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[About me] About the author

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, 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

Tue, 10 Mar 2009

Grant Museum of Zoology


amphibians! snake!
fish! Australopithecus
Neanderthal snakes!

[Tag] Tags: animals, grant museum of zoology, london, museums, uk, zoology

Tue, 3 Mar 2009

Creativity and science

Somebody said something rather odd the other day. It was in response to the observation that I know a great many scientists and mathematicians who are also amateur photographers. Their suggestion was that photography was a good way to express one's creative side.

Now, there are a few dozen photographs in my collection that I'm particularly happy with. They are technically competent and have a modicum of aesthetic value. But if they demonstrate creativity is is of the most trivial variety, and in pitiful quanta. That is not to say that photography can not be creative; only that amateur photographers rarely display any significant quantity of it. We create images that have been created before, follow formulas and fashions, and imitate each other's styles. And so what. Amateur anything -- painting, poetry, music and sport -- is about having fun, not about creating world changing work.

Science, on the other hand, has everything to do with creativity. A scientist's job is to replace a package of ignorance with a package of knowledge. Scientists do not create facts -- a task so simple that it is left to the science-fiction writers. Rather, the facts are already there, waiting to be discovered. The task of the scientist is to create the hypothesis -- to ask the question so out-there that nobody has ever thought to ask it before -- and to create the experiment that will test it.

The achievement of Watson and Crick -- determining the structure of DNA -- is often derided by those who rightly wish to celebrate the achievements of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin performed many of the difficult experiments whose results were crucial for determining the structure of DNA. According to some, Franklin was doing clever physics and chemistry while Watson and Crick were playing around with toy molecules. Watson and Crick did eventually get the structure by building a model, with a small amount of trial and error involved.

In reality, Watson and Crick got to the model by being creative. They created ideas and hypotheses from data such as x-ray crystallography and knowledge like nucleotide ratios and properties. They had the creative idea to have the toy molecules built and to cut out the tedious and time consuming experimental work that would be required to fill the remaining gaps by simply trying out variations until they found the one that worked.

Nobelist Harry Kroto does not feel like a great scientist because he doesn't know everything. He enjoys science, but thinks that all he is any good at is designing logos and posters. Harry: your designs are, ah... nice. But your science is where you are creative. And that is why you are a great scientist.

Bugger knowing everything. What fun would science be then?

[Tag] Tags: creativity, philosophy of science, photography, science

Sun, 22 Feb 2009

Blog review: Question Darwin

I recently posted on the phenomenon of British creationism, and my belief that it is not nearly as widespread and organised as the creationists would like us to believe. So it was fun this evening to come across a genuine British creationist blogger, while researching, of all things, the pub quiz I'm co-organising. The blog and associated website "Question Darwin" are written by eccentric Hampshire GP Stephen Hayes, aka "Dissenter": born again while at university, and introduced to creationism by, you guessed it, an engineer.

I strongly recommend the website for starters. It tries to imitate the classics, but I feel that the text formatting was just a little too uniform and consistent. Certainly there were bizarre outbursts of bold, underline, large font, and all caps, but I would have preferred to see more colours, comic sans, and centre-align. Similarly, the background colour is a good choice, but the lack of distracting repeating background motif is a school-boy error, and I could see no evidence of animated GIFs. Fortunately the blog makes up this disappointment, as, even under the constraints imposed by Blogspot, Hayes manages to make a classic pig's ear of bold, italics, and any other formatting he can find a button for.

Hayes is publishing his site, of course, because the evidence which falsifies Darwin is being suppressed. A powerful elite are controlling the dissemination of the lies of evolutionism: chiefly the humanists and liberal media. Classic conspiracy theory stuff.

"But wait, it can't be a conspiracy theory!"

Why not?

"Because, er, the media don't give any time to Creationists, so, you know..."

Uhm, wait, what?

"Well think about it! If it were only a conspiracy theory, you'd hear about it in the media, like you do MMR and 9/11truthers. But Darwin dissent has been suppressed in the media. So there must be a real conspiracy!"

Uhuh. Chief amongst the godless liberal humanist reptilians media institutions are the notoriously biased University Challenge and Thought For The Day. Damn you TFTD and your dissent suppression.

In The Guardian this week, Stephen Moss suggested that the creationist movement in the UK is different to that in the US. But the difference is merely one of scale: the British creationists would like an animatronic theme park, but are not nearly capable of building one. In almost all other respects, the movements are the same: in their motivation, their style, and their arguments. But the difference in scale does mean one other difference: US creationists argue in order to influence politicians and schoolboards; British creationists have a hard enough time just trying to persuade their constituency of other Christians.

So Hayes is defending God from the liberal humanists who are destroying society, and is taking the usual route of poking holes in evolution -- or at least trying give the perception of having done so -- and concluding that a magic man done it. To achieve this task, he is lightly repackaging American creationism for the British Christian. The website is striking in its lack of creativity. There's "Darwinism" here and "evolutionist" bogeymen there. Sometimes there's even "Darwinistic evolutionism." "Molecules to man" gets a prominent spot on the front page, and, of course, most of the site seems to be about perceived flaws in Darwin's character. Often, though, Hayes cuts out the hard writing work altogether, and just copypastes other people's work verbatim. Never mind how bat-shit insane the piece is.

It would be superfluous to count and list mistakes, or to systematically link them to the index of creationist claims. That the site is yet another rehash of tired old errors goes without saying. But there were a couple of amusing ones that I had never come across before. I think my favourite occurred in a long and confused rant about Darwin stealing the idea of natural selection from Edward Blythe (an argument apparently based entirely upon a quote from Blythe in which, er, he doesn't introduce natural selection). It is asserted that "... years later, Wallace refused to go to Darwin's funural [sic]." That Wallace was one of Darwin's pallbearers[1] shows just how fundamental the lack of either intellectual honesty or the most basic of fact-checking is.

In summary, Question Darwin presents little novelty in terms of creationist claims or style of argument. But the blog is certainly fun for its up-to-date combination of rambling ineptness with surreal anti-BBC rants. The overall incompetence is medium, malice is moderate, and humour high. All things considered, I give it two Timecubes out of five.

Kook rating: [Timecube] [Timecube] [Timecube] [Timecube] [Timecube]

[Tag] Tags: creationism, from the net, pseudoscience, question darwin, reviews

Thu, 1 Jan 2009

Photoshop is cheating!

I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job.

- Don McCullin

All of the photographs on this website and my flickr stream are Photoshopped. I adjust the contrast, fine tune the white balance, and tweak the sharpness. I clone stamp out dust blots and power lines. I apply graded layer masks to create dramatic skies that did not really exist. I am quite happy to share this fact. Some people, for reasons best known to themselves, would think this a shameful admission.

I can not explain those people who consider the use of Photoshop to be a form of "cheating", except to speculate that they must be cretins. Perhaps they think that once a photograph has been through Photoshop adjustments, it is not a true representation of the scene that was shot. It is not what they saw. They must think that cameras themselves are objective instruments. Well, since when has any photograph looked like what you saw? You have a camera that takes photographs that match your eye for depth of field, sharpness, colour perception, focal length, field of view, distortion, and tonal range? A fascinating machine that must be, but what a boring range of images it must take.

Cameras are not objective. Their construction determines dozens of deviations from the world as we see it, and photographers take advantage of these to picture the world as the human eye could never see it. The human eye has no telephoto, no macro, no panorama. Cameras can do noir , with monochrome and grain, or vivid sunlit landscapes in colours that we do not see. Add a tripod and they can do long exposures of dark details and flowing water, or ultra-fast exposures of bullets frozen in the air. Add filters and they can see polarised light or the infrared spectrum. Add lensing and they can see particles in an accelerator, or galaxies thirteen billion years in the past. No Photoshop needed.

Perhaps it's not that cameras are objective, it's just that photographers should not need to use Photoshop. They should be able to get the right image using their skill in handling the camera. A good photographer should be able to create the right image by intelligent use of aperture and shutter speed, filters and lighting. Using Photoshop is an admission that one failed to use the camera properly. Like Ansel Adams didn't fiddle with his pictures in the darkroom. Like photographers haven't been dodging and burning, cropping and airbrushing for more than a century. Photoshopping isn't new. It's just easier and better than it was.

In the right hands, a cheap Russian film camera can take some nice photos (nice photos that look nothing like the world as we see it,incidentally). A great musician can make a cheap acoustic guitar produce beautiful music. But what a boring world it would be if every photo was made with a Lomo, and every piece of music played on an Argos guitar. Where would rock and roll be if quality amplifiers were considered "cheating"? Imagine if film and television techniques were considered to be cheating, and that a talented director should be able to produce a good drama just by putting a stationary camera in the perspective of an audience member at the theatre. Imagine if Watson and Crick's model was a cheat, because good scientists should be able to figure out structures just by pondering on x-ray crystallography pictures?*

Why would anybody who wished to produce something of quality refuse to use the tools available to them?

 * oh, wait, some people think this, too.

[Tag] Tags: bad arguments, photography, photoshop

Sun, 28 Sep 2008

The Big Busk

Photographs from London's Big Busk are here.

The Big Busk

[Tag] Tags: events, festivals, london, music, south bank, uk

Sat, 6 Sep 2008


Oh. Wow. Currently lead item on the Daily Mail Sci & Tech pages:

[Tag] Tags: badjournalism, ban this sick filth

Sun, 17 Aug 2008

Open access metablogging

Discussions about Open Access publishing are constantly flaring up in the blogosphere. There is a lot of re-treading old ground as some struggle to catch up. This is particularly the case with criticisms of the author-pays or "article processing charge" (APC) publishing model. Under this model, rather than a library paying 30,000 for a year's subscription to a journal, academics pay around 1,000 upon acceptance of their paper for publication.

Members of the blogosphere tend to be quite young, many think that "open access" is a synonym for PLoS, and most are in real science, rather than publishing. What I am trying to say is that not all that many of them have actually followed the history of open access very closely — myself included, until around a year ago. So it was with great enjoyment that I read the summaries of this discussion from 2001, when this publishing model was first proposed:

Free access - who pays?

Seven years ago, even open-access evangelists were sceptical that it could be done. Now, even at three times the rather optimistic estimates (who said $50 would be enough to break even?), it's very firmly established. The pioneer in the field is running at a profit ("BMC hasn't yet reached the stature to impose fees."), the biggest funding agencies in the world have made it mandatory, and, in the meantime, the PLoS journals have come from nowhere to become one of the biggest brands in the industry.

Now, blogosphere, would you like to take a step back and reconsider some of those statements you've been making?

[Tag] Tags: open access, publishing

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My other blog is a...
  • Science blog! A blog about cancer cell and molecular biology, coming soon...
  • Skepticism blog! I contribute to the group blog Lay Science on the nature of science, skepticism, and bad arguments.
  • Science publishing blog! It's called Journalology and it's a group blog about publishers, journals, papers and data.
  • Fiction blog! Where I make stuff up, coming soon...
  • Cycling and transport policy blog! I run the group blog At War With The Motorist, where we look at evidence-based urban planning and transport policy, and ride bikes.

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Creative Commons License All text and photography on this site is Joe Dunckley 2001-10, except where stated otherwise. Text and photos are released under the terms of the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license, meaning that you may reuse, remix, and republish the work for non-commercial purposes, on the condition that a credit is given to "Joe Dunckley/" and you make it clear that the work is released under this license. See this page for more detailed conditions. Contact me to enquire about commercial and editorial use.