stopped, just stopped shooting it except on very rare occasions), I thought it would be a worthwhile thing to do.

Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium at dusk
The Traveling Yashica: Duncan Waldron (Camira, Australia)