Saturday, July 28, 2012

What I Did When Everyone Else Was Watching the Olympics Opening Ceremony

I went out and took some pictures of a dual carriageway.

I was intending to get some dusk shots of a Moonset, but the clouds had other ideas. Instead I braced myself against the bridge's safety rail, dropped the ISO, raised the exposure time and had a play with some nearly-nighttime photography. I apologise if these aren't all that interesting.

This is the A14 as it runs through Kettering.

This is a more cropped image taken from the same position as above.

And again, a different crop with a slightly longer exposure time. I like the fact that I caught someone exiting.

This is the A14 from a different bridge. If you were to carry on down the A14 in the direction the previous photo is looking, you'd get to the bridge I was standing on to take this one. You can just about see the place I was standing earlier in this photo.

Here's the bridge I was standing on. There's some colour correction going on here, courtesy of Picasa's "I'm feeling lucky" feature. I like what happened.

And the same bridge, but looking the other way.

Thank you, and good night.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ding Dong

I have a friend with a pretty unique job: he works for one of the world's best-known* bell foundries as a bell-hanger. As such, he finds himself all over the country up church spires doing his thing. This week he's been working on a local church** and, as someone who he knows is generally interested in stuff, he invited me along to see what he does. Sort of a 'take your inquisitive and generally harmless friend to work day'.

Of course, I took my camera along: I like to take pictures of things that not everyone is going to be able to see, and getting up-close and personal with church bells is something that the majority of people will never do. These are what I feel are the highlights, and you can see a few more over at Flickr:

Things to spot:

  • My feet.
  • A load of old bells.
  • A red bit.
  • Paul's leg.

Here's Paul cutting some bolts to the right size.

These bells are old. You'll see quite how old in a few pictures' time.

Here's part of the mechanism for the church's clock face.

When church bells are cast, they are dated. This one was cast in 1678 - it's over 300 years old - and still going strong!

A St. Nicholas' eye-view of Thrapston church.

Is there something compelling about graveyards, or is that just me? The dark, shadowy mass on the left of this image is the "X" from the clock face's "XII".

These wagon wheels are usually in place around the headstocks from which the bells hang. The bell-rope runs around the guttering at the circumference, and through a hole in the floor to the ringing room below.

There's that "XII" again.

Another reminder as to how old these bells are. I didn't notice the red splodge in the "6" until I'd taken the photo. Must have been a rogue splash of the paint that protects the rig that holds the bells.

This is a door that leads to the outside world. A very high-up part of the outside world. Being a pathetic wuss with no real head for heights, and already quite high up, I couldn't quite bring myself to investigate this further. So this is all you're getting.

Like I said; I don't like heights.

A view along the headstocks of three of the bells.

Paul's gently persuading a reluctant bolt that yes, it does actually want to do its job and stop the best part of a ton of cast iron from plummeting the height of a church tower.

This is what a church spire looks like from the inside.

An interesting inscription that you otherwise probably wouldn't get to see. This was on the opposite side of the spire to the door that you saw a few photos back.

Here's that door again. Or, rather, the doorway after Paul, who's not a wuss, opened it.

After a bell has been fitted in place, it needs to be tested.

A clapper waiting to be fitted.

Bells 4, 5 & 6, the biggest three, with number 6 being the biggest.

Sunlight through what passes for a window up here.

This photo is particularly interesting as the boy you can see standing in the far left of it is actually Paul as a young'un. It just happened to be lying on the windowsill when Paul arrived, out of sheer coincidence (you can see by the state of it that it's been there a while!) The photo was taken in, and is currently located in, the ringing room which is directly beneath (naturally) the room in which the bells are located.

* To campanologists.
** St Nicholas in Islip, if you're interested.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Summer Homework: My Life in Science

Julia has a very interesting blog about the life and times of a biology lecturer, called Stages of Succession. She has, very modernly, assigned her students some summer blogging homework assignments. The first of these is as follows:
"Introduce yourself (to the extent that you are willing to be identified). Write about your earliest memories of science. How have these influenced you to study the sciences? Do you wish to continue to study sciences at university? If so, what made you choose this subject? If not, what has captured your mind more than science?"
I was intrigued by her own response to this, and I thought it might be interesting to write my own. I'd be really interested to read responses from anyone else who might feel the urge, so please comment and link to them if you give it a go yourself!


Hi, I'm Tom. You might* know me from such internet publications as Blogstronomy and The Actual Maths. I'm 29 years old, play guitar in a local rock covers band, and have an interest in all things sciencey with a distinct bent towards the astronomical. I'm a maths teacher** and have been for the last five years, before which I was a Teaching Assistant, before which I was a lab technician, before which I was desperately seeking employment for six months, before which I completed a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics with Astronomy.


My dad tells me semi-regularly that the first question I ever asked him was "why is the sky up there?" Neither of us can remember what his answer was, but that isn't the point. He always had a passing interest in space-stuff, and I like to think I picked up where he left off. I remember staying up late and watching for Leonids (but not seeing any); I remember walking down St Catherine's road and seeing Comet Hale- Bopp hanging in the sky. I don't quite remember when it was that he started asking me the questions.

I remember my dad having a scruffy, old pocket-sized book that had lost its dust-jacket and contained all sorts of weird and wonderful information about the sky. It may even have been written by Patrick Moore. I remember my dad buying me a book that I still have in my academic book collection: the great big, hardback National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe. It's dated 1980, but that wasn't when I got it as I hadn't been born then. I distinctly remember the section on life in the universe and its vivid descriptions (and illustrations) of the kinds of life we might find in other locations in our own solar system, and how the vastly different environments out there might shape the evolution of such creatures. The book came with, attached to the cover, a record (yes, that's a vinyl record) of Sounds of the Universe which was, as far as I can remember, a collection of recordings made by space probes. I don't know where that disk is now, but I'll bet it's in amongst my dad's record collection somewhere.

It strikes me now, though it hasn't before, that I got at least the spark of my interest in space and science from my dad. Weird.

I also spent a lot of time reading about the paranormal. I was into telepathy and aliens and ghosts and the lost city of Atlantis and ancient visitations and all sorts of other fantastic and wonderful rubbish. Most of all, I was interested in finding out what was real and what wasn't. What was true and what was false. Back then, science and science fiction were one glorious whole to me, and looking back I realise that going deeper into the science could have blown apart my childhood, but thankfully it didn't: I'm still into both, and I'm still largely childish, though I'm happy with what's fact*** and what's fiction. Even now, though, it's the blurry bit in the middle that really gets me going.

Continuing in science

I did study science at university. I never really had a clue what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to go to university, and that I wanted to study something that interested me. So much interested me, though, it was a difficult choice. When we did our year 9 SATs I was in a middle-ability group and as such took the Level 5-7 paper. I came out at the end with a Level 8, and was instantly moved into the fast-track maths set, where I joined in with the other boffs who had started their GCSE a year early.

Being a lazy-but-capable student in an exam factory of a school, at the end of the following two years I had achieved good but not outstanding grades in two maths and five science GCSEs, and chose to study maths, chemistry and physics at A-Level.

When it came to choosing my degree course to follow, I was doing better in (or rather failing less at) maths, so I chose that. I didn't get the grades I needed, but they let me in anyway as maths isn't exactly oversubscribed at the best of times. I hated my course in the first year, and actually tried to change to history. I have no idea why I tried to change to history of all subjects, and I'm glad it didn't work because now, six years later, I feel that I actually understand things, and I have maths to blame for that.

Maths, you see, is the study of everything. However well you understand something, having a real understanding of maths can help you to get your claws into it that little bit more firmly. It's difficult to describe, but it's a bit like that bit in The Matrix with the 0s and 1s scrolling down the screen, and one of the characters says he doesn't see the numbers any more, but blonde, brunette, redhead...

This is especially true and demonstrable with my real passion, astronomy. It's one of those areas of science for which you simply can't wander out there and do it with a ruler, a set of scales and a bell jar**** because it's just too far away and deadly. If it wasn't for maths we, as a species, would have to have given up long ago and just settle for it all being a load of pretty lights in the sky. And that would be a massive shame.

But anyway, I think that's what made me choose maths: deep down, somewhere in the back of my mind I realised even then that maths was the root of all science, and that science was the key to making sense of at least bits of the universe that we find ourselves in. Maths is the thing that carries on unhindered in all directions when other sciences have to stop because things get too small, too far, too big, or too close to carry on. Maths is what bursts through the window in spandex and a cape when physics, biology and chemistry are scratching their heads trying to figure out whether this result is always true or just an anomaly. Maths is the big spiked bat that beats to a pulp poor and illogical arguments, and maths can be wielded successfully by the puniest, weediest nerd against the butchest, richest, most morally corrupt politician.

I'm a musician*****, and maths helps me to understand that better. Maths keeps my mind open to viewing things from a different angle, and often gives me some other angles to try. It helps me to work out exactly where Daily Mail reporters are going wrong in their appraisal of a situation, and lets me understand why weather reports are little more than random statement generators, and that I should probably take an umbrella along anyway. When I don't know something, rather than being happy with continuing to not know it, maths gives me a framework in which to work towards finding out an answer. I get asked a lot about what relevance maths has to real life, because so many people can't see a link. I feel very sorry for these people, for one reason:

Maths is real life.

* But probably don't.
** But watch this space...
*** As in currently best accepted theory.
**** One does not simply wander out into space.
***** O.k, I'm a guitarist. They're not the same thing.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Taming of St Paul's Choccy Rock Cafe

I've been to London this weekend, and as I've promised myself recently, I took my camera with me, so here's a bit of a photostory detailing the highlights. You can probably work most of them out from the title of this post. I won't include all of the pictures here to conserve your bandwidth, but if you'd like to have a look at all of the ones I've uploaded, they're on Flickr.

Our primary motive for heading into London was to go to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre to see The Taming of the Shrew, but of course we had to get there first. Our route took us past St Paul's Cathedral.

On the way from St Paul's to the Globe are a selection of curious metallic orbs which, presumably, came here from space. In this image you can see myself (in grey), my brother (in red, taking his own photo) and, behind us, St Paul's Cathedral. You can also see another of the curious metallic orbs. My mother's partner's son is almost just about in the picture, too (I guess you could call him my brother-notinlaw). He's about half my age but a considerably more accomplished photographer.

I snapped away as we crossed the Millennium Bridge - you'll remember that as being the one that no longer wobbles. Here's a shot of the Globe contrasting with more modern architecture.

I hadn't realised that the proverbial They had hung some Olympic rings from Tower Bridge as a warning to all those who pass that they should avoid London like the plague over the summer.

I liked this man playing sax on the bridge, but I didn't have any coins for his case, which made me feel a little bad. A lot of people don't like buskers, but I think they add a lot to the atmosphere of a place when they're any good at what they do.

Here's a signpost inside the grounds of the Globe pointing out the distance and direction to various world cities. I haven't thought yet about what the units must be.

The Globe itself taken from just inside the front gate. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside the theatre. This is a shame because I was constantly noticing photo opportunities. I really wanted to take a picture of a red 'Shakespeare's Globe' flag contrasting against the blue/white sky, with the thatched Globe roof in the foreground, but alas... We had some great seats and a brilliant view, being as high up as we could get.

I've realised that I really love taking photographs that include the constantly changing and infinitely variable sky. I'm also a fan of London's schizophrenic architecture that argues with itself in whichever direction you might happen to look.

I'm trying to take on Carlos's advice that people like pictures of people, and get over my fear of snapping real people who are doing things. I think it's easier to take a photo of a crowd than of individuals, so that's not a bad place to start. I'm particularly thankful, with regards to this photograph, to the beautiful lady in red who has so kindly blocked out a rather ugly piece of construction work that stuck out like a sore thumb in another snap I took from this position.

Here's the Shard: the newly appointed Tallest Building In Europe. I include this picture not because I think it's any good, but because it means I can say how underwhelmed I was. Expecting it to tower over and dominate the London skyline, it turns out it's just another building.

I was lining up a shot when this lady came and stood in the way to take her own photo. Momentarily infuriated, I realised she actually gave the shot something that wasn't there before. Thanks, whoever you are!

I loved the various levels of contrast in this view, and I'm not talking about light and dark: I'm talking about new and old; clean and dirty; natural and man-made; underground and sky.

We headed back past St Paul's on our way to our next stop.

As part of the City of London Festival there are pianos left lying around for people to sit at and play. This guy had just finished a rendition of Maggie May, accompanied by a guy with a guitar (who's just put his guitar away out of shot) and the guy behind the piano who sang. Here, they've just started on Elton John's Rocket Man. I love this idea of leaving out instruments for people to do some impromptu busking on. It made me wish I could play piano.

I quite like taking photos of people taking photos. I'm not sure if this is because I'm naturally recursive, unimaginative, or what. Taking the photo of me is Dom, seen before. The other guy is my brother, Will, also seen before. The two have swapped roles with regards to having their faces obscured by cameras.

Most of what you can see here is chocolate, including the skull. There was a chocolate dog just off-shot that was about the size of a real small dog, and made of solid chocolate. That was pretty heavy. The shop itself has a particular skill for making your wallet light, though, so it all cancels out in the end. The shop has a slightly embarrassing name that was obviously coined by the original owner's toddler nephew...

Again, I was slightly infuriated when this woman walked into shot, and again I realised that she added something to it. Thanks again! This shop is, by the way, in the Carnaby Street area, up a side-road. The chocolate within is divine, but with price tags that one may associate with divinity.

Across the street from Choccywoccydoodah was some kind of hardresser's, or beauty salon, or something. I noticed this in the window.

A decoration in Carnaby Street. There's a face-on shot of this on my Flickr stream.

"Carnaby welcomes the world." I love the glow on the bottom of this globe. I'm not sure what caused it, and I didn't notice it when I was lining up the shot. It may be some form of divine light, but the chocolate shop was a long way off by now, and in the wrong direction.

The Hard Rock Cafe on Park Lane. This would probably be my spiritual home if I believed in such things. I'm tempted to start believing in such things in order to start telling people that this is my spiritual home. This was my second visit, and this photo was from the back of the standard queue, which had a queue-to-seat time of about two hours. We used the priority queue, which got us in and seated in around an hour.

I love the juxtaposition of this sign and the painting of Frank Zappa on the crappa.

A focused John and a fuzzy Dom.

This is probably my favourite picture of the day, even though it's a bit fuzzy (in fact, thinking about it, the fuzziness might add something here. Or is that just wishful thinking?) These two were sat under this sign for ages, thankfully, as it took me ages to pluck up the courage to point the camera at them. They didn't notice, making this, for my money, a pretty decent candid shot. I don't think I could have arranged it so well myself if I'd had a month to think about it.

From left to right: my mum, my brother, and my brother's girlfriend, Vicke.

Will, again.

I like this, but I'm disappointed by the fuzz. Low light, a desire not to use the flash, and a continually jostled table added to the furry quality of this pic, but maybe I can ascribe some of it to an artistic intent to convey the alcoholic content of the subject?

The end.