Glorious monochrome

Fisheye lens - Natural History Museum in London Black and White Photo310

I picked up a postcard of this beautiful image at the Natural History Museum yesterday. It’s a view of the Central Hall by London-based Japanese photographer Noboyuki Taguchi, who works entirely in black and white. Check out his amazing portfolio here.

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Wonderful things in unexpected places

One of my favourite passages in the Bible is John 1v45-47, where Philip finds Nathaniel and invites him to meet Jesus, “the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathaniel’s response is “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” He cannot comprehend that someone of cosmic significance would originate from somewhere that is, really, nowhere. Philip’s reply is “Come and see”.

You can almost see the twinkle in Philip’s eyes, the delight in the seeming impossibility of finding so great a thing in so humble a place. It is wonderful when that happens; it reminds us that excellence, originality and talent are not the preserve of the rich, well-connected or expensively-educated, but can be found in the most surprising places.

I’ve had two such experiences in the last three weeks. No, I haven’t found the Messiah (twice) – that happened a while ago (once) – but I did find some wonderful things in unexpected places. As a born and bred Northerner, I’m also very pleased to say that this happened on my home territory. With the London-centric perspective of government and media, you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing of note happens outside the M25. Let me assure you that that is most definately not the case.

At the beginning of May, I had to book a table for two in Sheffield. I was meeting a friend who travels a lot and gets wined and dined in superb eateries on a regular basis, so I was a bit nervous. On the recommendation of a colleague, I booked The Milestone in Kelham Green. My nervousness increased as the taxi wove deeper into Sheffield’s former industrial heartland to an inobtrusive place amongst old warehouses. I needn’t have worried. As soon as we walked in, the warm welcome, bare wood tables and sea-green walls set the tone for a cosy and relaxed evening. My friend settled into a chair, stroked the table-top and said – half-surprised, half-impressed – “This is nice.” The food (all three courses – heritage tomato salad, belly pork, and petit fours for me) was excellent if not outstanding, and the drinks (G&T, Chablis, coffee, whisky) to wash them down were spot-on. Even though we hogged a table for 4 hours on a Friday night, we never felt rushed. My friend was very impressed, personally thanked the chef, and wanted to return again the same weekend with colleagues. I think that counts as a minor triumph.

Last night, I travelled to Bar 1:22 in Huddersfield, another inobtrusive place, this time at the end of a characterless concrete shopping arcade, next to the ring road. The ambience was somewhat undermined by the occasional ambulance or police car flying past the open windows, sirens blaring. It was packed to the rafters with a sell-out audience of around 100 people, gathered to see the headline act’s only UK gig of the summer.

We arrived about 30 minutes after the doors opened to cold beer and more-than-competent support from Sam Prowse and Isaac Grinsdale (frontman of The Great Argument, and also on sound for the evening!)… but we were really there to see Jon Gomm, shown above, the guitarist and singer who has come from relative obscurity to modest fame due to the popularity of his versions of Aint Nobody and Message in a Bottle on youtube. Check out his own compositions too – Topeka, Passionflower, GloriaHey Child and Loveproof.

He was passionate, confident, articulate, and above all technically awe-inspiring… whilst being refreshingly accessible, good-natured and unpretentious. And even better – he is well and truly Northern, born in Blackpool (to a music critic father who brought him into contact with a long list of blues guitar legends) and now lives in a not-particularly-salubrious corner of Leeds.

I have been looking for a musician to get excited about for some time, and I have found that in Jon. I bought everything he’s ever recorded and yes, I’ll be back for seconds.

Social networking: it gives, it takes, and it messes with your head

I love social networking. I’m on facebook, and love the way that allows me to keep tabs on important events in my friends’ lives, when otherwise we would completely lose touch. If you’re someone’s facebook ‘friend’, a connection has been retained, and it feels easier to arrange to meet up when you get the chance and have a place to start the conversation. I’m also a recent addition to Twitter, where I tweet mainly about my work and sciencey/techy stuff in general – that move was provoked by a seminar at the University about improving your digital footprint, leaving a professional trail on the internet that will be picked up when future employers Google you. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time updating my pages on academia.edu (which is linked to Twitter) this week for that reason.

And then there’s this blog, where I share the cool stuff I find on the internet, but increasingly work through what I’m thinking about with the aid of Google… and post it in case anyone else finds my mental meanderings helpful.

I’m used to communicating in typed messages – my working life is pretty much organised via e-mail, I can send in excess of 40 every day, and always check my work e-mail if I’m at home for the day. Over the years I have pefected the art of crafting e-mail carefully, of making my point and getting a response without offending. Those who know me well can read an e-mail I’ve written, look between the lines, and know what I am really saying.

The difficulty with social networks is that there isn’t necessarily that pre-existing connection. The vast majority of my facebook friends are people I know and have spent considerable time with at some point in my life. Hence, I’m able to bear my soul a bit or kick off about something (usually politics) and they know I’m not a wierdo angry ranter but someone who cares passionately about certain things.

Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s dream that we should all be wonderfully open and interconnected via facebook, even with people we’ve never physically met, my experience is that a relationship which pretty much starts and has been sustained via facebook can go spectacularly pear-shaped. Be careless in phrasing your messages and you can give completely the wrong impression, sometimes it’s simply the difference between an exclamation mark and a full stop; chatting away in a string of hundreds of messages can give the impression of genuine interest, when actually you’re bored and just looking for distraction; pay attention to what your new ‘friend’ is doing, be a bit too enthusiastic in ‘liking’ and commenting on their status updates, and you look like a stalker. And once you start looking like a stalker, it’s hard to get involved in their lives without strengthening this impression…

My advice would be, if you meet someone you get on with on facebook, meet up as soon as you can or at the very least talk to them on the phone, then ease off the facebook contact. I didn’t, and I deeply regret it. I fear that friendship will never recover.

Twitter is another thing altogether, as everyone else on Twitter can potentially read everything you say – and you only have 140 characters to say it in. It’s easy to become completely inane, share too much, or start a campaign against something without even trying. And that’s when you’re stone cold sober. Public figures can face calls for resignation over what they tweet, when it is actually really hard to tweet well and very easy to say something stupid in front of hundreds of thousands of people (or 16, in my case). I guess I can come across as a bit self-important on Twitter as I am very aware it is a public forum and tweet as if my boss was listening: I tend to focus on the good stuff in my working life, I don’t gossip and try not to go all ranty… although sometimes, I confess, I do succumb to Ben Goldacre’s provocation.

I suppose I could give it all up and walk away, and never tweet or blog or post a facebook status ever again. What stops me is that there are so many people I would never hear from again if I did. I would miss those snippets of information, the unfolding of our stories and the possibility of pulling our storylines together again, the rejoicing over success and sympathising over tragedy. I’m also aware of the connections I would miss out on forming because so many of us are now linked in this way, both personally and professionally.

However, it does make you wonder how genuine, how robust, these online connections really are. I am coming to realise that the friends who really make a difference to me, who I carry in my heart, are the ones who don’t rely on a status update to know who I am and what’s going on in my life. They are the ones I see in person, the ones I talk to face-to-face, the ones who read me completely and like what they find.

The World of Good

I was clearing out a cupboard today and found a load of cassettes. I no longer have a tape player, so they will be divided between my parents (who are visiting at the weekend) and the local charity shop.

Amongst them I found this, a Saw Doctors EP entitled World of Good. It was given to me by my first real boyfriend – Simon Glancy – just before I left for university in Nottingham. We’d been together for 2 years. It’s a fantastic track and very fitting… except for the last lines:

“And I know you’d take me with you, if you only thought you could, but if you up and go alone I only wish for you the world of good… I love you girl and I always will, you know you’re part of my life still, but times have changed, it’s understood – I wish for you the world of good.”

That turned out to be rather fateful – our relationship limped through my first year and finally died a death in the October of my second year. I was relieved, but not a little resentful that Simon had pulled the plug when he started his first year but I had stuck by him through mine and been unavailable whilst meeting so many eligible, intelligent and handsome men.

After my finals, emotionally shredded and feeling nostalgic, I went to visit him in Birmingham. We toyed with resurrecting our romance, but when I left I realised that starting over felt like a sizeable step backwards, and I decided against it.

We kind-of kept in touch and our paths crossed a few more times. Simon, myself and Alex (by then my fiancé) once ended up on the same stewarding team… which was, um, interesting. He also turned up uninvited to our wedding and stood right next to me in some of the pictures. Shortly after that, Simon went quiet, and I never heard from him again.

Simon Glancy appears to have vanished from the face of the earth – Google and facebook have drawn a blank. He was a keen climber, so I try not to fear the worst. I have come to accept that he is one of those loose ends from my past that I am never going to be able to tie up.

Wherever you are, Si – I wish for you the world of good.

The joy of Jem (Stansfield)

Every locker needs a pin-up. Mine is Jem Stansfield. The man is a genius, and a very handsome one at that.

He’s barely 40, but he has the brain to work out how to build the most incredible machines and the skill in his hands to do it himself. He’s also a natural communicator, with a boyish charm (aided by slightly dishevelled hair and twinkling blue eyes) and an energetic frame which can accurately be described as 6ft-something of pure muscle. I met him in green room during the Bang roadshow in Manchester, and struggled to string words together – I’m a 34 year-old Dr of Physics, but he reduced me to a gibbering idiot. Pathetic. An engineer has never had that effect on me before, or since.

I’ve seen him scale a wall using his vacuum gloves and suck willing volunteers up a vacuum elevator. I’ve wondered at his coffee-powered car and 360° rocket-powered swing. The weekend before last at the Bang roadshow in Sheffield, he beat Dallas in the hamster-wheel-colleague-lifting challenge, set off some spectacular explosions, and jokingly explained the scientific principles behind it all like he was regaling some tale or other down the pub. Last Friday, I watched episode 7 of the current Bang series and literally cheered him on as he took his pedal-powered aeroplane onto the runway… and gasped as he took flight.

If you’ve still not had enough, here he is chatting to Planet Science and the Open University.

Oh, Jem. What’s not to like?