A Geek in Lockdown

I’m comparatively fortunate that the coronavirus and covid-19 have not affected me or anyone I know directly. Having spent the last 15 years working from home, life has not changed as significantly as it has for others.

So, apart from staying home and doing nothing much, what’s a geek to do to contribute back?

First, contribute data. As often as I remember, I update the KCL/Zoe app to say I’m still alive.

Second, grid computing projects.

There’s a significant amount of computer power available and machines would otherwise spend their time idle. A couple of months before the coronavirus became known, I had already installed BOINC, perhaps the oldest and best-known grid-computing system. As the scale of the Covid-19 problem became more apparent, I discovered the Rosetta@Home project which has been working to predict structure of proteins involved in the disease.

For mobile devices, there is Vodafone’s DreamLab project which similarly uses one’s iphone/ipad/tablet’s downtime to perform computations hopefully to identify drugs to fight Covid-19.

Third, art.

This took a bit of thought, but recently RedBubble who I use for selling my photography added the option of selling masks alongside the usual prints, mugs, etc.

I wasn’t at all sure what to make of it. The idea of profiting off others’ health and necessity jarred with the idea of art being a luxury item. However, a friend pointed out that if face-masks are to become normalized in society, having interesting art designs on could make them more approachable. There’s also the bit where Redbubble match each mask bought with a donation to an appropriate charity. So, a net good thing then.

Inspiration struck and I spent much of the weekend designing an image to represent the coronavirus (using a fragment of its gene sequence as a background, naturally) and even rendering a little video from it, both using Povray, my favoured ray-tracing software from the late 1990s(!). Naturally I made the scene description and other sources available as open-source: the-lurgy (on github).

The “lurgy” design and a selection of other landscape images are available on redbubble as face-masks with a profit margin set to 0.

And of course work continues, producing more photos to go on my website, ShinyPhoto

Caithness Holiday Day 5: Badbea Clearance Village

An unusual choice of place to visit on the last day of one’s holidays, but an important monument to Highland/Caithness history nonetheless, and one ideally suited to a bleak cold foggy day, too.

Forced off the land as part of the Highland Clearances, people from the surrounding areas (Ousdale, Auchencraig) sought refuge at Badbea. Not the most hospitable area to try and make home, situated right on perilous cliff-tops in a location so windy the cattle and even children had to be tied down to stop them being blown away.

The bleakness certainly suits black and white.

Around Binnend

After serendipitously discovering a lot of heritage information about the abandoned former village of Binnend, on The Binn outside Burntisland in Fife, I spent much of Sunday afternoon exploring the area.

It was smaller than I expected from the maps – about 30x30m or so – and very overgrown. The central region is a mix of thick gorse and fallen boulders, so not really accessible by foot. Use of the drone was hampered by several factors: being immediately adjacent to the Alcan landfill waste processing site, still an active commercial operation; by being a few hundred yards away from Craigkelly transmitter which caused significant radio interference (warnings in the DJI Go app and actual loss of video signal above a few meters’ altitude), so I did not get the fly-over video I’d intended.

Still. Herewith, a few still photos instead:

Approaching Binnend:

Within Binnend itself:

Above Binnend:

Morvern 3/4: In Search of Purity

Time to explain the motivation for this excursion to the Morvern peninsula.

A few months ago, I was exploring what Google Earth had to show for the West coast of Scotland. A lot of photographers gravitate toward the north-west, around Sutherland, and rightly so – the geography up there is impressive. However, coming a little south past Ardnamurchan, there is also epic geology – evidence of volcanoes, beautiful mountains, the works. And so I stumbled across this glen past Loch Arienas and Loch Doire nam Mart, thinking there might be a view to enjoy part-way along the glen up one of the mountains to the left, perhaps.

On a little research, I saw the OS map of the area showed Aoineadh Mor, a former township dissolved in the Highland Clearances. Interesting history. So I drove – about 4.5 hours from Perthshire out through Fort William around Loch Eil and down at some length on wiggly single-lane 60-limit roads – and arrived at the small roadside carpark about 4.30pm.

The walk through the woods was beautiful: birches and oak trees catching the low sunlight.

Now it gets real. On emerging from the woods, the first evidence of habitation one sees is this broken dry-stone wall:

The Perimeter is Breached

which shouts the beginning of the story loud and clear: a township left to ruin, increasingly taken over by nature.

From what I gather, up to the 18th Century, Aoineadh Mor [approximately pronounced, and sometimes spelled, Inniemore, although the Gaelic ao vowel sound is inimitable in English] was a thriving crofting community on the slopes of Sithean na Raplaich where the burn (Allt Aoineadh Mor) flows down to the lochs.

It is a wonderfully beautiful setting – the Allt Aoineadh Mor burn burbling down the hillside, through the former township of the same name.

In 1824, Christina Stewart, newly owner of the Glenmorvern estate, forcibly ejected the crofters in order to farm sheep on the land for supposed greater profit, as happened in many places during the Highland Clearances.

The names of two of the last crofters to leave, James and Mary, have been given to two paths through the surrounding forestry.

By 1930 the sheep were also no longer profitable and the area was planted with trees as the cash-crop of the time. After 60 years, in 1994, the Forestry Commission uncovered the township.

And so my history intersects with the place in 2017.
It is both quieting and disquieting simultaneously: quiet in that there is an open space, there are trees, light, water, all the elements of landscape we photographers like; yet disquieting in that the area is not really pure – on scratching beneath the surface, there seems to be a greater innocence in the subsistence existence of crofting, with subsequent industries of sheep farming and forestry tainted by crass desire for profit to varying extent. And so the hillside is not really wild but barren; the land not just beautiful but exploited.

Dust kicked-up by a passing logging lorry travelling a path through Forestry Commission conifer woods, taken from the former township of Aoineadh Mor.

These conflicting forces of land, money and habitation are summarized in this photo, where we have nature’s pine tree felled in the foreground, a generation of mankind’s ruined croft superseded by the unnatural choice of conifers blown in as seed on the wind, leading to blue skies beyond.

This used to be the township of Aoineadh Mor, a scattering of stone crofts on the braes beside a beautiful river surrounded by forest. 
Now the Forestry Commission has taken over, with several monoculture forests on the surrounding mountains, even wild-seeding into the former township.

For what it’s worth, a few more photos all taken around the township:


As I walk along these shores
I am the history within
As I climb the mountainside
Breaking Eden again –
Runrig, Proterra

Landscape, Photography and Land Management

This is going to be a long post, drawing on several disparate areas of experience and interest. Welcome to my mind…

Photographic Influence

Cirrus clouds above a line of old beech trees, Portpatrick

Nice beech and hawthorn trees – shame they aren’t there any more

The Highlands are not like 18th-century Venice. On driving around – which you can do around here – the landscape is raw, rugged, elemental, positively harsh on a cold day. We do not sit around in powdered wigs playing the harpsichord of an evening.

It is my opinion that landscape photography exists not to make merely aesthetically pleasant images, not even to convey a “feeling” from the photographer’s mind in the name of art, but rather to show and tell forth something of the landscape.

It is all too easy to go for a stroll, to get out into “nature” seeking photographs, to see only the shapes and forms of the land, hopefully cover it in contrasty dappled light; but if that is all that is seen in a photograph then it is the most absurd way to trivialize larger forces at work.

Worse still, it’s even easier to get into a mentality of visiting only known-good photo locations. “Saturday afternoon, Falls of Bruar” – nothing against the Falls, far from it, but it becomes a photographic rut devoid of sense of exploration.

I used to have a motto: “no landscape photos without saying something about the rocks you stand on”. It’s still a good thought, but even though the geology might date back 3.5 billion years, that is only one aspect of pertinent story, perhaps even the cheap and comforting option – looking straight to Old, bypassing the anthropocene; it reduces taking a principled stand to throwing out bland “statement”s or little stories and/or personal feelings, offensive in their inoffensiveness.

The PSNS Experience

A couple of months ago I attended a lecture at the Perthshire Society of Natural Science (PSNS), part of the “Curious Minds” series; the presenter worked for SEPA at Stirling University, and he spoke about Sustainability. Being brutally honest, it was not the most approachable of talks: a business person speaking from a mind of systems-thinking about corporate matters, with that peculiar management tendency to present a metaphorical briefcase of ideas supposed to be complete but leaving one wondering what nuance is missing – that’s not likely to engage the common individual who only wants to know how best to run their own house. I couldn’t help thinking of the only two occasions I’ve had any dealings with SEPA – first to ask how to dispose of film-processing chemicals and second for maps to avoid flood areas when buying a house; if SEPA are to offer the public a service, they have a PR hurdle to overcome…

However, I came away with the seeds of several thoughts that have since germinated.

The lecturer explained how SEPA sees companies on a spectrum from “climate criminals” (knowingly damaging the environment) through careless to compliant to champions. A lot of words containing “C” and “A” and a nice gradation from red to green, but that illustrates the systems-think.

More usefully, SEPA has expanded their remit so they now see Scotland from three points of view: there’s the environment which they still protect for its own sake; there’s social (concerning wellbeing when people go for a walk in the forests); and there’s an economic aspect.

Experiences of Farming

For lack of reason to the contrary, I’ve always kept an open mind opinion about livestock farming. As a confirmed carnivore, living somewhere between town and country, it’s not easy to see bucolic bliss as harm. However, in the past five years there have been three experiences that sounded warning bells.

First: in Galloway, I spent 7 months living in a run-down farmhouse in the middle of a livestock farm on a nondescript C road. If we left the gate open, sheep would come and mow the lawn and cows walk past the study window and fertilize said lawn on their travels. It’s all very well feeling close to “nature” when the sun shines, but when it rains and the slurry runs 4 inches deep corroding your boots whilst walking the dog, it is far from pleasant. It also “never snows in Galloway”, which doesn’t explain the 3′-deep snow that winter, requiring the farmer’s assistance to dig out the surrounding roads – which were made impassable by his own tractors bouncing along compacting the snow into undulating waves of ice in the first place.

Second: also in Galloway, when I spent 15 months living next to a different farm: there was a beautiful line of old beech and hawthorn trees running up a small hill, just round the corner from where we lived; the farmer chopped them all down to make way for root crops to feed his sheep.

Third: two years ago, I went for a walk along a glen and found a particularly pleasant viewpoint, a U-shaped glacial valley with corrie lochan and lonely pine tree in the basin.

The light and landscape that provoked further exploration


Seeking to revisit and explore further, I researched the area on Google Earth and figured, with a choice of two, the better track would be one running up the south/”left” side of the glen to reach further into the mountains. So a month ago I set forth, with young dog on a lead beside me, to explore.

About 300 yards from the carpark, we rounded a corner and saw a herd of Highland cows and calves. By chance, the farmer came by in his Landrover at exactly the same moment and said not to take my dog any further. Fair enough – answered my dithering wonderings on the matter pretty quickly – and the exchange was pleasant enough.

However, that does not explain why, having driven off ahead of me, he promptly shut and padlocked a 6-foot-tall gate across the path, leaving me and my dog on the wrong side with the cows.

Inconsiderate farmer shut this gate right across the path, blocking my escape with a young dog.

With no way through or around the gate, I had to persuade my dog to climb precariously over that ladder, knowing that if one paw slipped he could be seriously injured.

As for outdoor access code – “right to roam” – it would have been more considerate if they had erected some sign warning of impaired access nearer the carpark…

With three strikes against livestock-farming kind, it’s time to start formulating an opinion.

Connected Thinking

So after a bit of a delay we rejoin the walk along the glen, this time going down the right side of the river instead.

Realisation dawned.

The first realisation was that the view I had seen a couple of years previously relied on a trick of perspective – the grassland appears continuous over distance while actually the river lurks below the level.

As I reached the furthest point of my walk a few miles into the glen, turning back, I observed how the river had cut straight vertically down a metre or two, exposing dead tree roots in the bank.

Half-way back, I noticed dead trees all along the river bank, and just off to the side of the path I found a large expanse of land full of the bleached white remains of pine tree roots and it hit me that this was a peat bog – a genuine example of the kind of thing one reads about in “the Highlands”, as though that were some far-off place – well here we are, soil/mud/peat at our very feet.

Genuine peat bog, full of bleached white roots and remains of pine trees

And so I looked at it through SEPA’s eyes. Environment + Social + Economy <= Sustainability.

Following research, peat is deposited at a rate of about 1mm per year, so the 1.5-2m depth of peat beside the river corresponds to 1500-2000 years’ accumulation.

What we have here is not the wilderness beloved of landscape photographers, it is barren.

The interplay of light and shape and form of the landscape is utterly irrelevant while the natural pine trees that should be here lie dead in a large carbon sink, their place taken by monoculture fenced-off in enclosures for commercial gain. The parts of the glen that are not directly peat bog are bare through grazing of livestock whose methane and CO2 emissions are a major contributor to global warming. In the words of Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation“.

This is not wilderness, it is barren. It is not a wonder of nature, but artificial. It is not contributing to society’s welfare but its unsustainability harms the planet.

Sometimes, one has to remove the rose-tinted sunglasses and see how one glen encompasses in every aspect a microcosm of all kinds of problems. Just because it’s a sunny day does not make it a happy story.

What Next?

I’m still thinking about it. I’ve spent long enough wondering if certain environmental charities are “a bit hippy”, but the facts are irrefutable: that glen stands for the worst combination of (un)sustainability factors. Peat bog itself is a valuable ecosystem, but given the choice I would far rather have the pine trees back that belonged there in the first place. The idea of rewilding meets with favour. While I would not want to join or recommend any “-ism” (vegetarianism or veganism being defined in terms of negative ideologies), I am also in favour of taxing the supply of meat and other livestock products to better reflect the true costs, including environmental factors.

Hogmanay 2016/2017

Happy new year! I saw the year in from Blackford Hill looking at the fireworks over Edinburgh Castle.

Watching folks arrive was almost like a scene from Lord of the Rings – this line of torch lights processing along the hillside track, reminiscent of the last march of the Elves.

Cultybraggan Camp

Another set from a photo-excursion in May this year, directly contrasting with the pleasure of nature’s bluebells earlier in the day.

Cultybraggan is situated just outside village of Comrie. It was first used as a prisoner of war (PoW) camp during World War II and then became an Army training area before housing a Royal Observer Corps nuclear monitoring post and a Regional Government Headquarters. The camp ceased to be used by the military in 2004 and is now owned by the Comrie Development Trust.

The camp is also right on the line of the Highland Boundary Fault, running from Glen Artney straight through the camp and up through Dalginross and along the A85 through Strathearn.

Unusually for me, I’m trying a little artistic experiment – overlaying the same texture of trees (taken much more recently in Glen Lyon) over images, to see what can be made of it.

Too-Big Data? That don’t impress me much

On a whim, I spent the evening in Edinburgh at a meetup presentation/meeting concerning Big Data, the talk given by a “Big Data hero” (IBM’s term), employed by a huge multinational corporation with a lot of fingers in a lot of pies (including the UK Welfare system).

I think I was supposed to be awed by the scale of data under discussion, but mostly what I heard was all immodest massive business-speak and buzzwords and acronyms. A few scattered examples to claim “we did that”, “look at the size of our supercomputer”, but the only technical word he uttered all evening was “Hadoop”.

In the absence of a clear directed message, I’ve come away with my own thoughts instead.

So the idea of Big Data is altogether a source of disappointment and concern.

There seems to be a discrepancy: on the one hand, one’s fitbit and phone are rich sources of data; the thought of analyzing it all thoroughly sets my data-geek senses twitching in excitement. However, the Internet of Things experience relies on huge companies doing the analysis – outsourced to the cloud – which forms a disjoint as they proceed to do inter-company business based on one’s personal data (read: sell it, however aggregated it might be – the presenter this evening scoffed at the idea of “anonymized”), above one’s head and outwith one’s control. The power flows upwards.

To people such as this evening’s speaker, privacy and ethics are just more buzzwords to bolt on to a “data value pipeline” to tout the profit optimizations of “data-driven companies”. So are the terms data, information, knowledge and even wisdom.

But I think he’s lost direction in the process. We’ve come a long way from sitting on the sofa making choices how to spend the evening pushing buttons on the mobile.

And that is where I break contact with The Matrix.

I believe in appreciating the value of little things. In people, humanity and compassion more than companies. In substance. In the genuine kind of Quality sought by Pirsig, not as “defined” by ISO code 9000. Value may arise from people taking care in their craft: one might put a price on a carved wooden bowl in order to sell it, but the brain that contains the skill required to make it is precious beyond the scope of the dollar.

Data is data and insights are a way to lead to knowledge, but real wisdom is not just knowing how to guide analysis – it’s understanding that human intervention is sometimes required, and knowing when to deploy it, awareness, critical thinking to see and choose.

The story goes that a salesman once approached a pianist, offering a new keyboard “with eight nuances”. The response came back: “but my playing requires nine”.

Festive spirit


A carpark in central Leeds, one Sunday morning during Christmas 2014.
Which serves the public better – a traffic warden ticketing cars or the gritting of road and pavement so folks could walk safely along?

Around St Fillan’s

Loch Earn is still an idyllic scene despite everyone stopping to take photos in St Fillan’s. Herewith, two obvious views:

Personally, I like this view instead:

People Watching / People Watching

People Watching / People Watching

There’s a time-/context-axis running from the far distance – first there was the landscape, then there was Robert Mulholland’s statue Still, then there’s people taking photos of it, then there’s me shooting them. All things considered, a bit “meta”.

How I Voted…


It’s the orthogonal thoughts that caught my eye, so to speak.

The trees still stand. I mean, the town still stands – apart from one tent in the very middle of the pedestrian area, I saw no more campaigning.


Yes & No placards reside side by side, as do their representatives, chatting together outside the polling station.


The Church is open for business, contemplation, prayer, stillness.


Now to sit back and wait patiently. Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere.

Now, who’s going to clean up all the litter?

How I’ll be Voting

indyref-poll-cardIndividually. I hold the idea of nationality very loosely: it sometimes applies but does not define.  I rate people trying to live their lives far higher than the games of politicians playing nations.

Thoughtfully. Manifestos have been read; factors – economic, political, constitutional, cultural, socially – considered, their importances determined;  a decision has been reached.

Carefully. The way things are looking,  half the population is likely to be upset whatever happens. There will be a need to restore peace.

Independently. The presentation of the campaigns as a bickering of two opposing factions has not been attractive. First the reasoning and decision, then the labelling with political ideology (or preferably not at all).

Proudly. It has not been an easy summer, and getting to the stage of holding this poll-card in my hands has taken considerably more organization than intended.

Humbly. I am glad to have a voice in the running of the land I call home.