Friday, August 26, 2011

Sepia Saturday 89 : Snaps 1950

One of the interesting consequences of exploring the "Family Stash" of old photographs on a week-by-week basis is that you slowly build up a picture of time and events, rather like you do when you are putting a jig-saw puzzle together. You may recall that I assumed that my last Sepia Saturday photograph had been taken in 1950. However, this week here is a picture which shows my mother (along with Auntie Annie) in Bridlington in that same year. Now, two things are as certain as the waning of the moon : back in those days there was only ever one family holiday each year, and as far as our family was concerned they alternated between Bridlington and New Brighton. So I need to amend the suggested date on the last Sepia Saturday photograph to 1951.

One of the fascinating things about this picture is that it clearly shows the Box Brownie camera that must have been used to take most of the other photographs in the stash. This particular photograph was taken, however, by one of the team of photographers who would wander around Bridlington in the summer months taking "snaps". The developed photographs would be displayed in the window of the photographers' shop just next to the harbour and if you liked the image, you could go in and buy a copy. There is an excellent description of the Bridlington Snaps Company on the fascinating Walking Pictures Blog.

Now I have scanned it and enlarged it, I have come to think of it as one of my very favourite photographs of my mother. It is a picture worthy of Cartier-Bresson at his best.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Revenge Of HAL

Remember that most poignant of cinematic scenes, that defining moment in the developing relationship between human beings and computers. David Bowman, the enigmatic leader of the 2001 Mission to Jupiter, eventually realises that the on-board HAL 9000 computer is trying to kill him in order to prevent its own disconnection. HAL locks Bowman out of the space capsule, but he eventually manages to force his way back in and shut down the machine by progressively removing HAL's computer modules one by one. As HAL's consciousness degrades he regurgitates material that was programmed into him during his initial programming and this culminates with an ever-slowing rendition of the song "Daisy Bell". As the final lines of "Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer do", grind to a final stop we realise that, on this occasion, man has managed to outwit artificial intelligence.

Those of us of a cautious disposition have spent the last 43 years since the release of 2001 : A Space Odyssey looking for signs of a new attack by artificial intelligence on the primacy of humanity. If there is one thing that computers are good at, it is learning from their own mistakes, so we should expect something a little more sophisticated than locking us out of an air lock. I think I have found it : it is not HAL it is HFT. I might be wrong, but I strongly suspect that HFT is a more powerful threat to humanity than a wagon-load of Gaddafi's or a sea container full of HAL 9000 computers. HFT is High Frequency Trading.

Cast your mind back to how stock exchanges and financial markets used to work. City gents with bowler hats would study the financial papers as they took the morning commuter train into the city from either leafy Surbiton or Sleepy Hollow, identify firms that were on their way up and decide to buy shares in the business. Firms with potential would receive much-needed investment and our city gent would receive a useful dividend at the end of the financial year. It is a comforting and a rather clever system : but in terms of the way financial markets work in the twenty-first century it is total fiction. 

These days the majority of decisions to buy or sell shares, trade in commodities or move into currencies are not taken by human beings, they are taken by sophisticated computer programmes. Such programmes seek to beat the system by buying and selling over extremely short periods, holding the stock for seconds or even micro-seconds and making a very small profit on the trade. But they make so many trades that the aggregate profit is immense. The programmes are not concerned whether the extremely small movement in price is being brought about by positive or negative expectations, rumour or the phases of the moon : the programmes make their millions by anticipating fractional movements and betting on them. This is the strange, some would say horrifying world, of High Frequency Trading (HFT). In the US financial markets it has been estimated that something like 75% of all market trades are HFT's, on the London markets the percentage is around 40% and increasing all the time.

So when you turn to the financial pages and see the wild fluctuations in the markets, see your pension pot dissolve in front of your eyes, see mindless speculation rip the flesh off financial probity, think of HAL and recognise his revenge. All together now, "Daisy, daisy ......."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jaume Plensa at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

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YSP - May 2011, a set on Flickr.

Several people have asked about the image I used to illustrate my last post. I took it earlier this year at the wonderful exhibition of the work of the Spanish artist, Jaume Plensa at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

During the last day or two I have been trying to sort out some of my recent images on my Flickr account. Although I joined Flickr some time ago, I have never really come to terms with its possibilities and potential. So Jaume Plensa gives me the opportunity to experiment : and (hopefully - if it all works) here is a short set of photographs I took during my visit to the Park in May.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Frank The Wittol Probes His Woolfell

I am always a bit of a soft touch for endangered species. Point me to where a Great Crested Newt is under threat and I will sign a petition. Explain to me about the cruel fate of the rhino and its horn and I will abandon my search for virility. There is not a seed I wont plant nor a slug I wont nurture in pursuit of diversity. It was therefore with regret that I read of the announcement by experts at Collins English Dictionary that another tranche of words are about to become extinct from the English language. In the sincere hope that I am not too late, I would like to offer you the following (very) short story. You can do your bit for the cause of a diverse vocabulary by adopting any of the featured words and perhaps incorporating some of them into your posts this week.

Frank looked out of the window of the charabanc as it drove passed the aerodrome and once again saw the funny little man trying to get airborne in his cyclogiro. "He's mad", he thought to himself, a prime candidate for alienism if ever there was one. But soon the ghost of a smile vanished from Frank's face : laughing at mad aviators was no succedaneum for facing up to his own role as a pathetic wittol. His self-respect was only skin-deep and like a woolfell it disguised the death and decay that lay beneath. If he examined his real feelings, examined them with the scientific intensity of a stauroscope searching for the hidden emotional crystal structure of his soul, he knew that he was nothing more than a broken-hearted drysalter looking for an explanation of Marion's infidelity. As tears fell from his tired eyes, he realised that, at that task, he was no supererogate.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fatted Calves And Retrospective Images

All my plans for this weekend seem to have gone awry (what a strange word that is, you half expect it to be a fishing village in Cornwall). I haven't even managed to get my Sepia Saturday post up - it will be either fashionably late or unfashionably early depending on whether it makes it by mid-week or not. The cause of all this disruption is that we have been searching the local shops looking for a fatted calf : yes, The Lad is due back later today after a couple of months in Africa. The above picture of the Crook County Calf Club is taken from the Flickr Commons collection of the Oregon State University Archives.

In case you would like to see some of my photographs today, can I point you in the direction of The Book Of Cletis as the ever-splendid Cletis is hosting a brief retrospective of some of my photographs. My thanks to him for his interest, my thanks to you for your visit, and my thanks to Africa for putting up with The Lad for the last eight weeks.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Picture Post 1026 : Alan Burnett's Economic Insight

Which Way To Turn? - Halifax Show, August 2011 (Alan Burnett)
The problem with the global economy at the moment is that nobody seems to know which way to turn. Caught between post-capitalist recession and crypto-communist financial speculation we are in urgent need of leadership.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Say Hello To UF2011ABF0001A (AKA Constance)

There is a lot of debate over here at the moment about infringements of personal liberty : should we introduce curfews, ban social media during times of trouble, have more or fewer surveillance cameras? - that kind of thing. The dust is still settling after the recent riots and all sorts of theories about causes and responses are doing the rounds. Personally, I have never quite understood the position whereby denying someone a job is merely the inevitable workings of the market system whilst having a video camera on a street corner is a fundamental attack on democracy. Nor have I understood why the social media can be a tool for liberation in Arab Spring countries whilst it is a nothing less than the progeny of the devil in Hackney or Birmingham.

However, I am not here to discuss the riots, freedom or whether Facebook is better than Twitter (although, for the first time in my life I did discover a use for Twitter as it warned me when to stay clear of the local ASDA which came under attack during the riots). I am here because my friend Janie told me I had a good idea the other day. I can still recall the time, many decades ago, when I would have a good idea on a regular basis - maybe one or two a month - but now they are as rare as a Daily Mail reader with a social conscience. So I thought I would share it with you.

Like many other people I use Picasa 3 to file my various images and one of the nice features of Picasa is the built-in facial recognition software. Identify a picture of your wife, your brother or your Auntie Doris once, and the software will search through your files for other similar faces using the usual approach of key facial measurements. The drawback to this approach is that you have to identify a face first and that it is restricted to just your images. My idea was to introduce a worldwide database of the unknown dead so that we could try and identify some of the unknown faces of long-dead relatives and friends. 

Go back and look at the image above. This is UF2011ABF0001A : a picture of a woman from my collection of old Victorian photographs. I haven't the foggiest who she is, but she is a very special person, a person who will go down in the annals of the twenty-first century : she is the very first entry in the worldwide database of the unknown dead (WDUD). All you need to do is to download the image and add it to your Picasa folder, do a facial recognition sweep and see if you get any suggestions. If not, simply identify it as UF2011ABF0001A and wait for the next face to come winging its way to you. If you do get a hit and it turns out to be your great-aunt Constance, let us here at WDUD HQ know (remembering to enclose a cheque for $10 for administrative expenses) and her details will be added to the database. Talk about a good idea : sometimes I think I was born before my time.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Picture Post 1025 : Pigskin

Is there anything more beautiful than pigskin? Especially when it is where it belongs, on the back (and front) of a pig. Prize piglets at the Halifax Show, August 2011.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sepia Saturday 87 : Romancing The Stone

Some idiot has come up with the theme of "Romance" for Sepia Saturday this week, so I thought I would concentrate on a stone instead. Here is the next photograph from the Burnett Family Stash, and yet again it shows the family on holiday. It is easy to date this one as that cute little fellow in the front is me. If the said chap is about two years old, the photograph must have been taken about 1950. Next to me is my big brother Roger and behind him is our mother, Gladys. The questions to be solved this week, therefore, are who are the others and where was the photograph taken? As I have mentioned before, annual holidays were spent either in Bridlington or New Brighton. I can remember the name of the road we stayed in when we visited Brid (New Burlington Road) and a quick look at Google Street Cam reveals that the architecture of the buildings does not match.  

My memory of the location of our New Brighton "digs" was not as accurate, but a few minutes spent with Google Maps and Street View resulted in the jackpot. The answer of course, was in the stone. Look carefully at the clover-leaf motif on the stone gatepost : a motif which was shared by all the houses in Windsor Street, New Brighton. But only one house had the same chipped motif, still clearly visible after sixty years. Therefore, in 1950, we went to New Brighton for our holidays.

Now I seem to recall that the place we stayed at was an enormous boarding house and the unknown people in the photograph could therefore have been other guests. But looking at the Street View image of the house now, it turns out to be relatively small : two stories with surely little more that three or possibly four bedrooms. The unidentified people must therefore be the owners : owners who kept themselves in bow ties and feathered hats by taking in paying guests. You would have thought they might have used a little of the extra cash to get the gatepost repaired, wouldn't you?

You can find lots of other Sepia Saturday posts by following the links from the SEPIA SATURDAY BLOG.

(We are on our travels again for the next four or five days so there will be no posts until the end of next week. I will try and keep up to date with all my favourite blogs whilst I am on the road, but I apologise in advance if I don't visit and comment as much as usual)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Picture Post 1024 : Bradford In Balance

No, this isn't a picture of the aftermath of the recent riots. One might say, however, that it is the results of mindless and wanton destruction. For over seven years, Bradford has has a large hole on one side of the city centre where shops and offices were demolished to make may for a shopping mall that was never built. As I walked through Bradford the other day, I noticed that the City Authorities had decided to bring a little balance back to the city - by pulling down the buildings on the other side of the city centre. That glorious domed cinema you can see will be the next to fall victim to the wrecking crews. A reminder that not all yobs wear hoodies.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Scribe : Why Not Write Over The Top Of My Head?

Google has just announced a new service - Google Scribe. Here's how they describe it : "Do you ever find yourself writing slowly, staring at a blinking cursor or looking for words to express yourself? Today we are happy to announce the availability of the text suggestions and autocomplete feature of Google Scribe ....Google Scribe helps you write more efficiently by suggesting common words and phrases as you type".  

Now, if staring at a blinking cursor was an Olympic Sport, I would be captain of the British Team. I spend days looking for words to express myself and by the time I have found them I have forgotten what I was trying to express in the first place. I have always wanted to be a poet, but the words are never there. So could Google Scribe help me fulfill my literary ambitions? I created the following using Google Scribe. I started with "If" and let Scribe suggest most of the rest. Occasionally I had to give it a helping hand by suggesting opening letters of words - but the resulting words (other than the final one which I repeated for dramatic effect) are solely the responsibility of Google Scribe. So here is my first (and probably last) poem - I have called it Scribe.


If the day is not dark, which 
is formed by removing the medium 
and taking the time, why not write over 
the top of my head?

Could you explain the texture of sound 
and squeeze the nucleus of experience 
in the black dawn of yesterday?

Forever is a long road ahead,
paved with good understanding and
sickened with old friends lying alone.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

If Only They Could Send A Postcard Instead

"What the hell is happening over there?", the Lad asked last night in a phone call from darkest Africa. As we watched the news reports of burning buildings and wide-scale looting in London and some other major British cities, I had to confess I had little or no idea. One could line up all the usual suspects - criminal gangs, social deprivation, hooligans playing copy-cat, the poverty of materialism - and all are found wanting. One can turn on social networking and digital communications, but these are just a means rather than a cause and are only guilty in the way books were guilty for Mein Kampf or railway trains were guilty for the German invasion of Belgium. It would be some comfort if we could blame the long, hot summer nights : but alas they are cool and wet at the moment. Perhaps the alienated young want to make their mark on history, become the subjects of their own tweets Oh, if only they could only send a postcard instead.

Here is a view on London in slightly quieter days (although riots were by no means unknown 100 years ago). The card was sent from Eliza Beanland (my mothers' aunt) to Fowler Beanland. It reads as follows:
Dear Brother,I have been to the station tonight to ask how much your bicycle will be sending and he says it will be three shillings and ninepence under our own risk and five shillings under the company risk, so write and tell me what to do.With love, Eliza
In difficult days such as these, it would appear that everything is under our own risk.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Picture Post 1023 : Holding Pattern

We are away for the day. I leave you with a photograph taken yesterday as the storm clouds adopted a holding pattern over the Pennine tops. 

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Sepia Saturday 86 : Thoughts On A Thinking Camera

Albert and Gladys. Circa 1930s. From the Burnett Family Stash
Almost everyone has one of these in their family albums. Perhaps it's your mother and father, granny and granddad, Uncle Sid and Auntie Elsie. Sometimes it is just a sunny day in the back garden, usually it is during some week at the seaside. Time for getting out your best flannel trousers and for putting on that ever so fashionable hat. And seventy years later, people will look at the photograph and say "what was happening?". What were they doing, where were they going, what were they thinking? Hindsight usually allows us to answer the second question : they were moving forward to become the people we knew : the mothers, fathers aunts and uncles that our own memories tell us about. To try and answer the first question we can analyse the photograph and provide them with a reasonably accurate rationale. But what were they thinking? Where is the camera that can tell us that?

You can find other sepia musings by following the links on the SEPIA SATURDAY BLOG

Friday, August 05, 2011

Picture Post 1022 : Fit For Purpose

There are fairly strict rules here in the UK over advertising next to public highways. Permanent structures need to be approved, probably licensed, undoubtedly taxed, and possibly hosed down regularly with disinfectant. For years, farmers have got around such regulations by parking an old item of mobile farming machinery in field next to roads. From such agricultural wrecks are hung banners advertising this, that, and often the other. I have no idea what was hanging from this rusted old machine at the end of our road : I must pass it dozens of times a week and never notice. But I do notice the machine : the unadulterated functionality of it. Even with age, even with rust, even with decrepitude; it is still fit for purpose. Just a little like me, I hope.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Picture Post 1021 : In Replay Mode

My Picture Post series is made up of contemporary photographs along with scans of negatives I took in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I am constantly amazed by how seeing an old photograph again after decades hidden in a negative album, can somehow recreate a day, a walk, a feeling of place. It is like when you leave a DVD recording in pause mode and forget about it, only to be amazed later by its ability to start up again as if nothing has happened. I could still take you to the exact spot in Sheffield where I took this photograph some thirty years ago. The buildings - that Mondrian of concrete - are long gone, the DVD has moved on. But for a few moments after seeing the scanned image, I am in replay mode.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Writing Is On The Wall : Part 1

That most fascinating of bloggers, Teresa Evangeline, wrote a post a week or two ago about hand-writing. Like so many of us, she praised the undoubted benefits in terms of time, expense and convenience of e-mails and texts, but regretted the passing of that extra dimension of insight and understanding that was always provided by being able to see the other person's handwriting. In some ways it is rather like conducting a conversation with someone without being able to hear their voice (and I had enough experience of "conversations" via written notes during my years of deafness to know what I am talking about) : it is communication, but stripped-down, utilitarian, generic communication.

As a somewhat half-hearted collector of old postcards, I have always been equally fascinated by what is written on the reverse of a card as with the picture that was on the obverse side : and not just what is written, but how it is written. One of the attractions of the "Gentle Twitter" project I initiated earlier this year was that it resulted in hand-written cards from people I had previously known only through the medium of type-written script.

There are a fair few examples of my own handwriting dotted throughout my Blog Archives (look no further than here or perhaps here) and I am not sure which extra dimension of my character they illustrate (other than I spend too much time sat in pubs, writing notes). My brother Roger, raised hand-written notes to a higher level than I have ever been able to achieve : and two of his books are "hand-written (Virgin Island Sketches and Caribbean Sketches). Here is an illustrative page from the latter.

The question which came to my mind when I read Teresa' post was "can new technology offer us any ways of incorporating that extra-dimension into our Blog Posts?" So armed with my iPad and a stylus pen I embarked on an experiment - the results of which I will share with you on Thursday. Then, I promise you, the writing will be on the wall.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Picture Post 1020 : Some Of The Best Things In Life Are Free

A weekend to remind me that some of the best things in life are free. A walk in the park and a stunning display of blooms. Watching performers at the pub karaoke and realising that natural talent need not be offset by professional posturing. The satisfying pint of beer wasn't free : but you can't have everything.

Black Friar

For a time, during the late 1970s, I had a job leading parties of foreign visitors on tours of historic London pubs. One of my favourite sto...