All posts by frm

About frm

Photographer, sculptor, tea-drinker, sky-watcher, academic.

Also some other things.

Not really Scottish.

Travel in Iberia

I spent much of this summer travelling overland around the Iberian Peninsula – the parts of the world commonly known as Spain and Portugal. I was teaching and looking after kids at a summer camp in the Basque Country for two weeks, and then I had about a week and a half travelling in a south-westerly direction before turning north to attend the ‘Bridges‘ conference on maths and art, in Coimbra, Portugal, where I was showing my interactive exhibit known as ‘Kenneth‘ and a large canvas print of one of my generative artworks. Finally I headed further north, to Galicia, and spent about two weeks there before looping around to the East and spending a couple of days in Bilbao before going on into France on the way back to Britain.

All of these places warrant proper writing about, but here are the major stops of my journey, in inevitably-misleading bullet-point, key-word form, in any case – if nothing else, this will act as memory aid for me:

  • London:
    Family time
  • Paris:
    Long night
  • Irun:
    Fiesta; oops
  • Gorozika:
    Summercamp, burnout
  • Las Rozas:
    Forest, pool
  • Madrid:
    Heat, galleries
  • Cordoba:
    HEAT, mosque
  • Cadiz:
    Breeze, banyans
  • Sevilla:
    Wall, Macarena
  • Lisboa:
    Tiles, trams
  • Coimbra:
    Conference, hills
  • Carballo:
    Stream, emptiness
  • Santiago:
    Pilgrims, curlicues
  • Oviedo:
    Mists, wandering
  • Bilbao:
    Fiesta, gays
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Photo Point

May Queen passing through the Fire ArchI crouch below the eyeline of the crowd
Half-watching  Water dance, half  in-camera.
The drumming and the wash-rags beating loud
I strive to  trap in electronic  amber.
Meghan at Water PointWith flashes or by squatting frozen-still
I  take away the movement of the night.
This festival of  Nowness on the hill
Distilled in  slices,  slides for  future sight.
The energy of life in human form
Is tumbling before me, painted red.
The  spirit of the forest is reborn!
I’m turning dials and living in my head.
The bonfire smokes the wastage of last year
And sparks a blaze in me – and now –  I’m here.

Whoosh

Continue reading Photo Point

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Climate Camp

The towerClimate Camp (or the Camp for Climate Action, in full) is a reaction to the failures of our governments to take anything like the steps that science tells us will be necessary to avert catastrophic climate change, and to the failures of our democratic system to represent dissenting voices. When even majority opinions are readily ignored if they conflict with the plans of the ruling powers, people are encouraged to take politics into their own hands.
Continue reading Climate Camp

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Chocolate and Chestnut Risotto

Sometimes I get seized by a vision of something I think I could cook, that I’ve never heard of anybody else cooking but which feels to me like it could be really, really good. Every now and then it turns out that I’m wrong, and my crazy ideas don’t add up to something delicious after all. Most of the time though, I find that I am right and make something I’m really happy with, like chocolate risotto with chestnuts and pears.

For once I pretty much know how much I used of each of the ingredients, because I followed the risotto essentials from the excellent mushroom risotto recipe (one of the few recipes I’ve ever actually followed as such) in The Vegetable Book, by Colin Spencer (one of my all-time favourite books). This provided a good-sized helping for three people, possibly greedy people. You could probably feed four average-sized stomachs without too much trouble. I would describe this as semi-sweet – enough so that it feels indulgent, but not insane, for this to constitute a main evening meal.

  • 2/3 cup of arborio rice
  • 2/3 cup of white wine and/or sweet sherry
  • 150g of chestnuts (100g dried, reconstituted)
  • Loads of cocoa. Um, about 50g maybe?
  • 7 tbs of coconut oil, or a mix of oil and butter or whatever, if you’re not vegan – this may be more than is strictly necessary
  • Cinnamon
  • Cardamom
  • 4 pears
  • A little salt
  • The juice and rind of about half a lemon

Get the chestnuts ready to go, first – I used dried chestnuts that needed boiling for 10 minutes and then draining and clearing of a few bits of brown skin. You can probably get them in tins or cook fresh ones on an open fire, whatever works for you. They need to be in small pieces, so break them or chop it up quite finely. Once they’re ready you need to chop up the pears into smallish chunks, ready to go.

Melt the coconut oil and add the pears together with the chestnuts, lemon, salt and spices, then once they’ve started to soften add the rice and cocoa. Mix well, so the rice starts to take up the flavours around it, then add 1 and a quarter cups of hot water and bring to the boil. Simmer with the lid on for eight minutes, then let it stand for five. Check that the rice is well cooked – if it’s not, you might need to add a little more water and turn the heat back on for a bit.

Then eat.

Note: Although this was off the top of my head, I’m not the first to have invented it. I’m okay with that.

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Climate change animation – it’s much, much later than you think

Wake Up, Freak Out – then Get a Grip from Leo Murray on Vimeo.

My brother, Leo Murray, is an animator as well as an activist. He made this film for his animation master’s degree at the Royal College of Arts, and I was very impressed indeed with the job he did of communicating the science, visually and verbally – beautiful use of animation to convey scientific concepts, and an interesting blackboard-inspired style. The full script includes extensive journal references to back up what he’s saying.

I maintain the web page for the film, though I didn’t do most of the design. I have also helped to coordinate the translations, which now exist for most of the major European languages, with several Asian versions on their way too. It’s been great to see it get watched online by well over 100,000 people, but this is still not nearly enough – the message is very important indeed, and this film conveys it remarkably well, packing a whole lot of information into a very short time in a very watchable style. At this point it would be particularly valuable if people could spread the word more outside of the English-speaking world.

What this is about is that climate change is probably a much bigger threat than anybody realised even a few years ago. We’ve been hearing more and more about it in the news, but I think it’s still not so clear to most people why – I suspect the increased coverage is often written off as media hype, rather than a reflection of the fact we really ought to be much more worried than we thought we needed to be.

The IPCC’s last report erred very much on the conservative side, as is the nature of reports which must be agreed to by all parties. Newer evidence had trouble getting fitted in, so it did not really even try to assess the importance of positive feedback loops in all of this, which has only recently started to become clear. Essentially, there is good reason to think that some of the changes caused by warming will feed back into themselves to cause more warming, potentially leading to runaway climate change in a frighteningly short time – we’re talking several degrees of warming over just a few decades here, and possibly less than ten years to effect the changes needed to prevent this from happening.

There is of course some uncertainty in all of this, and it may yet turn out that the situation is not nearly as bad as it looks… and that’s really just as well, because if it is as bad as it looks, I don’t much fancy humankind’s chances of doing what we need to before it’s too late. It’s not too late yet though…

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Ice and Frost

Slab of wonderI think most people don’t pay nearly enough attention to what they’re walking on, especially in cold weather. The richness of the patterns that ice forms is staggering, and provides an intriguing glimpse into the physical processes going on both at a molecular level and on a much larger scale. Some of the most fun shapes emerge when the temperature varies enough so that ice alternates with water, and flow patterns meet crystal dendrites.

Ice creaturesI have two theories about the sort of sideways icicles we sometimes see. Either they come from ice that has cracked and water has seeped through and refrozen, or they are caused by fingers of ice crystal which get a head start on the rest of the puddle for some reason – most likely, some facet of the surface they’re growing on just happens to provide a perfect nucleation point, and the crystals grow out from there because there’s nowhere else for them to get a foothold. Even though this starts at the level of water molecules forming neat little piles too tiny for any microscope to pick apart, in the right conditions these minuscule fingers of crystal just grow bigger and bigger…

Ice danceSome bubbles usually form in ice as it’s freezing. These are due to the presence of dissolved air in the water, which is no longer able to stay dissolved when it gets colder, so it migrates into pockets as the water freezes around it. Bubbles like these, trapped in the Antarctic ice core, tell us what the air on Earth has been like over hundreds of thousands of years, providing the strongest evidence that the temperature on Earth varies in proportion to the amount of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. We know, for instance, that levels of carbon dioxide and methane are higher, and rising faster, than they have been in 800,000 years.

Larger bubbles also form under ice when it starts to melt from beneath, forming a space between the frozen layer and the water underneath. This process is dominated by the formation of liquid water, dripping and surface tension coming to the fore, so rather than the complex, angular crystals associated with freezing, we see the air forming in great bubbles and voluptuous curves.

Cold, hard cashThe patterns formed by frost depend on a number of factors – the relative temperature of the air and the ground and how much they vary, the speed of the wind and the level of moisture, and so on. Another factor is the nature of the surface the frost forms on – sometimes frost closely follows the lines of the surface, and sometimes it forms much more quickly in some spots than others, where imperfections in a smooth surface get the crystallisation process started. The patterns formed can give us insight into hidden features of the surface below, the subtleties we see speaking of deeper subtleties beyond our perception…

a quickr pickr post

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Treebike

Treebike
One day, many years ago now, I was taking my dog for a walk on Hampstead Heath when I met two men who had just hauled a bicycle up into this tree.

I think that’s as far as their plan went – they didn’t have a camera to record the moment for posterity, or anything like that, so it was probably quite lucky that I was wandering past at that moment.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever put the picture online until now – and though I’m pretty sure I gave them my email address, they never did get in touch to ask for a copy.

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Gyokuro

I finally got to try Gyokuro green tea at a beautiful little salon de thé called The Tea Caddy, in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It is never a cheap tea, but they had it for around half the price I’ve seen elsewhere.
Tea in ParisThe leaves and the infusion are remarkably green, quite vividly so, and if you can imagine it, the taste is, too – quite richly vegetal, but not unpleasantly so. It is also a very characteristically Japanese flavour, with the seasidey overtones that implies. It’s not quite right to say that they’re fishy, but there’s certainly something of the ocean to Japanese green teas, which some people dislike.

For my part I found the Gyokuro delicious, with a particularly deep flavour and very little bitterness to it. It stands up well to multiple brewings, at least as many as I could fit in on my visit.

Gyokuro is made from tea that is shaded for the last few weeks of growing, deepening both colour and flavour, adding to the theanine and caffeine content. This is also how they make Matcha, the powdered tea used in the tea ceremony cha-no-yu, although the drying process differs.

Gyokuro should be brewed with cooler water than most green teas, only 50-60°C, and far more tea per cup – two tablespoons for just a quarter-pint of tea! The taste and the rebrewability should make up for the apparent lack of economy.

With thanks to O-Cha and Wikipedia for some details.

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North Calcutta

Street Cooking

We get up early in the morning to meet Sunayana and Kenji from Calcutta Walks, at Shovabazar1 Metro station2 in North Calcutta3. They are to show us around some of the old houses and narrow streets of this part of the city. It’s uncomfortably early for me, but it’s worth it to be able to walk around in the mild heat of the morning, rather than the scorching sun of mid-day.

North Calcutta Courtyard

This is where the richer Bengalis mostly made their homes in the time of the Raj, and thanks to this it is one of the few parts of Calcutta with a visible history of secular Indian architecture, going back more than a century or so. From the street itself upwards, everything man-made here looks and feels more Indian than most of Calcutta, where nearly all the public buildings (temples aside) are obvious Colonial hangovers, and newer developments are so often so obviously modelled after their Western equivalents.

Portal

Here we see why Kolkata was known as the ‘City of Palaces’ – an unlikely number of spectacularly grand old palatial homes are clustered here, built by rajas and nawabs to show off their status and house their families for centuries to come. Their wide courtyards are surrounded by beautiful arches with expansive rooms beyond, and since we are there in the lead-up to Durga Puja, most of them also have particularly impressive shrines set up in them, each in the house style of the family that owns them. Although many of their proud residents are quite happy for us to pop in and look around in wonder, very few of them allow photography.

Old Kolkata Printing (1)

We briefly visit a very small press, printing packaging on letterpress machines older than independent India. Many such tiny industries exist here, where the old families often find themselves with more property than money, and rent out the odd room to make ends meet.

Our guides buy us some ludicrously cheap, very tasty and reasonably safe fried street food, served in disposable little bowls made of leaves, and take us to see traditional sweets being made. It is fascinating to watch these vast pans of curds and syrup being skilfully manipulated into tiny confectionery treats, but preferring to avoid dairy, I only allow myself a taste.

Another highlight is the maze of narrow, twisty streets of Shovabazar, where dacoits and resistance fighters alike could vanish as required. The sheer number of available alleyways would fox pursuers, and the tiny space between opposing walls would keep out any vehicles, and in many places it would make it easy for a competent climber to vanish in seconds. With sympathetic residents on your side you could melt away here like nothing, and never be found again.

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  1. Best pronounced ‘Shobabajar’ – Bengali doesn’t actually have any v or z sounds, but they’re often used in transliteration of words and names out of deference to their Sanskrit or Persian origins []
  2. I’ve written about my experiences on the Kolkata Metro, here, if you’re interested – and you can follow links from there to more writing about my trip… []
  3. for no very good reason I’m spelling Kolkata as Calcutta throughout this; both spellings and pronunciations are in widespread use by residents, and I tend to use the other, but our guides use the old-fashioned/English spelling in their name, and ‘North Calcutta’ is an English phrase – if I’m talking about Kolkata, should I call it Uttor Kolkata as well? []

Caustics

I have been fascinated by caustics for a long, long time. I still remember the first time I noticed them – a bright, ethereal form dancing in the shadow of my mother’s wine glass. I was entranced by the way the light moved when the wine swished in the glass, and disappointed when my usually all-knowing mother wasn’t able tell me anything much about them.

Many years later, a friend asked me if I happened to know anything about caustics; I had never heard of them, so she explained that she was talking about the shifting patterns of light made by rippling water, the curves of light you see at the bottom of mugs, and so on. Finally I had a name for these patterns that had enchanted me since my infancy; when I got home I looked up the word, wondering what these things might have to do with caustic soda or holocausts.

Most caustics are quite harmless, but if you have ever used a magnifying glass to focus the light of the sun into a tight point to make smoking holes in things, you have witnessed their potential destructive power; this is where they get their name. Archimedes is famously said to have used a giant parabolic mirror to set fire to Roman ships using reflected sunlight, during the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC. In modern times, the Olympic Torch is similarly lit by a large parabolic mirror focusing the sun’s rays on a single point.

Caustics can occur whenever light leaves a curved surface; most often that means it has been reflected or refracted. Refraction caustics, caused when light rays are bent by passing through something, tend to show less extreme distortion than reflection caustics, but often show subtle colour variations like light from a prism, because shorter wavelengths of light are refracted more than longer ones.

'city (dawn reflections) rooftop' courtesy of suchstuffEither kind of caustic can hugely amplify tiny imperfections or very subtle curvature into striking patterns, the effect increasing with distance from the surface. For example, very few windows are truly flat, and it is common to see cross-like shapes or mottles reflected on the walls opposite, when the sun is low in the sky.

caustics in motionStrictly speaking a caustic is the entire envelope of light which leaves a curved surface; the patterns of illumination we usually see are just the intersection of that three-dimensional structure with another surface. Something of the 3D nature of caustics comes out when the distance to the illuminated surface varies, with some features getting washed out with distance while others become ever more prominent. See this short video clip for an example; there’s a much longer film, with music, linked here.

We’d notice very quickly if they weren’t there – simulating realistic caustics is an important issue in computer graphics mainly for this reason, and an otherwise convincing scene will seem oddly flat and unreal if it is missing caustics that should be there. Mostly, though, caustics are one of those kinds of things which quietly make life that much more pretty while they just sit in the background, beneath our threshold of conscious attention – but which often reveal truly striking beauty when we pay them a bit of attention.

Additional photos courtesy of Reciprocity, SEngstrom and suchstuff; see more in the Caustics pool on Flickr. You might also like to play about with my interactive caustics-simulation animation, Zoobie.

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