Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Hedgehog and The Fox

The Hedgehog and the Fox

Last December I was contacted out of the blue by someone interested in using a couple of pictures I'd taken of Richard Serra's sculpture "The Hedgehog and The Fox" three years earlier. The pictures came out of one of the projects I'd given myself during while spending a few months with Kyle in New Jersey: to visit and photograph as many of the many public artworks as I could around the Princeton university campus where she worked.

Although I'd devoted quite a bit of time to the project (which I described in a blog post about it back in 2009, complete with map), I hadn't really thought much more about the pictures until my correspondant got in touch via Flickr - his interest was in using them in a couple of Wikipedia articles (one about the fable of The Fox and The Cat, and another subsequently about the sculpture itself: - so it was an opportunity to revisit both the pictures and the memories that associated with them (and with my life generally at that time).

In particular I remember one of the things I enjoyed about working on the project was actually taking the time to look more closely and for longer at the artworks than I might have done if I'd just been passing. It was often quite a challenge to take pictures that I felt captured what I was actually seeing - particularly for the large abstract sculptures like "The Hedgehog and The Fox", Upstart 2 and Northwood II - and in trying to find interesting angles for my pictures I felt that I had to engage with them to a greater degree, at least at a physical level. In this regard "The Hedgehog and The Fox" was particularly memorable - at its most basic level it's essentially three huge undulating rusty metal walls, sat between the Lewis library and the football stadium. But if you get up close then it towers over you, and walking between pairs of its walls can feel quite eerie and even a little oppressive
(especially if the light's starting to fade at the end of a New Jersey winter afternoon, and you're on your own). To some extent it seemed to be a sculpture that you had to experience first-hand to really appreciate.

Some of the artworks were made more interesting by knowing something of their backstory: two very different examples are George Segal's "Abraham and Issac" (intended as a memorial for the 1970 incident at Kent State University where unarmed students were shot by members of the Ohio National Guard) and Jacques Lipschitz's "Song of the Vowels" (which is based around the idea of the harp). In the case of "The Hedgehog and The Fox" I've now learned that the artist had a very specific message that he wished to communicate: based on the idea that "the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one great thing", he suggested that "There are those who follow on principle in all they do - the hedgehogs - and those who look to different approaches at the same time - the foxes." Basically Princeton students are encouraged to cultivate the flexible, creative and inventive qualities of the fox rather than the more rigid and inflexible thinking of the hedgehog.

(As an aside: the process of allowing Wikipedia to use my pictures turned out out to be quite frustrating for my correspondant but I found it interesting to go through - I learned that Wikipedia actually requires quite a permissive licence before it will accept photos for use - in the end explicitly licensing them under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 and sending a message based on the template in Wikipedia's "Declaration of consent for all enquiries" page did the trick.)

Since then I've had other requests to use pictures, including another from my "Princeton artworks" project (Pevsner's "Construction in the Third and Fourth Dimensions"), and I always enjoy getting these enquiries - just like the original sculptures, the pictures themselves also have a personal significance for me which it's nice to have an excuse to recall, and it gives me a warm feeling to know that other people I've never met find the pictures interesting. Please feel free to visit: "Princeton Artworks" on Flickr.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

OSS December Dip 2011

Swimmers in the winter sun

Where did December even go? It doesn't seem a month since I was back down at Parliament Hill Lido, braving the cold water for the Outdoor Swimming Society's fundraising 2011 December Dip.

Unlike last year's 0.1C Plum Pudding Plunge, this time the weather was much milder: no snow or ice, just blue skies, winter sun, and water at a balmy 8C. This year's celeb was Radio 1 DJ (and local swimmer, if I heard right) Edith Bowman who spoke some encouraging words alongside OSS founder Kate Rew, before the 300 or so dippers took to the water in three waves (each with their own coloured wristband and theme played by the live brass band at the poolside). There aren't any wetsuits at this event, with most people just wearing regular swimming costumes - however at least one man went the extra mile with his extremely impressive tinsel-decorated trunks (posted on Goggleblog, which coincidentally has another take on the event).

The dip itself seemed to go very quickly this time - like many people I decided I'd go in the first wave (to the tune of "The Great Escape" apparently, although after I'd jumped in I don't think I heard the band at all) and my gasping breaststroke took me there and back across the regulation two widths of the lido before I finally struggled out victorious:

After the December Dip

Afterwards there were warm clothes, apple brandy, coffee and mince pies, and I think I could tell the difference in temperatures as I never lost feeling in my feet and got warmed up much more quickly this time. The dip itself is not pleasant, but afterwards you do feel very much alive which I suppose is the point (the event also raises funds for OSS activities including the OSS wild swim map, which aims to collect together outdoor swim spots of all kinds in the UK and across the world so that wherever you are you should be able to find somewhere nearby).

There was also some socialising with other dippers, and a real high point of this year for me was meeting two very cool fellow swimmers, Tara and her mum Jane, who'd come all the way from Penzance (where they are part of Nature Workshops) for the weekend. I really enjoyed talking to them and hearing about their swimming exploits around the Cornish coast and hope I'll see them again at another December Dip:

Me and Tara
Since then it's been back to the pool for my swimming; catching up with my unread issues of H2Open; and thinking about possible outdoor swimming trips for 2012. I've bought myself a new wetsuit, already signed up for the 2012 Great Manchester Swim in July, and would like to have another go at the RNLI Sblash Llandudno Sea Swim in June after missing it this year. And as well as thinking about another Swimtrek trip, after talking to Tara I'm also seriously considering the OSS Dart 10K (which previously I'd thought just sounded a bit mad). So we'll see what happens.

In the meantime let me wish you a great 2012, and hope it goes swimmingly - whatever you're doing, Happy New Year!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Goodbye, Old Computer

Old Faithful

I've finally got rid of my old desktop computer, which I bought from Mesh Computers back in 2001:
an 1GHz AMD Athlon processor with 30Gb hard drive running Windows Millenium Edition (possibly the worst operating system ever). In time I added more memory, a bigger hard drive, upgraded to Windows XP, and switched from dial-up internet to cable broadband (first wired in 2004, then wireless in 2005). While the software placed more and more demands on the old girl and she appeared to get slower, she still proved her worth in 2009 when I installed Ubuntu Linux dual-booting alongside Windows. And over the machine's 10+ year lifetime, the only serious problem I've ever had was a noisy fan. Truly, an epic machine.

Finally however I decided that I had to upgrade, and bought myself a new Intel 4-core machine with a 500 Gb HD and a nice flat panel display from Scan Computers. I couldn't think of a realistic use for the old computer, but doing a google search turned up Recycle-IT! , a not-for-profit business that recycles old computing equipment for various good causes. It requires a bit of effort on an individual donor's part to actually get the equipment to them (I'm paying the cost of shipping it there, but via Parcel2Go this turns out to be reasonably cheap and easy).

So, I wiped the hard drives using DBAN (I think Recycle-IT! might do that for you too though) and packaged up everything - computer, CRT monitor, keyboard, mouse and all the rest - ready for the courier collection:

All packed up

And today, finally it all went. If I'm being honest I have to admit to feeling a little sentimental to see her go. But sad as it is I love the idea that my fantastic old computer won't be in landfill but lives on to be used by someone else. Goodbye old girl - I wish you great adventures!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Salford Quays Open Water Swimming

Swimming in the dock

Hard to believe in mid-November that the last open water swimming session of the year at the Salford Quays Watersports Centre was on a warm sunny late-September evening only a month and a half ago. I'd originally signed up in May, but in the end only managed to make it there for the last four Thursday night sessions - still it was good while it lasted, and the Quays themselves are a great post-industrial setting for a bit of swimming (see my pictures on Flickr).

The truth is that before then
I hadn't managed any open water swimming since the Llyn Llyffant/Malham Tarn trip at the start of the summer. That had been a big fun adventure but had also reminded me that even though I love to swim, I'm not really a "natural" open water swimmer - and since my difficulties aren't with swimming per se, I'd started to speculate on what it is about being outdoors that I find more problematic than being in a pool.

So in the weeks after Llyn Llyffant I reflected on the different aspects of outdoor swimming that seemed to cause me anxiety, and it turned out there was quite a range - for example:
  • feelings of disorientation and even nausea, especially when swimming front crawl;
  • goggles fogging up and/or leaking (and not being able to adjust them once in the water);
  • not being able to see where you're going in general, which means that I tend to favour breaststroke over crawl outdoors;
  • feelings of pressure when there are a lot of people around me;
  • reactions to the initial temperature and taste of the water (which made me feel more reluctant to have my face in the water outdoors).
I realised that I also get anxious about walking on hard surfaces and rocks (I seem to have soft feet), and even about the preparation before swimming (worrying about what to pack etc - which probably won't surprise anyone who really knows me).

Breaking down and isolate the issues meant I was able to start thinking practically about how to overcome them.
I realised that simply taking a bit more time to prepare before entering the water would deal with several of these problems, for example applying anti-fog solution to my goggles and then checking that they're properly seated on my head (a common cause of leaks is if one of the eye seals overlaps your swimming cap) dealt with the fogging/leaking issues. I also began to incorporate sighting practice into my pool swimming ("sighting" is periodically looking up in order to ascertain your position, while still maintaining your stroke).

However some of the other aspects could ultimately only be worked on by actually swimming outdoors, and so the Salford Quays sessions were ideal: it's a fairly calm, controlled environment with safety support, and by September wasn't too busy. So for each session I was able to focus clearly on my goals, specifically to slow down and prepare carefully before entering the water, and then to focus not on distance or speed but instead on maintaining a steady stroke, staying calm and relaxed, and sighting regularly.

I can't say that the four sessions transformed me into a born-again outdoor swimmer, but I did feel I made some valuable progress. Each time I was able to do a couple of circuits of the 400m course mostly swimming front crawl, and I felt that my sighting practice really paid off; but the most significant thing I got out of it was a sense of increased confidence, and more experience with to overcoming my occasional moments of anxiety and panic. I also learned a couple of new things (for instance, how to get out of the water at the end when there's no ladder), and got some good advice from a friendly fellow swimmer who I hope I'll see again next year when the sessions start up again.

There are still some skills that I haven't really worked on at all, for example being able to tread water comfortably (in fact something like the Art of Swimming's Deep Water Confidence course would be ideal - pity it's only being held in London). But I've already signed up for next year's Great Manchester Swim (this time in July, let's hope for better weather) - and before that of course there's also the Outdoor Swimming Society's December Dip at Parliament Hill Lido. See you there maybe? or else back at Salford Quays sometime in 2012:

Lights come out

Till then, happy swimming!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

On the road again: Colwyn Bay to Rhyl

Rhybudd: Warning

After a tip-off from my friend Ed (now in Finland, good luck!) about interesting day trips on the North Wales coast, I finally headed off last week to Colwyn Bay with the intention of walking along the coast back to the seaside town of Rhyl. Actually this wasn't one of the routes that Ed had suggested - but
I guessed it should be possible as I'd cycled from Prestatyn to Colwyn Bay and back about 9 years ago with some friends on a sponsored bike ride (I still remember my soup at Colwyn Bay on that trip).

I didn't really spend any time in Colwyn itself, instead I headed to the Victoria Pier which I remembered from years before. It's in a bit of a sad state now though, from years of neglect and vandalism - although it doesn't look so bad from a distance in my pictures:

Victoria Pier at Colwyn Bay

Kyle kindly emailed me a link to the Wikipedia entry at, which tells the rather story of the pier's slow decline over the last 50 years or so. It also looked like a new leisure complex was being built nearby while I sat and had a cup of tea there.

Heading eastwards much of the route is sandwiched between the coast and either the railway or the A55 road, and aside from occasional further dereliction (abandoned mine workings, water tanks and sea platforms) there isn't really a lot to see between Colwyn Bay and Abegele. But I liked the solitude, and was fascinated by mile upon mile of the coastal defences made from dolosse - hundreds (or more likely tens of thousands) of large concrete blocks piled up along the coast line like over-sized children's toys:

Dolosse coastal defences

After 6 miles I finally reached the beach at Abergele and Pensarn, where there are holiday caravans, families on the beach, and fish and chips. (Apparently there's also a reef but it was high tide when I arrived). After toying with the idea of getting the train from the nearby station I decided to carry on to the next town, which I'm still not sure was the best idea - my feet were feeling pretty sore 4 miles later as I reached the seafront at Rhyl. But it was a memorable sight, and there was ice cream:

Rhyl sea front

I didn't spend much time in Rhyl, which was perhaps a shame as it looked like a nice place to have a bit of a wander around. But it was a great day out, and as one of Ed's suggestions was to walk from Prestatyn to Rhyl, maybe I'll try that next time - though I need to let my feet recover a little first.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Great Salford Swim & The Twin Lake Challenge

Orange wave is off!

With starting a new job in May, it's taken me a while to get around to posting about the two outdoor swimming challenges that I took part in over a month ago: the first was the Great Salford Swim, and the second was my friend Hacky's "Twin Lakes Challenge" the following weekend - two quite different but equally memorable events.

Great Salford Swim: Sunday 15th May

The Great Salford Swim is part of the Great Swim series of mass participation swimming events, and this year around 2,000 people took part, braving the drizzly weather and cold water (14.4C, though I've felt colder so maybe I'm acclimatising) to swim a one mile "dock-to-dock" course at Salford Quays. Swimmers were organised into different coloured "waves" (I was in the yellow wave) and included various celebrities (such as Blue Peter presenter
Andy Akinowolere, in the same wave as me) as well as men and women's elite races, featuring amongst others the British Olympians Keri-Anne Payne and Cassie Patten.

The organisation of the event was extremely impressive, with things running astonishingly smoothly in spite of the volume of people involved: I'd already received my race pack a couple of weeks earlier, which included my race number, official swim hat, timing chip and velcro ankle strap, and a baggage label (for the bag transfer between the start and finish). So on the day all I had to do was turn up, get changed and drop off my bag, and then head to the start line. After a quick warm up session (lots of people in wetsuits bending, bouncing and stretching - no doubt most entertaining for the assembled spectators) and dip in the "acclimatisation area", we lined up and were off into the water.

As I've said here before, although I feel I'm a very competent pool swimmer and have no problem swimming front crawl over a mile indoors (in fact I'd easily done 2km the week before, in the 50m pool at the Manchester Aquatics Centre), I often struggle to translate this to outdoor swimming. As a result I swam breaststroke for a large percentage of the course, with an occasional burst of crawl (including my favourite part, on the final strait to the finishing line). So while I felt that my time of 41m 41s was pretty respectable, I also felt I could have gone a little quicker (and I'm considering what things I need to work on for the future). But still, completing the one mile swim was an achievement to be proud of! Here's the official post-swim picture to prove it:

Official post-swim picture
The Twin Lake Challenge: Saturday 21st May

The following weekend was a very different kind of outdoor swimming experience: Hacky's "Twin Lake Challenge", which involved a group of committed (or possibly certified) swimmers trying to swim the highest lake in Wales (Llyn Llyffant in Snowdonia) and in England (Malham Tarn in Yorkshire) in the same day. The challenge was two-fold - not only the distance between the two lakes, but also the fact that Llyn Llyffant is only accessible by a 7km walk which includes a 3,000 ft elevation to the lake. Like most of these things it had seemed like a good idea two months earlier (when I was sat cosy and warm in front of a laptop).

Through some impressive and ingenious logistical planning, Hacky managed to get eight of us gathered around 9am in the remote carpark in Snowdonia, the starting point for the trek up to the first lake. Buffeted by a persistent chilly wind (and with some ominously dark clouds lurking rather too close for my liking), I’m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling a little uncertain. But we were here now, and one way or another it was definitely going to be an adventure! and certainly the ascent to Llyn Llyffant was challenging, through a landscape of a spectacular and desolate beauty featuring huge walls, abandoned slate works, hidden bog puddles, and fragments of a WWII plane wreck.

With increasingly grim determination we finally reached our objective a few hours later, and were rewarded with a striking sight – a small lake with clear cold water rippled by the wind, and surrounded by rocks surreally peppered with more wreckage (including an engine and a wheel). We quickly changed into our wetsuits and with some trepidation (as least for me!) made our way into the icy water: the bottom of the lake seemed to consist of thick boggy mud over uneven rocks, and I felt my exposed hands and feet turn to blocks of ice almost immediately as I managed to breaststroke a width of the lake. Other hardier souls were able to stay in longer, but it was enough for me to say that I’d swum in the highest lake in Wales – made even more special by its remoteness and all the effort taken to get there - and to get the obligatory wetsuit picture (thanks to Jo Brown for this):

After a dip in Llyn Llyffant
There wasn’t much time to savour our achievement however – almost as soon as we got out of the water the rain started, and the hike back was a gloriously miserable affair as we got wetter and wetter (more than when we were in the lake, even). No time to dwell on it though once we reached the carpark again – we still had another lake to get to! So began the long dash cross-country to Yorkshire, picking up more outdoor swimmers along the way before we arrived at the second lake.

Malham Tarn was a real contrast to Llyn Llyffant – a much bigger body of water, but more easily accessible just a short walk across a field from a carpark – and perhaps seemed a little ordinary after the adventure we’d had earlier in Wales. Still there was good swimming to be had here – the water again cold but beautifully clear, with the rocky lake bottom visible beneath and trees lining the more distant lakesides; and while the sky was overcast the rain held off long enough for our pod of 15 or so swimmers to get a good long swim. My favourite memories include chasing after a crowd of bobbing coloured swim hats (I’m not a fast swimmer); continually mistaking two pillars at the lakeside on the way back for two non-swimmers who’d come along with us; and leaving the water at the end through what felt like hundreds of “British Gas Great Swim” flip-flops, temporary abandoned by people when they’d first got in.

And then that was it – shivering as I ran back to the parked car, struggling into my warm dry clothes, and feeling the satisfaction of completing the challenge. Gathering in a pub nearby we were finally able to relax and reflect on our achievement. It might look like madness from the outside, but for me it’s during experiences like this that life seems to be at its most colourful. Thanks to Hacky and everyone else who made it such a fantastic day in so many ways: I know that the vivid memories of this Twin Lake Challenge – and Llyn Llyffant in particular – will stay with me for a life-time. Plus, Hacky also gave us a mug for completing both parts:

The Twin Lake Challenge Cup #2

Since then it's been a bit quiet on the swimming front, but I'm now slowly getting back into a regular early morning pool-swimming schedule - so once things calm down I'm sure I'll be looking for the next swimming challenge!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Silver Screen Suppers

Loretta Young's Walnut Loaf

For a while now I've been a quiet fan of the Silver Screen Suppers blog, written by a multi-talented friend of mine (let's call her Lya di Putti). The blog is about an ongoing project between her and a friend - collecting and recreating dishes from recipes attributed to movie stars of Hollywood's Golden Age - mixed in with episodes from her own often movie-star-esque life.

At the moment she's in the process of putting together a book of the best recipes (their stash now has over 4,000 so it's a big job) and she periodically asks for volunteers to act as test cooks and give feedback on how the recipes turn out. Since I like to think I'm a helpful sort (plus I secretly want to get into the book) I've tried a few myself over the last year: Veronica Lake's Spiced Beef and Peas, Gary Cooper's Buttermilk Griddle Cakes, Loretta Young's Walnut Loaf (in the picture above), John Wayne's Mustard Steak, Greta Garbo's Swedish Meatballs (oops, just blown my anonymity) and most recently Thelma Todd's Scripture Cake:

Thelma Todd's Scripture Cake

I'm not a great cook by any stretch: writing up my less successful attempts - the meatballs for example were a bit of a disaster - took me back to school science reports (an appalling experimental scientist, I was forever having to explain why my results didn't agree with theory). But
it's been educational and fun, and there have been some real treats too - I've been thinking for a while that I should take another pop at Gary Cooper's delicious griddle cakes; Loretta's walnut loaf involved some interesting detective work and turned out surprisingly tasty; and Thelma's scripture cake was excellent (as well as being a clever Biblical puzzle to figure out the ingredients).

I've also been fascinated by the sparseness and simplicity of many of the recipes, which (
alongside some baffling ingredients - for example, just what is the "spiced beef" in Veronica Lake's recipe?) hint at a time when people were more well-versed in cooking and baking: they already knew what a moderate oven temperature was without having to look it up, and didn't need every step or measurement spelled out in explicit detail.

The recipes themselves don't appear on the blog, so if you're interested in trying some of them then you'll have to either wait for the book, sign up to the Silver Screen Suppers email newsletter (front page of the blog) to get a monthly recipe (complete with video!), or
offer to be a test cook. It's definitely worth a go if you fancy a culinary adventure, and you'll also get a mention in the book.

Now, where did I put that measuring cup...?