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Touring Britain bit by bit with a pair of boots, a few bicycles, a lot of trains and a bag of lenses. I take pictures and then I write about them.

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Wed, 20 Jan 2010

I get mail

Spam mail. I don't mean your regular crap. Professional spam mail from the professional spammers: PR. Somebody put me on a list and now all kinds of companies and individuals are paying all kinds of PR agencies lots of money so that the PR agencies can pay the mailing list compiler a load of that money to send me spam about their crap photography competitions. And then I laugh at them in public. Money and time well spent all round, I think.

Last week, for instance, Rebecca at AppleJupp could hardly contain her excitement to be announcing to me the totally new "mobile phone photography course" being organised by "Photography Made Simple". For just forty pounds, this unique course will, for the first time ever in the UK, teach you how to take photos with your Blackberry. But where do you go to become a qualified cameraphoner? Crystal Palace.

Sadly, as it was last Saturday, I was too late to make an anonymous tip-off.

[Tag] Tags: crystal palace, photography, pr, spam

Mon, 18 Jan 2010

Tough on crime in fantasy land

Conspiracy theorists believe that there is a tall building somewhere in this photograph.

Conspiracy theorists believe that there is a tall building somewhere in this photograph.

I used to work on Cleveland Street in central London. Our next-door-neighbours at "The Tower, 60 Cleveland Street", were one British Telecom. Their offices were designed for some old fashioned method of telecommunications routing involving microwaves, and so it just happens to be one of the most distinctive -- most noticeable -- buildings in the country, being as it is, a narrow cylindrical building of 620 feet, covered in antennae and dishes, in an otherwise low-rise and conventional section of the centre of a major world city. Legend has it that, because of the potential military importance of the communications networks, the tower was only officially revealed to exist in 1993 by an MP responding to the persistent rumours -- conspiracy theories! -- that there might possibly be a large and unusual shaped top secret skyscraper somewhere in the vicinity of the Tottenham Court Road. These days, the tower is largely redundant: the idea of using microwave technology as the backbone to a communications network didn't really have time to catch on before fibre-optics became the in thing. These days, most of those antennae and dishes are decoration, unplugged and silent, protected from removal by a grade II listing. The building is nothing more than heritage. It just sits there looking pretty, counting down the days to the Olympic games in LED lights that can be seen from miles around.

At the same time as working in Cleveland Street, I was living in the shadow of another transmitter, the more mundane but equally difficult to miss Crystal Palace Transmitter, which rises 720ft above the chalk hills eight miles south of the city centre. Though only the second tallest structure in the capital, once its 360 foot base height is factored in, it becomes the highest, and is prominent on the horizon from around the city. It is the main transmitter of television and radio -- local and national, BBC and independent, analogue and digital -- for the whole city.

A stop and search what I got

In february 2008 I photographed the transmitter from the public park below it and was issued with a stop-and-search by the metropolitan police. A pair of officers drive a patrol car around Crystal Palace all day specifically for this purpose (at least, this was the case in 2008). I think they were probably just bored and wanted something to do -- somebody to talk to -- for five minutes. They explained the reason for their constant zealous and jealous vigilance: the transmitter hosts the emergency services radio system (I have subsequently been unable to verify this fact) and is known to be a terrorist target. One of the officers said, "nah, it's fine, just, like, you shouldn't put the photographs on the internet or whatever, cos they might be used by terrorists in planning an attack."

A picture what I took of the transmitter.

A picture what I took of the transmitter.

There are 418 flickr photographs tagged "Crystal Palace Transmitter", and approximately 38,000 google image hits, alongside the usual detailed Wikipedia article and fine google earth coverage. Its existence is not one of London's better kept secrets.

The point I want to make about all this is not about whether the things the policeman said are true or lawful, or to bitch about the general behaviour of individuals in the metropolitan police (these two might have been a bit dim, but they were perfectly nice), nor is it really about the need to stand-up for our civil liberties (you're familiar enough with that argument already). Because the idea of stopping and searching photographers in the name of keeping London safe fails at a much more fundamental level than the civil liberties argument: terrorists don't go around photographing the crystal palace transmitter. And piles of money -- our money -- are being spent to act upon the absurd idea that they do.

There are two main reasons why terrorists don't go around photographing the Crystal Palace transmitter -- apart from the fact that it's easier to look the photos up on Google Earth. Firstly, it's because terrorists aren't photographers. I don't simply mean that, like almost 100% of people, almost 100% photographers are not terrorists. I mean that terrorists aren't photographers. Perhaps in cheap TV dramas, where one can't illustrate that a character is shady by showing that he is thinking shady thoughts, terrorists go around with their expensive SLR equipment taking photographs of their targets. In the real world, they don't. When asked for evidence to support the efficacy of their activity, the best the police can do is point to one guy who went around filming stations with a phonecam and who was successfully prosecuted for, er, fraud and immigration offences. He could, perhaps, theoretically, be linked to terrorism, though, they say. And apparently that's good enough evidence for police in London.

Secondly, terrorists don't go around photographing the Crystal Palace transmitter because terrorists aren't interested in the Crystal Palace transmitter. Not unless they are shit terrorists. I'm not an expert on the way terrorists think, but I understand that Terrorism Studies 101 teaches that the goal of the terrorist is to make a scene: to get into the headlines and get into people's heads; to spread their message and to spread fear. Toppling a tower in a suburban park and depriving a few million people of Celebrity Big Brother for the five minutes that it takes the engineers to switch on the backup signals is somewhere down in the thousands on the list of the most effective ways one could achieve that goal. Toppling an iconic piece of architecture in a busy central business district -- even if the tower was functionally redundant -- would have a far higher impact. Which is exactly why terrorists did target the BT Tower: the IRA exploded a bomb there in 1971. But I never did get a stop-and-search on Cleveland Street.

Some of us still cling to the unfashionable idea that if one wants one's actions to be effective, they need to have some basis in reality and be informed by evidence about how the world works. The Home Office told us what they think of that idea back in October. If there's one thing the Home Office can be commended for, it's being consistent in ignoring the inconvenient complications of the real world as they instead throw our money away on absurd ineffective solutions to serious social and security problems.

[Tag] Tags: bad arguments, bad policies, london, photographer not a terrorist, photography, politics, stop and search

Mon, 18 Jan 2010


I have been quiet here for a couple of weeks while getting my blogging in order. Over the past couple of years I've been blogging here sporadically on a random assortment of topics from photography to publishing via skepticism and hardcore science. Because that combination of interests is rather unique and few of you care to read my uninformed thoughts about all of them, but because I can not decide on any particular topic to give up writing about, the blog is therefore being broken up and the parts sold to the highest bidders. So from now on, you can find me blogging in these places:

  • On the nature of science, skepticism and bad arguments at Lay Science
  • On science publishing, open data, and the future of the scientific paper at Journalology
  • On hardcore cancer biology at a location yet to be announced
  • and the stuff that I just made up off the top of my head -- the LabLit and Skepticism Lit -- at another location yet to be announced

Leaving this site to become a dedicated photography site. That doesn't mean I won't be writing much here. I'm going to be stepping up the blogging about photography and about being a photographer in London and the UK, and about some of the photogenic and not-so photogenic locations that I stumble upon. You may also have noticed that the site has just been reskinned ready for its new photography focus -- do take a look around at the updated galleries!

But what if you do happen to have all of the same interests as me and do want to hear my uninformed views on all of them? That's OK! I've made another little site to amalgamate them all -- you just need to subscribe to that!

Thanks to everyone who subscribes, and please take a moment to update your subscriptions -- unless you were only ever here for the photography talk.

[Tag] Tags: meta

Mon, 28 Dec 2009


Here are a couple of short extracts from a piece I started writing in the summer on the subject of research fraud. One day I will find the time to pick up work on it again. By this stage in the story is has been established that the narrator is a European student, the setting is the Midwestern United States, and "Jeff" is the narrator's boss, an Assistant Professor.

It is a banal coincidence that Sabriena and I celebrate the anniversary of our birthdays on the same day of the year.  The day happens to fall in the second week of August, nine days after Kate and my arrival.  Aside from Sabrina herself, the only person who wished me a happy birthday on that occasion was the large bored desk clerk at the Social Security Administration.  Kate and I had taken the afternoon off and the bus downtown to queue up for an hour in order to receive the magic number that opens up the exciting possibilities of bank accounts, pensions, and legitimate salaries.

And so I turned twenty standing in a queue just so that a clerk could fill in some forms on my behalf.  Afterwards, Kate went out to spend the evening exploring the downtown area of the city; for me, however, finding out just how soulless and depressing that city centre is would have to wait for another day.  I had to ride the bus back up the hill to the university.  I had been asked to.  Well, not exactly asked to.  It was simply assumed that I would.  Jeff had already given me the work to do.

When I arrived back, shortly after five, Sabrina was still working too.  Working rapidly but with great skill.  Transferring micro-quantities of liquids between millilitre Eppendorf tubes with a speed and accuracy that was thrilling to watch -- a skill that I would soon acquire myself.  Sabrina had two young children and a birthday dinner appointment that she couldn't miss.

I had no such excuses.  That would be the first day that I would work through to eight, and it would not take long for this to become normal.  Jeff seemed like a nice enough guy, just a little hard working, hard driving, and ambitious.  I was fine with that; I might have to learn to say "no" if ever I found myself with other things to do, I thought, but otherwise I didn't mind the work.  And he was friendly and jolly with everybody.  He shared jokes about the latest publications with the professor emeritus who sometimes toured the building in his wheelchair.  He shared jokes about last night's basketball with the cleaner.  The kind of person who, when he asks you how you are, you don't even notice that he couldn't care less.

So I found myself spending an evening in the cramped and crowded culture room, one of several small rooms that doubled as a partition between our half of the wing and our neighbouring lab.  This room, ten feet by eight, was stuffed with two incubators, similar in size and design to the standard upright fridge-freezer, and two great laminar flow cabinets. These latter devices provide a a metre by half-metre working space with a glass screen and aperture to insert one's arms, surrounded by an array of bulky nineteen-eighties machinery for maintaining the correct pressure and airflow for sterile technique.

I wasn't alone, of course.  Often I would find myself last to leave the laboratory, but as often there would be somebody still to bid goodnight to at seven, eight, nine o'clock.  On this occasion it was the post-doc Earl.  He was occupying one of the cabinets, processing fresh surgical explants ready for his experiments.  I silently gave thanks to be working with a long immortalised population of cells, happily growing suspended in nutrients in a jar, free from the grisly details of life in a complex multicellular organism.  I settled down where the fresh flesh -- the bloody fatty cancerous lump -- would be out of sight.

Over those three hours or so of repetitive mixing of liquids, swirling of dishes, counting of cells and centrifuging of tubes, Earl and I chatted.  About our projects and our governments, the places and the people that we knew.  He was a proper American, from Biloxi Mississippi.  Wide and freckled, bald and bearded and southern-accented.  An educated liberal, of course – everyone was.

And we talked about the lab and its people, past and present.  We talked about the prof, Adam, who had been born Adolf in 1930s Germany; the other post-doc, John, from Oregon, who rose at four each morning to ensure that he could always be home for dinner with his daughters; the students, Sabriena and Tanya, and Kara and Billy who had married in Vegas; Pam the laboratory manager; and Jeff.  It wasn't the first time that I had heard stories about Jeff.  But up until then the advice had been vague, delivered with a smile and a wink.

Earl took no such trouble.  He was never rude to Jeff, but he was the only person I had seen return Jeff's charm with a blank face that asked "why the fuck is this guy still talking to me?” Jeff and Earl talked about politics in exchanges that would be described as "robust".  As a reaction to his Chinese upbringing, Jeff had fallen to the opposite extreme of American libertarianism, and he was probably the only academic in the building who had supported the war.  But Earl didn't hate Jeff for his politics.  He could handle robust exchanges.

It was hypocrisy and shallow charm that Earl hated.  The way Jeff talked to Sabrina when an experiment failed.  The pressure that he put on her to work late and not see her children, when he was driving home to his own.  And it was the loss of the previous laboratory manager, Joannie, who had been under Jeff's management.  She had quit without giving notice after only a few months of it, and nobody ever found out the exact reason.  A straw just broke the camel's back, they supposed.  Despite his distance from those events, Adam had at least had the sense to take direct responsibility for Pam when she was hired in Joannie's place. "Don't let him bully you," Earl said.


By the end of August, I was largely left to manage experiments and get on with them myself.  I had been taught all of the basic procedures and scribbled notes in a file labeled “Joannie's Protocols”, so Jeff disappeared to his office.  He would occasionally come down to the lab to look at some results, declare them unsatisfactory, and give orders for a repeat experiment, or some variation with a different drug or concentration.  Cell culture experiments take some time.  Not because the procedures are complicated and intensive -- though they can be -- but because cells need to be grown for several days, exposed to drugs for hours and given a day or more for the effect of the chemicals to become apparent; proteins separated on paper need to be incubated with antibodies overnight; photographic films left for hours to pick up faint sources of luminescence; and stocks of cells need feeding at three day intervals – no more, and no less.

The job of the cell biologist is therefore not a nine to five monday to friday affair.  Working at weekends -- just the essential tasks as part of ongoing projects -- is normal.  Everybody does it sometimes.  It was the last saturday in august that I got on my new bicycle and rode off into the heatwave at ten in the morning.  There was an hour of essential tasks to see to, and perhaps some less essential ones, which could really wait until monday, but which involved results that people were very keen to see.

When I wondered in, Adam was making a rare visit to the shop floor.  He stood at the edge of a very large puddle almost shouting at the man in the sleeveless shirt and tool belt who stood beside him staring at the water.  Jeff and Earl were moving soggy cardboard boxes up onto shelves.  Billy had headphones on and was standing in the puddle working and ignoring everything that was happening around him.  Ten minutes later Adam and the facilities guy were joined by Karen, head of the neighbouring lab, who had come to collect her barrel of distilled water from the water distillery that we shared with the rest of the wing.

It transpired that the second-year undergraduate student who did odd-jobs in Karen's lab several evenings each week had set the distillery running the previous evening.  Only that day returned from the summer break, by the time he had completed his other chores he had forgotten about the machine and went home.  Overnight, a gallon of water each hour bubbled over the top of the barrel, tumbled down the sides of its trolley, and slowly spread across the watertight black linoleum floor.  Most of it had accumulated in the little tissue culture room, whose wooden furniture would still be damp and beginning to smell on Monday.

On the Monday morning I saw that undergraduate for the first time. Karen led him in to make an apology to Adam.  Short and shy, he was trying to disappear behind her, but she pushed him out to stand in front of everybody and speak.  I didn't care what damage his flood might have done.  I was far too distracted by his blue eyes, scruffy hair, hint of beard, and the nerdy pun on his t-shirt.  I lent on a bench and tipped a jar crashing over the floor before he could finish his apology. But by then nobody else really cared what damage his flood might have done either.  Reports of the first levee breaches were on the radio and eastern New Orleans was already under water.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed Biloxi Mississippi, and the fungal contamination that grew in the damp tissue culture room destroyed hundreds of hours of carefully prepared surgical explants.  Three days later, while Earl threw piles of flasks and dishes into a biohazard bag, Jeff stood in the doorway of the tissue culture room complaining about the sudden rise in gas prices.  Earl broke his nose, walked out, and never came back.

[Tag] Tags: biology, cell biology, fiction, science, short stories, sociology of science

Sun, 6 Dec 2009

Competition time

IanVisits notes the irony of the Docklands Light Railway, famous for their absurd private policing of passengers' photography, launching a photography competition and inviting you to send in photographs taken at their stations, even though their security patrols stop people from taking photographs at their stations. Obviously the scheme was dreamt up by the PR and marketing department, who think that they can get hundreds of publicity photos, some of which are bound to be quite good, for a single payment of £150 (or nothing at all if the prize was in turn given to them free by the manufacturer's marketing department) -- a tiny fraction of the cost of hiring a photographer.

It's a trick that marketing departments and PR companies everywhere seem to have really caught on to this year. Don't pay a professional photographer a grand to get the shot you need, make people do it for free! Offer a cheap prize as bait, call it a competition, and make sure the small print gives you unlimited rights to the catch. Then, target your spam at a few good photographers, and hope that some of them fall for it.

Here are just a couple of the more surreal competition subjects that PR agencies have pestered me with lately:

  • Media Consulta PR agency send unsolicited mail on behalf of the EU Safety and Health at Work Agency, who seem to think that it would be exciting to share "my image of Safety and Health at Work." Ironically, their unsolicited bulk mail appears to break theEU's rules on unsolicited bulk mail. But at least the EU were offering a whole €1,000.
  • Ceres PR send unsolicited mail on behalf of the HGCA -- the cereal farmers' marketing board. They've created "Annual Farmhouse Breakfast Week", and think that you might want to hand over your photography in exchange for a mid-range kitchenware set. Hey, why not also get a mathematics student to write the formula for a perfect breakfast?

Sadly, the DLR competition seems to have made a schoolboy error -- not in asking members of the public to do something that another department is using all the intimidation it can muster to stop the public doing, but in its offering of a prize. A cheap compact digital camera. Who would want a cheap compact digital camera? Hint: not the brilliant photographers you want to give you fantastic free marketing shots.

[Tag] Tags: photography, pr

Sat, 5 Dec 2009


This week, the shocking private emails of a group of senior scientists were leaked after one of the scientists placed his laptop in the line-of-sight of the dozen or so nosy people who were sat behind him at a rather dull public lecture in London.*

Secreted in a back corner of the lecture theatre, Charles Quackenbush strains to hear the next facile question tumble and stumble in "uhms" and "ahs" from the eager humanities student in the front row. He briefly exchanges a look with a fellow from the department (the wednesday evening public lectures are always a source of great amusement for the department's old boys) before returning to his emails, leaving Sir Frederick to try explaining again the very basics of natural selection to the sociologists of science.

Dear Charles, Just to confirm, as per our earlier conversation, that the recording will be Thursday at nine -- my BA will meet you in BH reception. Could you send your press photo for the listings? I don't think we have one on file. Melvin.

Charles taps out a quick content-free response about "looking forward to it", and drags in a file from close at hand. Archives the email.

Dear Prof Charles Quackenbush, I am a MA Science Communication student at City Univ--

Are you sure you want to delete this email? OK Cancel

And then another new arrival; the latest episode in the great ongoing saga that was tearing the department in two. A short episode.

chaz, those are mighty hateful hurtful words. i can't believe you would say such things about collins, after that nice book he wrote about me and science not being incompatible. cheers, God.

Charles frowns, looks up and glances over to his right. At the far end of the row Professor Goddard Z Bumsted O'Higgins leans forward and grins at him, iPhone in hand. Charles doesn't stop frowning. Hits reply, but he's too slow. There's already another new entry. Its author, Professor Elisabeth Penelope Ditherley de Pelet, a row in front to the left, is now staring, stern face and unfocused eyes illuminated by the light from her netbook, at another of Sir Frederick's amusingly captioned slides of his golden retriever.

Shut up, Bumsted, the grown-ups are trying to talk here. Charles, I'm afraid your argument is utter utter cock. It would be by *not* inviting Collins to speak that the university would look like it had the agenda. Obviously you're free to publicly say whatever you like about the guy, but the fourth best university in the world can't snub the head of the NIH without anybody noticing. You know how these things work. When people of his standing announce that they're coming to town, an invitation is expected from us. If you succeed in blocking this, the headline will be "fundamentalist atheists go out of their way to be rude," and I couldn't blame anybody for running it--

Charles thinks about replying with "yawn", and yawns.

--frankly, I'd have thought you'd have more important things to be doing than preaching to the rest of the department. You can't have failed to hear the *gossip*, even stuck in your own fantasy land? -Betty x

Charles frowns some more. Sends a blank email to Goddard, subject "what's the gossip?" Continues through the dregs of his inbox.

Dear valued reader, We are pleased to announce that there is still time to register your place at the first annual International Conference of Gastropodcomparative-systematicsemiquantitativetemporalnuclearmisinteractomics, to be held in Las Vegas, 18-21 March 2010...

Charles hits the spam button.

heheh. betty's post-doc has been telling everyone what she walked in on in the darkroom the other day. your students were in there, *kissing*. from what i've heard, they've been doing a lot of that lately. heh. they're probably in there *now*. I say, though, old chap, I'd have thought you'd have been wanting to put a stop to that sort of thing? cheers, God

The colour drains from Charles and his hands begin to shake with horror. Kissing. How awful. Charles had read that kissing could lead to friendship and a social life, even marriage, or children. Charles couldn't afford for his people to be rushing around all over the place having children. There was science to be attended to, and they were already behind on delivering it.

Charles stares at Sir Frederick's "science kitteh" slide, tapping his feet manically, wondering desperately what he can do to contain the situation. Eventually, the solution comes to him.

Hi All, I stand by everything I've said and will still vote in the 'no' camp, but I have no interest in wasting any more of my time arguing with those of you who apparently don't care for reality, rationalism or academic integrity. Invite him if you like. *I* will make sure that I am well out of it. There's an interesting looking conference in Las Vegas that weekend. I think I might take the whole lab. A good dry conference should get those students back in line. Regards, Chaz.

 * Obviously, any resemblance to real people, events, or email exchanges is entirely coincidental.

[Tag] Tags: Charles Quackenbush, Francis Collins, atheism, fiction, flash fiction, religion, short stories

Mon, 2 Nov 2009

Open doors other side

Charles Quackenbush stands at the far end of the platform, away from the crowds around the shelter at the platform steps; positioned well over the tactile paving and the yellow line.

"The train now approaching platform... one... is the... oh nine... oh four... service to... London Victoria... calling at... Herne Hill... Brixton... and... London Victoria."

The rails begin to sing their high-pitched wail. Charles takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The rain rolls down his cheeks.

And the train pulls up, beside him, past him, coming to a stop twenty seconds later with Charles stood, eyes still closed, beside the final set of doors. The doors open, and the eyes open, and Charles doesn't really have much choice but to step on board. He'll just have to get off at the next stop and try again.

"Any unchecked tickets please," comes an abrupt shout. "Good morning, sir, could I see your ticket, please?" Charles, of course, has not purchased a ticket. His intention had not been to go anywhere today. At least, not via Herne Hill. He pays the penalty fare and is given his ticket.

Charles steps off the train with the few dozen passengers changing to the Blackfriars line, and casually wonders across the platform as the Victoria train continues on its way. On the Blackfriars platform, the electronic display scrolls a long list of destinations for the train through to Bedford, the reflected lights creating a psychedelic show on a warped and battered advertising display case.

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... is delayed by approximately... nine... minutes."

Two empty paper coffee cups are caught by the wind. They roll around in circles, catch on the corner and break dance through the eddies, colliding, bouncing violently apart, and hurl themselves from the platform edge. Charles sits on a cold metal bench and stares through the rain, across the track, over the scruffy scrub of the embankment, and out to the twin beige concrete tower blocks looming over them from across the road. "Open doors other side," reads a helpful sign placed high on the chain-link fence between the tracks and bank.

"Open doors other side," thinks Charles. The doors are open for the post-doc on the other side of the lab, whose experiments work, whose papers get published in Cell and Nature, whose smile charms committees and conference rooms. The doors were always open for the guy he lived with during his PhD, who, despite his obvious brilliance, never bothered looking for a post-doc position but within a year of graduating had already accumulated an MBA and a small but cool hi-tech company. Or his friends at Oxford -- the lawyers and bankers; and his friends from school, who had travelled the world, published novels, and were already sending children of their own to the same school. And here was Charles, at the end of a second post-doc, penniless -- personally and professionally -- and not a datum that any sane person would want to publish. His career was over. They would make him take the walk of shame.

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... is delayed by approximately... seventeen... minutes."

Charles sighs and sits back in the seat, folding his arms and tilting his head. And he sees it. The damp mouldy rope, hanging from the station canopy; one end tied securely around a beam, the other looped and slipknotted . Why? What purpose could such a thing serve? Charles stares at it for a few minutes, wondering how strong it might be. The estimated time of arrival on the electronic display revises itself. Charles hadn't considered this method. Hadn't done his research. It couldn't be a bad way, though, could it?

Charles stands purposefully, steps up onto the bench and balances with one foot on the arm rest. He reaches out and grabs at the rope. A few of the fifty-or-so people on the platform notice the performance, and wander quietly and casually away, so as not to see the finale. Charles places the loop around his neck, takes a deep breath, and steps onto nothing. He swings forward, out over the coffee cups and cracked tactile paving and faded yellow line. The rope creaks, the beam cracks, and Charles falls, pursued by the station canopy onto the tracks, knocking his head on the lip of the platform and rolling onto the dead third rail. Somebody on the platform looks up from their newspaper and screams. A distant voice rings out,

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... has been cancelled."

Charles lies on the track for a while, panting, while the stars fade. His eyes focus on a solitary white flower in the fence. Bind weed climbing the wire links. His phone rings, and he sits up with effort, loosening the rope that still hangs from his neck. There are some "yeses" and "of courses" and "thank yous" from Charles, and the occasional dizzy and vacant nod. An offer. Not science. Something about writing and publishing and online media; a startup doing something new, something interesting, perhaps. Not science, but an offer; an invitation to do the walk with purpose and a destination and his head held as high as a head could be. A fresh breeze blows down the tracks, drying his face. He nods to himself, and smiles.

Charles slowly rises to kneel, rubbing his neck and knees and brushing dirt from his damp clothes. He pulls himself up onto the crowded platform with some effort; the broken section of station canopy clattering after him. He stands there, staring blankly at the arrival of the oh-nine twenty-seven. Steps aboard, still lost in his thoughts, and squeezes himself in, with his feet awkwardly arranged around somebody's briefcase, and his face shoved into the armpit of a Metro-reading old man. Then he snaps back into the world as lightning strikes a concrete tower and thunder cracks. The train slows. "Apologies for this delay, ladies and gentlemen. Due to a broken train at Farringdon we are being held in a queue outside Elephant and Castle."

Charles takes a deep breath of armpit, turns around, and starts pounding on the doors.

[Tag] Tags: chuck quackenbush, fiction, flash-fiction, science, short stories

Wed, 29 Apr 2009

In which London can be a not fun place to live sometimes

I wrote to my constituency MP. I've never done that before. I don't know if it's a useful thing to do, but it was fun. I guess it's slightly less pointless than voting.

Dear Tessa Jowell,

Given the evidently excessive use of force by the police during the "G20" protests at Bank three weeks ago -- not just from individual officers, but from the basic design of the police operation -- I am moved to add my voice to those who have expressed concern regarding police accountability, and specifically regarding provisions in the recent Counter Terrorism Act, which I understand you voted for.

Many -- most -- of the details of that day which have so far emerged are only available to us because the crowd was packed with press photographers, because London is populated by many tens of thousands of hobbyist photographers, and, most of all, because of the now ubiquitous cameraphone. This event highlights not just the need for police accountability, but the fact that it is ordinary members of the public who make police accountability possible. Any development which obstructs, or which could be used to obstruct, ordinary members of the public who find it their duty to record abuse of police power would be very disturbing.

I do not especially fear that the Counter Terrorism Act will lead to gross miscarriages of justice against professional or amateur photographers -- that is possible, but I suspect unlikely. Rather, the provisions in the act, by adding further complexity and uncertainty about what is and is not legal, enable the petty miscarriages of justice that have become rife and which make the police an intimidating presence in this city today. The cost of this law is the photojournalist who is obstructed from an important public-interest story while detained "under suspicion", the ordinary members of the public, and even tourists, who are stop-and-searched for engaging in their hobby (as I was in Crystal Palace park last year), and the photographer who simply gives up because the fun has been taking out of being creative.

Those costs must of course be balanced against the need to prevent terrorism. Since you voted in favour of the Counter Terrorism Act, I would be very interested to hear your own views on how the terrorism-fighting benefits of the photography provisions weigh against the costs, as well as the government's reasoning behind the provisions. How will these provisions help the police and prosecution service in catching and keeping us safe from terrorists? What evidence is there that these provisions would have helped to prevent past terrorist attacks, or to prosecute individuals who got away with committing atrocities?

I would perhaps not agree unconditionally with Benjamin Franklin's views on trading freedom and safety. But I must demand that we pay a fair price for the genuine article. In this case, as with many other laws supposed to protect us from terrorism, I am far from convinced that enough has been done to ensure that the prices will remain low and that we will receive the goods. I look forward to hearing your views on this law.



[Tag] Tags: correspondence, current affairs, photography, police, politics

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