Travels without a tripod

August 23, 2011

The first commandment reads that you should never, ever travel anywhere without a tripod and woe betide anyone who does. Nick Smith has just returned from an assignment where he forgot to take his three-legged friend…

Silk spinning in Cambodia. Photo Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Wide-angle floor-shot of woman spinning in a silk workshop in Cambodia (not Vietnam as the article implies). No tripod used, but the camera was set on the floor with a stack of lens caps to create elevation. Canon 5D MkII, Sigma 24mm, f/1.8 set at f/4, 1/10 sec, ISO 200, rear curtain flash, short duration self-timer. Photo: Nick Smith

I was once told by a veteran professional that the best piece of advice he could give any aspiring outdoor photographer was to always have your tripod with you. There wasn’t a single photograph, he insisted, that couldn’t be improved with the assistance of this indispensable stability-providing device. Doesn’t matter how steady you think you are, a tripod will always do it better. In fact, the answer is always: ‘Yes, you will need a tripod. Now, what’s the question?’

I’ve always tried to remember this. And so when a few weeks ago I stepped out of Ho Chi Minh City’s airport and into the solid wall of heat and humidity I was dismayed to find that I was without my faithful three-legged friend. Had I left it in the transit lounge in Kuala Lumpur? Had I somehow become separated from it in one of those interminable security checks that humiliate the innocent without ever uncovering a terrorist? No, it was exactly where I’d left it twenty-four long hours before. In my front room, along with all those other bits and pieces you leave behind because you can only carry 20Kg with you.

I remember now why I left it. My thought process went like this: tripods are big and heavy (even my state-of-the-art carbon fibre one that cost almost as much as a fish-eye lens); even the most well-intentioned of us hardly ever use them; they’re time-consuming and fiddly to set up; they get in the way of the creative process, and to cap it all, whenever you really desperately need to use one, there’s always a sign saying ‘no tripods’ because someone, somewhere has decided that they break health and safety regulations or something stupid like that. So I decided to take my monopod instead. But I forgot that too.

Now, I don’t know if I decided to punish myself for this laziness by looking for shooting opportunities where only a tripod would do, but pretty soon I found myself spending more time rueing its absence than taking photographs. I couldn’t adopt the simple solution of buying a new one because you can’t get a decent tripod in Ho Chi Minh City for love nor money, and even if you could I wasn’t going to lash out because I had a perfectly good one at home.

For anyone who’s not been there, Vietnam is brimming with caves stuffed full of Buddhas, enticing interiors of traditional brick factories, as well as countless museums and cathedrals where tripods are welcomed with open arms. Just about every low-light condition demanding a steady hand for a lengthy exposure rears its head at each turn. I burnt up energy looking for shots I couldn’t take, rather than working out how to improvise with the gear I had on me.

Psychologists will no doubt say that the importance of such shots was amplified in my mind precisely because I didn’t have a tripod and that I’d started to acquire an obsessive-compulsive disorder about it. And I think they’re completely right.

I’ve never liked the aphorism ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ because it hardly ever applies in the real world. After all, you can’t invent a wide-angle lens just because you need one, and a full flash card won’t suddenly invent for itself a few extra gigabytes just because you want it to. But you can, I discovered, with a little patience and practice, jury-rig quite nifty solid platforms for your camera with a little lateral thinking.

I soon became an expert with a big plastic bag full of (uncooked) rice and a self-timer, deftly stacked piles of lens caps and the occasional blob of Blu-Tack. And because in Vietnam there are very few convenient or level pillar-boxes, fence posts or any other sturdy platforms of a reasonable height, I drew the conclusion that the ground beneath my feet was my best friend. Wide-angle floor-shots became the order of the day, and as I reviewed my work on the Mac in the evening I found that I’d invented something of a ‘perspective idiom’ for my assignment in the Far East. Of course, from time to time there were clefts and niches in geological formations I could jam the camera into for – quite literally – a rock solid base, but mostly I lay on the floor, sweaty, dusty, attracting bewildered looks from people with fully automatic point-and-shoots, and thoroughly enjoying myself.

Of course, in the process my camera body got horribly scratched, but I told myself this gave it the ‘lived-in’ air of an instrument that had served its time on the road. As another long-serving travel snapper once told me: ‘you can always tell the real old pros because their gear looks so beaten up.’ Now I know why.

This article first appeared as an ‘Inside Track’ column for Outdoor Photography magazine

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‘Human resources’: Nick Smith interviews world cybernetics expert Professor Kevin Warwick

June 20, 2011

Human resources

Famous for his work in cybernetics, Kevin Warwick is also breathing new life into the public understanding of science and technology. Words and photography by Nick Smith

Professor Kevin Warwick of University of Reading. Portrait by Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

Professor Kevin Warwick of University of Reading. Portrait by Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

‘I find it amazing that you can have top engineers, academics and CEOs working in the field of technology, that can go through their entire careers and never have their work appear on the TV news.’ Meet Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, perhaps better known to the public as the man who modifies his body with electronic implants. From the very start of the interview he doesn’t mince his words and he warms to his theme.

‘Are you seriously telling me that they’ve never done one thing in their life that is sufficiently attractive to the BBC that they can’t feature it on the TV for one minute?’ If that is true, says an incredulous Warwick, they should be ashamed of themselves and ask what on earth they’ve been doing with their time. I put it to the professor that as a journalist I know that some of these people are doing brilliant things: it’s just that the commissioning editors at the BBC and in the broadsheet newspapers are either not interested or haven’t been informed.

He concedes that there might be a mutuality here, but insists that the burden of responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the technologists. ‘Yes, we can complain about the programme producers not showing interest. But, I’m talking about the way it is, and I think it’s up to us to do something about it. I think engineers should be out there selling their wares to the media, and if they haven’t got anything to sell, then shame on them.’

We’re sitting in Warwick’s office in the School of Systems Engineering, an upstairs room longer than it is wide. Office is perhaps too strong a word for what might be better described as a rabbit hutch. But it is one of the most fascinating rabbit hutches you’re ever likely to visit. This is not because of the intimidating piles of academic paperwork, but because there are bits of robots strewn everywhere, which, as I later discover, he’s only too pleased to demonstrate.

For Warwick, technical innovation is a thread that is woven into the fabric of society and it’s his view that this should be reflected in society’s popular media. True to his own work ethic, Warwick’s new book – ‘Artificial Intelligence: The Basics’ – does just that, and is about to find its way into high street bookshops. He describes its contents as ‘a concise introduction to the fast moving world of AI. It explores issues at the heart of the subject and in particular it introduces for the first time biological brains as being part of the AI field. It also debunks some of the philosophical myths surrounding the topic.’

ProKevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at University of Reading. Portrait by Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at University of Reading. Portrait by Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

Rise of the robots

Kevin Warwick is a leading thinker on how the future will look and his areas are artificial intelligence, cybernetics and robotics. His most famous piece of research – Project Cyborg – projected him into the limelight in the late 1990s, when he implanted a computer chip into his nervous system that could record and read his emotions and experiences. He has been working on using intelligent computer methods to predict the onset of Parkinson’s disease, so that it can be prevented by means of a deep-brain implant. His rat-brain robot – using artificially grown rat-brain tissue – drives a robot round a laboratory which helps us understand more about how our brains work, and even to develop treatments for diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Warwick was born in 1954 in Coventry and he attended Lawrence Sheriff School in Warwickshire. He left school in 1970 to join the GPO (later British Telecom) at the age of 16. In his twenties he took a degree at Aston University, followed by a PhD and a research post at Imperial College London. He took up the Chair in Cybernetics at the University of Reading in 1987.

One of the criticisms Warwick frequently faces is that his work in cybernetics is somehow ‘scary’ or, even worse, ‘fringe’. I ask him how comfortable he is with these adjectives. Warwick leans back in his chair as a wry smile spreads across his face. ‘I think some of what I do is scary to some people. This is partly because I’m picking things out of science fiction, but it’s also because I’m pushing the boundaries a little bit. Which is what I like to do.’

As for ‘fringe’, Warwick thinks the term can be positive as well as a negative, making the point that it’s hard to push boundaries from the mainstream. It’s also seen as threatening because Warwick’s work blurs the lines between previously compartmentalised ideas of philosophy, electronics and biology. Warwick says that most academics are in their comfort zone when working in these discrete disciplines: ‘But they don’t like it all coming together.’

And they’re not too keen either on the way he delivers his ideas to the public, refusing to talk in academic or scientific jargon. ‘Why should I? The reason I get asked to do a lot of plenary presentations at very good conferences is because I can talk in a very broad way.’ He admits that this all-encompassing approach to language can raise questions among his peers, but if it bothers him, he’s very good at disguising it: ‘half the time you go to these things and listen to someone talking about their specific field in the specific language of that field, and even if you can understand it, you can end up half bored to death.’

And of course they’re not keen on an academic scientist having a parallel alter ego as a high profile advocate for the public understanding of science. Some are just plain jealous that Warwick’s is a jet-setting international career that puts him on TV chat shows and into the pages of Esquire. ‘Of course people can get a bit envious. But in my defence, I think I do all right at the academic stuff. People might think that because I comment in the media that I don’t pay much attention to the straight-down-the-line academic work, but that’s not the case. People just don’t like the idea that you can popularise something that’s complicated.’

ProKevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at University of Reading. Portrait by Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at University of Reading. Portrait by Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

Public understanding of science

With mass media exposure of science and technology limited to Formula One, aeroplane crashes and nuclear power station disasters, the sector needs more ambassadors than ever. ‘I feel there are two important things here,’ says Warwick. ‘First the research we do and the results we obtain here are very important to me. The other is the potential to inspire youngsters and get them excited about what they could do. It’s a really nice feeling to think you may have influenced people’s decisions about their careers.’

Or influenced their opinions in controversial areas such as bioethics. ‘This is an area that’s frequently manipulated by the media, and so it’s important that you get out there and meet with the bioethicists, find out what they’re thinking, find out what the consensus is.’ Warwick says that if you can then communicate these issues to the public at large in a digestible way, then the conversations down in the local pub will be that much more informed. ‘Without people working for the public understanding of science the work of IET members and fellows simply won’t get seen. Does the man in the street know how a transistor works? Probably not. If you can communicate such a concept in a straightforward way  you have achieved something very important.’

Warwick uses his first implant as an example of how the public can be exposed to technology. While his technologically literate critics were scoffing at the comparative mundanity Captain Cyborg’s RFID implant, ‘this was probably the first time the man in the street had ever encountered a radio frequency identification device. The term today is perhaps more familiar than it once was. But how does it work? In my presentations I try to explain. And what I do is very much the same as what Michael Faraday was doing with a coil of wire and electric current. If can try to get people to understand some of the fundamentals of what we do as scientists and engineers, then perhaps they won’t be so scared of it and will be able to come up with their own ethical position.’ Warwick says that this enables people to decide whether they like the idea of the human body being modified in this way or not.

For Warwick the role of the engineer cannot be underestimated. He says that in the next few years ‘one of the biggest challenges, one of the most profound changes in society’, will be the way that power is transmitted. ‘A century ago, Nikola Tesla pointed to the possibility of power being transmitted without wires. When we first wanted to talk to each other over distance there were wires everywhere and then it went wireless. I believe that in the next few years power will be transmitted without wires. It is going to completely change the world.’

In particular the way we generate power will have a profound effect on our transport priorities. Warwick describes how entire economies have been held in thrall by the oil producing and exporting countries in the Middle East. And he describes how this will change: ‘who the hell needs petrol where we’re going? We’re coming to the stage where electrical engineers will become the people in demand. How will people get around in the future? It will be electrical engineers moving them around, not the petrochemical people. Now this is an exciting change but it’s not going to happen unless people get involved and people buy into it. I mean, we don’t want to go around electrocuting people. If we’re going to be driving around picking up electricity as we go, we have to be completely sure we know what we’re doing and it needs to be done in a way that works.’

I mention to Warwick that there are projected skills shortage in the power sector and that by the year 2020, if things follow trends as they are currently predicted, there won’t be enough engineers to supply the UK nuclear power generation sector alone. ‘Exactly. We better start spreading the word.’

ProKevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at University of Reading. Portrait by Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at University of Reading. Portrait by Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

Sidebar: What is life? It’s all in a telephone exchange

In his teens Kevin Warwick owned several motorcycles that he used to race around at ‘ridiculous speeds.’ For the young Warwick, this was the universe in one machine: ‘when you think about it, there are the electrical and hydraulic systems, pneumatics, fuel and the whole mechanical side of it. If you can understand how a motorcycle works you probably know eighty per cent of all you need to know in science, quite possibly life.’

Although this statement is obviously intended to be humorous, machines are a vital part of Warwick’s life and his early encounters with engineered systems led him directly to where he is today. He has never forgotten his first encounter with an old-fashioned 1970s-style telephone exchange. ‘When I first saw them they looked so complicated. But you find out that they’re actually straightforward when you break them down into their parts. And to me, this is the same as the human brain. When you think about it neurons aren’t that hard to understand.’

One of his first controversial episodes was while at university undertaking a complementary studies assignment. Warwick chose to do his on extra-terrestrial life and part of the project was to define life in order to identify alien life forms. ‘So I said ok how are you defining life here? Does it have movement, growth, and all the other classic indicators? Well if it does, you’ve actually defined a telephone exchange. And so if ET comes to Earth and looks at a telephone exchange it will say that it’s alive.’ Warwick was told not to be so silly and this bothered him ‘no end.’

Warwick insists that in order to nail down what intelligence in machines is, you must remove the human-centric bias, and having removed this bias he was left with a system that was intelligent life as originally defined. ‘I know that you’re supposed to ask if it can tell a joke, but I don’t see what that’s got to do with anything. And another thing I found ridiculous was the way people kept changing and tweaking the definition just because they were uncomfortable with the answer.’

‘If you imagine that aliens come to Earth from outer space the first thing to consider is that they’ve got here. They’ve got to be pretty intelligent to have devised a means of getting here in the first place. So how can we tell them that they’re stupid because they don’t understand jokes or English? They’re not going to say ‘yeah, you’re right we better go home.’ They’ll probably blow the hell out of us, or if we’re lucky they’ll put us in prison camps, because you can be sure they will have come here specifically to get energy and other resources, if we’ve got any left. When Europeans first went to the Americas they had technology and diseases and they wiped the floor with the indigenous people, even though they perhaps had better culture.’

Warwick says that when machines become more intellectually powerful than humans we won’t be able to understand how they are thinking. ‘They probably won’t treat us very well, and so upgrading,’ says Warwick referring to his implant work, ‘is one possibility for staying in the frame. We won’t like being second to machines.’ So why don’t we just switch them off? ‘How can you switch it off? You can’t. Also, if your aliens were sufficiently alien they may well think that the internet was the most advanced life form on earth and that humans are mere drones. And they’d probably be right.’

Cover of Summer 2011 edition of the IET's Member News. Portrait of Kevin Warwick by Nick Smith www.nicksmithphoto.com

Cover of Summer 2011 edition of the IET's Member News. Portrait of Kevin Warwick by Nick Smith http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

Sidebar: Kevin Warwick on electronic medicine

‘Ethically, I imagine that people have no objection to my work on the frontiers of making life better for people with Alzheimer’s disease. But when it comes to using that same technology in other parts of the brain, we start to push the boundaries of what it means to be human. So, even something that looks okay on the surface – because it’s therapeutic and you’re working with surgeons – raises many questions because you can corrupt the signals that are going into somebody’s brain.

‘We’ve been putting chemicals into our brains for 5,000 years. But the brain is electrochemical, just as in the way a battery is. We have historically produced medicine that is largely chemical: you have a headache, you take an aspirin. But there are enormous opportunities for electronic medicine. There is an enormous potential for altering how the brain and the nervous system that we haven’t really started to look deeply into.

‘And there are enormous questions that go with that. With the Parkinson’s disease work there are signals that can be corrupted externally. Just as you can take the wrong chemicals, you can feed in the wrong signals and so it’s a huge ethical area. And we’ve only just started to look at this.’

‘Artificial Intelligence: The Basics’, by Kevin Warwick is published by Routledge in August 2011, £11.99, ISBN 978-0-415-56483-0

This article first appeared in the Summer edition of the IET’s magazine ‘Member News’

‘Shooting digital like film’, column by Nick Smith published in Outdoor Photography magazine

June 20, 2011

In the old days we took far fewer photos, normally in batches of 36. Today we don’t feel we’ve done our job unless we’ve blasted away gigabyte upon gigabyte. So what happens when we shoot digital the way we shot film? By Nick Smith

Nick Smith's daughter, Tegan Smith on the teacup ride on her sixth birthday

Teacup ride, Swansea, one of a restricted number of 36 shots taken in one day

Next time you take your digital camera into the great outdoors take a big bag of fifty pence pieces with you. Then throw away one coin for every time you depressed the shutter release button when you didn’t have to. For those of you wondering what on earth I’m talking about, this is what shooting on film was like. I can’t remember the exact figures, but it cost about nine pounds to buy and process a roll of 35mm transparency film that would result in 36 photographs: 37 if you were lucky. You simply couldn’t afford to be profligate.

My new camera can shoot 36 exposures in less than four seconds, and because it’s digital, think of all those fifty pence pieces I’m saving. Storage is cheap and plentiful, and if Moore’s Law holds – essentially that digital technology doubles its capacity and so halves in price every two years – they’ll be giving gigabytes away with petrol soon.

But what you gain on the swings you inevitably lose on the roundabouts, because we all end up paying through our teeth in lost hours peering into the screen when it comes to the edit. If you think that this is somehow an absorbable cost or it doesn’t really matter, try throwing a fifty pence piece out of the window for every five minutes you sit at your computer.

I don’t know about you, but I loved it when my trannies came back from the lab. I’d put them on the light box and reacquaint myself with what was really going on, rather than just delete stuff. Editing then seemed to be a process of selection rather than of mind-numbing elimination.

But then it occurred to me that I might be looking back with misguided affection. How could it have been better then? By any objective measure cameras and their consumables today are better, cheaper, lighter, faster and funkier. Well, maybe. But one thing I am sure of is that digital is responsible for a torrential surge in mediocre photography. It’s everywhere. Don’t believe me? Put your hand up and offer to judge your local newspaper or camera club photographic competition.

I decided to investigate if we really do shoot better photographs when we do it batches of 36. The rules were simple: I could take as much kit as I liked with me to the Gower peninsular and shoot anything I fancied. The only thing I had to do was stay within the frame budget and complete the project in one day.

Off to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Llanelli one glorious Easter day. The sky was the colour of bluebells and there was more cherry blossom in the April breeze than you could shake a stick at. It was with an optimistic heart that I set out to fulfil my task that day of a portrait of my daughter (it was her sixth birthday), a wildlife shot (hence the drive to the wetlands) and a sunset, which would involve a short, sharp hike up a small mountain. I arbitrarily allowed myself 12 shots per project, which was a bit more daunting than sounds, not least because I was going to shoot the portrait on the teacup ride at the Easter fair, birds (for me at least) are notoriously fickle sitters and sunsets are not common in a land where it never stops raining.

By nine o’clock I’d downloaded my 36 compositions into Lightroom, and to my surprise my first reactions were all positive. First, it took no time to physically transfer the files because there were simply so few of them. Second, I suddenly found myself doing a positive edit rather than just moronically hitting the delete key. Third and most important of all, the proportion of decent shots was much, much higher that I would normally get from blasting away the megabytes. I was able to select three shots quickly – one for each project – that were above my quality threshold, and perhaps even more importantly, was tucked into a pint of Brains bitter well before closing time.

As I lubricated the tonsils I reflected on what my experiment had proved. I think this is what may have happened. I’d definitely spent more time thinking about what I wanted to shoot rather than pulling the trigger. And I was much more conscious of getting the basics right in order to avoid wasting my virtual roll of film. This had a further advantage, because when I came to review my work I found it much easier to evaluate how successful the images were relative to my intentions, simply because I could remember taking each exposure. I’d also had more fun, and as I polished off my pint I decided that wandering around South Wales musing on the glories of the natural world was simply a better experience than filling up flash cards with machine-gunned gunk.

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography magazine

 

Trigger happy in Antarctica… too many penguins?

May 24, 2011

Let loose in one of the last pristine wildernesses with an open brief can lead to an embarrassment of riches. But you can take too many photos, says Nick Smith

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica

When I told a photographer friend of mine in a pub in London last November that I was heading off on assignment to Antarctica he was suitably impressed. Why wouldn’t he be? After all, for many of us outdoor photographers, the chance to visit the White Continent, to see what the likes of Shackleton and Scott saw only a century ago, is the stuff of dreams. The chance to tick off my sixth continent was also alluring, leaving a relatively pipsy Australasia last on my list. ‘Don’t forget to take plenty of pictures of penguins,’ was his considered advice.

I won’t bore you with how far away Antarctica is. Two days flying – London, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Ushuaia – followed by three days sailing in a converted Argentine navy ship across the fearsome Drake Passage. But it would all be worth it, I told myself, as my three cabin mates vomited their way to the South Shetlands, when I see my first penguin. Not that I’d been commissioned to photograph penguins specifically: my helpful editor on the national newspaper I was on assignment for had merely told me to ‘get some nice shots.’

gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Well the news is, for anyone who’s not been there, in Antarctica you can get ‘nice shots’ a-plenty. To be honest, it’s hard to go wrong. Once you’ve passed the Convergence (where the Southern Ocean and the Atlantic meet) it’s pretty much plain sailing: cobalt blue skies, lagoons as smooth as glass and smoked salmon skies. I’m not going to say that it’s warm, but I was there in the Austral summer, and chilly though it may have been at times, it beat the pants off winter in London, camping at Heathrow and the Eastenders Christmas Day special.

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Ever mindful of my friend’s advice, when I finally got ashore at Aitcho Island, I decided that penguins were the order of the day. At the South Shetlands you’ll be lucky to see anything other than chinstraps, gentoos and adelies, so I considered myself lucky indeed to find all three in the first rookery I visited. The light wasn’t great, but it was my first landfall in Antarctica and so… bang. Eight gigabytes in one hour. As I was shooting RAW images on a full frame sensor camera, that’s not too bad I told myself, but I knew that not one of the 250 shots would be a keeper. Safely back on the mother ship I duly downloaded and tagged the whole lot. I was right: there were no keepers, but these might be my only sightings.

In Antarctica there are strict rules when it comes to interacting with the wildlife. The penguins effectively have a 5-metre force field around them. You don’t enter their personal space or you risk negatively modifying their behaviour and causing stress that could ultimately lead to parents abandoning their young. However, they are inquisitive birds and if you sit still for long enough, as they have no fear of humans, they will simply come to you. And they did. And for first and perhaps the only time in my career I used my pride and joy 135mm f/2 prime for photographing birds. Seeing the results on my laptop later, I was amazed by just how well what’s fundamentally a portrait lens performed in such circumstances. You won’t find the manufacturer recommending this lens for penguin photography, but part of the fun is making your own decisions about kit.

penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

A week into my voyage around the Antarctic Peninsular I found myself sick of bloody penguins. Not because I don’t like them – I think they’re tough, gutsy little animals that command the respect of all of us – but because I’d got 2,000 of the buggers in my laptop and I was getting extremely bored with editing, night after night (except it never got dark) what were essentially the same photos. And then it happened. Error message ‘Start-up disc almost full’, which if you are a Mac user (and I suspect that’s nearly all Outdoor Photography readers) is the one error message you don’t want to read. It means your computer has reached its capacity. Warning: your laptop is full of penguins, icebergs, clouds, reflections, mountain range silhouettes… all the ‘nice shots’ my editor had asked for.

Given that no photographer’s computer should ever each this point, something was going seriously wrong. I was, to put it simply, taking too many photographs and not spending enough time considering the lilies. I’d made a basic schoolboy error of being trigger happy, seduced by the beauty of my surroundings into taking so many trivial variations on the theme that I’d become over indulgent.

gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

On the leg home from Buenos Aires to Madrid, I opened for the first time, as I so often do, the guidebook to the place I’d just visited. ‘Leave nothing but footprints’ it intoned with environmental piety, before reminding me to ‘take nothing but photographs.’ Perhaps it should have said: ‘before taking any more photographs, ask yourself if you’ve already met the editor’s brief. Do you really need more?’

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography magazine… without Nick’s photos of penguins

gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Nick Smith interviews the Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science, Chi Onwurah, MP

May 24, 2011

Aiming to make things work better

Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science, MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah, is a passionate advocate for economic regeneration through science, engineering and technology. Interview by Nick Smith

To get into Portcullis House in Westminster you need to pass through the sort of rigorous security procedures similar to those at Heathrow airport. There are metal detectors, luggage scanners and password-protected revolving doors. Someone takes a photograph of you before presenting you with a bar-coded visitor badge. A junior official collects you and will be in your presence for your entire visit. Photography is not permitted and there are armed policemen everywhere. I’m surprised my digital voice recorders make it into the building.

If this all seems a bit intimidating then the Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science quickly puts you at your ease. As Chi Onwurah and I take out seats in Meeting Room ‘O’ she points out that I have two identical DVRs, with a look of mock horror suggesting this might be over-thorough. I reply in the affirmative, explaining that I’m making a contingency for one redundancy failure. She laughs. ‘That’s right,’ she says: ‘you’re from the engineering magazine, aren’t you?’

We’re sitting in one of the most expensive office blocks in London. Home to 210 MPs, Portcullis House is on the north bank of the Thames, literally overshadowed by the Houses of Parliament. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, especially considering that its design included a new interchange for the Jubilee Line beneath it. We have exactly one hour, and given that I want the new Shadow Minister’s views on everything from women engineering to skills shortages, there’s not a moment to lose. But first I want to find out how Chi Onwurah – a remarkable woman of unremarkable origins – became Labour MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, holding one of the key opposition roles in the SET sector.

‘I always was interested in science, although I seem to remember at the age of about five I had a brief interest in becoming an artist and got my mother to buy me some oils that I then never used. But, I’ve really been interested in science all along.’ She pauses as she tries to recall what initially inspired her: ‘no one in my family was a scientist or an engineer and so I had no real exposure to that world. But whatever it was, I’d do scientific experiments in the bath, and my ninth birthday present was a microscope.’

The big question for Chi was how to pursue that interest, whether as a pure scientist or an engineer. As she came to choose her A-levels it became clear to her that what she really wanted to do was ‘make the world a better place, and that for me is what engineers do.’ She was further inspired by the famous words of one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century, Albert Einstein: Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been. The die was cast. For Chi the world of engineering was a land of imaginative opportunity: partly a chance to be ‘involved in the progress of the human race, and partly it was simply an intellectual challenge.’

Chi’s background is hardly conventional for a person holding high office in public life: a black kid from a council estate in Newcastle, and the product of a one-parent family that had very little money. But, undeterred, she forged ahead, and here at the seat of British political power she remembers with pride and affection the reason she was able to become an engineer in the first place: ‘I benefitted from great local schools with great teachers who supported me in my choices.’ She remembers that there was a general assumption at the time – one that she too once believed – that girls couldn’t be good at science. But thanks to her teacher – Mr Dixon – this assumption was overturned. And with that her expectations changed. ‘I became good at maths because I was told that I could.’

This was a defining moment, because for Chi there was no structured careers advice on offer and there was little understanding at her school of what a career in science and engineering might mean. She remembers her work placement in a laboratory, testing sausage rolls for their meat content (‘I think it was 23 per cent’). But that was the closest her school could find to giving her exposure to the scientific environment. Even so, her comprehensive school played its part. A strong-minded female headmistress encouraged the SET subjects, while in Chi’s physics class there were more girls than boys. But her options were limited. In the classroom she was solving simultaneous equations, while in the real world she was finding out that not everyone wants to know how sausages are made.

What followed next was a ‘very bad time’ in the early Eighties reading electrical engineering at Imperial College, a place she describes as a white, male, public school environment. She felt that neither her professors nor her contemporaries were able to interact with women on an intellectual level, which she found ‘unhelpful in terms of encouraging me into the profession. The only women these people seemed to have met were their sisters. I’ve since been told that they were frightened of me.’ At one point she considered diverting her career towards the legal profession that she fleetingly though might be more suited to a black woman from a northern comprehensive. But she persevered with engineering.

The result of which was that in 1987 Chi became an engineer, and in the career that followed she played many roles including hardware and software engineer, as well as product manager. She eventually found herself European Market Development manager for an American company during the Dotcom crash. As with so many others, she found herself out of work for a time, but she managed to reset her career trajectory as a consultant in Nigeria; a country she’d often considered working in, not least because her father was Nigerian. At that time in the Western world there was ‘a lot of disillusionment and cynicism about technology, whereas elsewhere you could see how it was helping development.’

In Nigeria she assisted in the expansion of the telephone network, where the existing fixed line had a penetration of only two per cent. Within a year of Chi’s involvement this figure had risen to ten per cent. ‘We were literally improving communications, and that had an exponential effect on improving the economy and society.’ One of Chi’s proudest moments was when she handed her father the first mobile phone in the city where he lived. ‘I could see the difference we were making to people in the Nigeria and I wanted to bring that sort of change about in the UK.’ Chi returned to the UK in 2004, ‘looking for a job in public service.’

Roles in opposition

Today Chi is a Member of Parliament as well as Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science. She describes the latter position as being two jobs in one: ‘in opposition your role is to hold the government up to account. That’s important because the government is taking decisions that are going to determine our economic future.’ She elaborates, explaining that part of this role is to examine policies in innovation and science, drawing out the implications of proposed cuts in these fields, and to make clear to the electorate what are the implications of these issues. But the second part of her role – ‘which is more positive’ – is to assist in the development of her party’s policies on innovation and science.

This is important too, for several reasons. Central to Chi’s political philosophy is that the route to escaping the economic consequences of the current financial crisis is through growth: ‘you don’t recover from a crisis just by cutting back. You recover by growing. And a huge part of the engine of growth is science and technology, and the new industries that can secure the recovery in a sustainable way’ (see sidebar). Another reason is that there is ‘possibly for the first time in history’ currently a cross-party consensus that the SET sector is a critical part of our future. ‘For decades we have seen ourselves as part of a service economy – an explicit policy during the Thatcher government – and this has become an increasing part of our culture. But now everyone seems to agree that we need to grow our industrial and manufacturing base. And this is a great opportunity for science and technology to take it’s place at the heart of our economic life.’

But isn’t this exactly what great academic and scientific institutions such as the IET have always wanted? ‘Definitely. And it’s something that most engineers and scientists want as well. But my background in engineering and politics probably gives me a unique understanding of how this can be achieved. Engineers and scientists need to stand up for what we do more. We concentrate too much on hard skills – ‘what is the answer to the equation?’ – and we don’t concentrate enough on communicating the importance of what we’re developing. Another aspect of this is to champion the sector in politics and policies generally. But perhaps most important of all is the development of policies that will enable innovation and science to flourish. And that’s complicated.’

Chi goes on to explain that one of the ways of doing this is through the Technology and Innovation Centres, which she feels are not being supported by the coalition government, while RDA-funded centres are closing due to lack of funds. ‘So there are concrete policies we can support – or expose – that are having an impact on our innovation capability. Part of my job is to show that.’

Women in engineering

If science and technology can be seen as one of the components of economic growth, one of the obvious obstacles is the much-discussed skills shortage time bomb. ‘If you look at the IET report that I helped to launch in September 2010, one of the findings is that half of employers don’t think we’re going to have the skills we need for the new economy. So it’s clear that we’re not attracting people into engineering and technology further education. And that’s a huge issue.

Chi says that the responsibility for getting new blood into the sector lies with everyone, from the government through to industry and the institutions. ‘We should be more engaged with young people and schools. I think the image people get of our industry is often formed by the time you’re halfway through primary school. So while communicating with teenagers is important, we need to do more for younger age groups.’ The reason for this is that developing skills ‘is a long-term game, and we need to do more to change and improve our image. But to do this we need to look ahead, five, ten, fifteen years.’

To demonstrate how we’ve failed in this area the Shadow Minister gets out some figures. When she went to Imperial College in 1984 the proportion of women reading electrical engineering in tertiary education was an embarrassing 12 per cent. ‘And now, today, it’s exactly 12 per cent. Nothing’s changed in a quarter of a century. If you factor in that two-thirds of women don’t return to STEM after their maternity leave, we have a profession that is not representative of society.’

For Chi this is a major issue, primarily because we’re unnecessarily and artificially reducing the skills pool by not tapping into women – and ethnic minorities – as a resource. But also she sees the exclusion of women, for whatever reason, from the sector as a barrier to SET taking its place at the centre of our society, and in so doing providing stimulus for economic growth. ‘My experience as an engineer of 23 years is that there are aspects of the scientific and engineering culture that put women off. I have quite often felt excluded by being the only women in a boardroom like this.’

Changing the culture of an industry isn’t an easy task, Chi acknowledges. ‘We’ve been trying to do it for half a century. There isn’t a silver bullet, and any one expecting there to be a situation where in the next few years 50 per cent of all engineers will be women will be disappointed. But I have a sense of urgency about this that many in the profession don’t share. So many in our sector are complacent. We have to go out there and engage with society in a more positive way. We have STEM ambassadors and so on, but we’re not doing enough.’

The clock has wound down and Chi needs to get to her next appointment. But I’m allowed one more question, and so I ask if the plight of women and ethnic minorities would be helped if there were more parliamentarians with an engineering education. ‘There are more lawyers in parliament, or members with PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics] degrees from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, than there are those with a background in science. So it probably would help. But what I’d say to our profession is we need to engage with the public through schools, industry and politics. And we need to emphasise that a career in engineering is a good starting point for other careers. The analytical mindset that training in engineering gives you is incredibly useful in other areas. As an engineer I like to focus on what I can do and change for myself. It’s every single engineer’s job to champion the profession that they are part of.’

I wonder what advice Chi would give to the parents of young children who may not know what a career in engineering may hold for them. For her it’s simple: ‘engineering and science are all about finding out and discovering and making things work well. And that is part of what we want to do as a human race – part of our natural fight for survival. But it can be great fun too, because we’re always answering questions. One of the greatest threats to existence is boredom, and a career in engineering means you’ll never be bored. There’s always a question to answer, and you can always make things work better. The world is not perfect.’

Innovation: The engine of progress

Speaking at the Annual Conference of the Professors and Heads of Electrical Engineering on 12th January 2011 at the IET’s headquarters at Savoy Place, Chi Onwurah highlighted some of the challenges facing the SET sector today. Here are some extracts from her speech.

‘Standing still is not an option. If government and industry can work together to invest in innovation I see a strong future. We need to be more commercially ambitious… But I am concerned at the messages going out to school students now as funding and support are cut… It is absolutely essential that all those involved in the profession shout out loud and clear how important engineering is to our country’s future; particularly to creating the quality jobs of the future and securing a sustainable recovery.

‘Properly regulated industry in a fair society, innovation should be the engine of progress for all. We need new industries if we are to have a balanced economy; one which is resilient to future crises. The financial crisis showed us the consequences of putting too many economic eggs in one basket.

‘I think the answer is around four main themes – a competition environment, infrastructure, skills and finance… Government should be active in ensuring a level playing field. For example, agreeing standards in audio visual encoding, developing a supply chain for wind power or rolling out the next generation broadband…

‘Government has a role in education and therefore helping put in place the skills we need. We need to ensure we provide the skills for the future as well as addressing any current shortfalls. We need more engineers and technologists, scientists and entrepreneurs. We need great engineering education if we are to continue to be world class in the face of increasing competition. ‘

This article first appeared in the Member News magazine of the Institute of Engineering and Technology

Nick Smith’s interview with pinhole photographer Nick Livesey in Outdoor Photography magazine

February 10, 2011

Patagonia through a pinhole

Nick Livesey is best known as an Emmy-nominated maker of short films and documentaries. But he’s also a leading exponent of the art of pinhole photography. Nick Smith hears his story…

nick-livesey-by-nicksmithphoto

Nick Livesey looks up at his pinhole camera. Photo: Nick Smith

A Lancastrian, Nick left school at 16 and went to his local art college in Blackburn. At the age of 19 he was accepted by the Royal College of Art and became on of the youngest ever to graduate with an MA. He moved to New York for a year where he started making moving images, as well as embarking on a career with Ridley Scott Associates that represents him to this day.

Although widely known for his short films, commercials and documentaries, Nick is an avid exponent of the pinhole technique. His camera is ‘a bunch of MDF’ that cost him about £40, put together by a ‘garden shed genius.’ On his extended honeymoon he took this camera around Chile, trekking for days off the beaten track. The result was the intriguing and popular ‘Patagonia through a Pinhole’ exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society.

With pinhole photography ‘you’re at the mercy of the elements’ says Nick. And although he’s equally comfortable with digital technology, there’s something about the stripped-down aspect of using basic wooden boxes with film in them that he likes. ‘It’s such a basic communication and fundamental way of composing images.’

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Nick Livesey: It was more of a quest. I was frustrated and wanted to understand light while I was making films. I was working with Directors of Photography and was really curious as to what they were doing.

NS: What was your first camera?

NL: Nikon FG-20 that I bought at a flea market in New York in 1993. It felt like an investment. It was something like $130. It’s just a great 35mm camera.

NS: What formal training do you have?

NL: I went to the Royal College of Art where I did an MA in graphic design and art direction. I pretty much lived in the dark room when I was there. At the end of the first year they asked me if there was any reason why I wasn’t working in colour. They said ‘why don’t you work in colour in your second year?’ So I did.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

NL: It’s great to specialise to the extent that you can get a handle on the subject. But I do like working in so many different areas. If you specialise too much you can start to wear blinkers.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

NL: I did a pinhole piece for a fashion magazine in Moscow. That really freaked out the fashion label. They kept saying ‘we need to see stuff’ and we kind of said ‘well we’ll send you a contact sheet.’

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

NL: There’s no downside. There are so many plus factors. Maybe it would be nice to not smell of dark room chemicals. So you do have to wash occasionally.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

NL: They complement each other. I’m looking into ways of cutting the front off an Ixus and replacing it with a pinhole. I think it would be interesting to see what you could get with a digital pinhole.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?

NL: Just stand back from it all. Get close to the subject when you’re shooting it, but when you’re arranging a show, learn to stand back from it all. Try to look at everything in its entirety.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

NL: I feel like a conduit. I love taking photographs, but the only point of that is if people want to see them. I’ve always been hungry for creating images. I also love the quiet world of the dark room.

NS: What makes a great travel photograph?

NL: It’s all about the reaction of the person viewing it. If you can see someone’s reaction to your photo in a detached way – say at a show – then you’ll know what they really think.

In Nick’s gadget bag

Cameras: Wooden pinhole camera, Canon 7D, Arri 435 (movie camera), Red and Sony (digital movie cameras)

To see more of Nick Livesey’s photography visit www.nicklivesey.com

 

 

 

Quick sketch of a recent trip to Mozambique

February 8, 2011

Mozambique: a destination with a difference

From the wild untamed bush of the interior to the pristine coral sands of the Indian Ocean, Mozambique is Africa’s next ‘go to’ destination

Sunset in Mozambique by Nick Smith

Sunset over Guludo in Mozambique. Photo: Nick Smith

As the sun sets over Africa’s interior, through my binoculars I can see a small herd of elephant making their stately way to a water hole amongst the acacias. Here at Guludo the sky is aflame with rich apricot orange and salmon pink. Below me, the endless expanse of untamed African bush is abuzz with impending nocturnal activity. Sitting on the crest of this huge escarpment it’s hard to believe that only hours ago I was lounging on a coral island watching a pod of humpback whales, listening to the cry of swift terns circling in the tropical breeze.

Forget Botswana. Forget Zambia. For the intrepid adventurer in search of ‘barefoot luxury’ today’s African destination of choice is Mozambique. For nearly half a century this breathtakingly beautiful country has been a closed book due to its turbulent politics. But today it’s safe to travel here and for the modern pioneer, eager to see a land that’s been in the shadows for so long, now’s the time to get to know the country at its best, before it becomes the next fashionable destination. In so many ways Mozambique is ‘real Africa’, where the thrilling sights and sounds of the bush are waiting for the truly discerning traveller.

With its national parks teeming with wildlife, Portuguese colonial architecture and far-flung luxury beach resorts, this quiet and isolated country is one of the continent’s best-kept secrets. And Guludo – a multi-award winning eco-lodge – is an example of top-end eco-tourism at its best. Here you can chill on the white coral sands, go for a scuba dive or a game drive, play a game of beach volley-ball of take a cultural visit to one of the local villages.

For many though it’s the colonial ruins that give Mozambique its special atmosphere of faded grandeur. Not far from Guludo there’s the exquisite Ilha do Ibo, a remote and tiny speck of a coral island in the Indian Ocean, a former regional capital of the colonial era. Visit the restored fortresses and churches built by the Portuguese, but by far the most intriguing is the ghost town of Ibo itself. Once a bustling centre of colonial administration, the centuries old deserted civic buildings are a photographer’s paradise, as well as home to countless wild flowers, butterflies and geckos.

But Ibo isn’t just about its cultural heritage. Take a boat out onto the ocean and spend a morning on your own desert island, snorkelling in the turquoise lagoons or enjoying an al fresco barbecue breakfast of freshly caught fish from the ocean. But whatever you want from Mozambique – the extraordinary green-barked fever tree, the majestic royal blue goliath heron or the sound of lions roaring in the night – this is a land of real adventure.

For specialist small group travel to Mozambique visit www.steppestravel.co.uk

Nick Smith’s latest book ‘Travels in the World of Books’ was published last May.

 

Nick Smith’s review of ‘The Great Explorers’ by Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Bookdealer magazine)

February 7, 2011

Treading carefully on the frontiers of discovery

Antarctica by Nick Smith, author of Travels in the World of Books
Antarctica, December 2010. Photo: Nick Smith

 

Exploration in the 21st Century is different to how it used to be. For sure there’s still a flourishing band of adventurers ever willing to be the first to do something extremely dangerous in a hostile and remote environment, and the world would be a duller place without them. But with important environmental and cultural issues on the agenda – climate change, the fate of indigenous peoples, and wildlife conservation – our approach to what we now accept as genuine geographical exploration is changing. And importantly, so is our attitude to the great names of the past who made the first steps to push back the frontiers of knowledge. While a century ago we might have celebrated the achievements of those who claimed unknown pockets of territory for Empire, today we’re much more likely to be interested in some of the lesser-known pioneers who penetrated the interiors of far-flung continents in search of scientific data.

Nobody is more aware of the problems modern exploration can throw at you than the great 20th century explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Exploration – a classic published nearly two decades ago – he notes wryly that time and again, ‘the European explorer, as he “discovers” some new land, makes a passing reference to his native guide.’ He goes on to refer to a cartoon in the Geographical magazine that appeared long before I was ever in the editor’s chair, depicting two pith-helmeted explorers who wonder, as they stand at the foot of a huge waterfall with their baggage bearers: ‘You don’t suppose they might have discovered it already, do you?’ Hanbury-Tenison has always been aware that the history of exploration is crashingly Eurocentric – something that today a swelling body of braying academic commentators seem to think they’ve found out for themselves.

But that’s all right, because unlike those of other travellers, the deeds of explorers, Hanbury-Tenison informs us, ‘have a lasting significance which may affect the destiny of mankind.’ Two decades on there are different challenges. Today, even the most respected and accomplished explorers tend not to describe themselves as such. This is because of a semantic shift that, for no reason I can see, has ring-fenced the word, reserving it for use only in the context of historical figures. This is totally barmy, but words change their meanings, and political correctness makes fools of us all. Even the occasionally flamboyantly outspoken Hanbury-Tenison tones it down a bit in his prefatory essay to his authoritative The Great Explorers. The language has changed, but the sentiments remain the same: the pith helmets may have disappeared from his imagery and the vaunting notion of destiny may have been brought under control, but for Hanbury-Tenison explorers are still people who have ‘excelled in their geographical endeavours to an extent that has changed the world.’

His new book profiles forty such individuals in biographical portraits spanning half a millennium, contributed by expert writers in their field. The result is a monumental tome that’s a genuine contribution to modern thinking about the nature of exploration. It could have been a bland reiteration of the received orthodoxy, names that trip so easily off the tongue, but Hanbury-Tenison challenges our assumptions, not so much with what he says – this is a curiously anonymous book for one written by so many heavyweights of the genre – but by what he doesn’t say.

In the field of Polar endeavour alone there are enough absences of old favourites to get the armchair explorer choking on his pemmican. What no Shackleton? No Scott? Instead we have a much more international cast in the shape of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, as well as what are, to the outside world at least, the lesser names of Edward Wilson and Wally Herbert.

This is interesting for two reasons. First: as the veneer of Empire begins to fade Hanbury-Tenison is able to be more objective as to who’s who. It’s no longer traitorous or heretical to say that Scott was pipped to the post by a better explorer, albeit a bloody foreigner. We now know, no matter how much it might hurt our national psyche, that Amundsen was simply a more enlightened and experienced campaigner, more capable of improvising. Second: rather than automatically acknowledging the scalp-hunting exploits of explorers whose ambition was to be first to do something, there’s a strong implication in The Great Explorers that an expeditioner’s greatness ultimately rests in their contribution to our understanding of the world. Shackleton may well have served up the best handful of chapters of derring-do in the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, but did he increase our knowledge of the planet in the way that Wilson – scientist, doctor, naturalist and artist – did? In the section entitled ‘Life on Earth’ we are treated to essays on Alexander von Humboldt, Marianne North, Alfred Russel Wallace and (a favourite of mine) Frank Kingdon-Ward. Given its name, it would be easy to suppose Hanbury-Tenison might have had in mind including David Attenborough. But he didn’t, and quite right too.

The essays themselves are first class and I particularly like the way Hanbury-Tenison has matched up his writers to their subject. So we find that the chapter on Mungo Park was written by Anthony Sattin; that on Livingstone by Claire Pettitt; that on Wilfred Thesiger by Alexander Maitland; that on Gertrude Bell by Justin Marozzi, and so on, where in every pairing the latter is an acknowledged expert on the former. For me this – along with the sumptuous picture editing – is the book’s key strength and what sets it apart from similar enterprises. The Great Explorers simply oozes authority and ease with its subject matter. I did raise my eyebrow slightly on noticing that one of the contributors is also one of the great explorers. In fact, our leading speleologist, Andy Eavis, it seems was commissioned to write the final chapter on Andrew James Eavis. Maybe this isn’t as much of a problem as it first seems: Eavis writes in the first person, and, as there are few specialist authors on caving better than Eavis, it sort of makes logical sense to give the man the job. I’m not saying that this editorial decision creates a flaw in the book, but it does represent to me at least a minor inconsistency.

This quibble aside, The Great Explorers is nigh-on perfect, operating on two distinct levels. First, as a sensible interpretation of the historic record for the non-specialist whose interest lies beyond cannibalism, frostbite and flag-planting. Second, for those aware of how the murky undercurrents of political correctness are distorting the wider picture, it’s good to see Hanbury-Tenison serving up a balanced, if sometimes surprising, cocktail of what our true exploration heritage is in a world where many are frightened to use the word.

The Great Explorers, edited by Robin Hanbury-Tenison is available from Thames & Hudson, £24.95, pp 304 · ISBN 978 0 500 251690

To find out more about Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s books visit www.robinsbooks.co.uk

Nick Smith is a former editor of Geographical magazine. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club in New York and of the Royal Geographical Society. He writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph and his latest book Travels in the World of Books was published last May

Catching up with explorer Mike Horn in Mongolia

February 7, 2011

A glass of champagne in Mongolia

Nick Smith travels to Mongolia as a guest of Mumm Champagne to catch up with explorer Mike Horn. Like you do…

Mike Horn in the Gobi Desert - photo: Nick Smith

Mike Horn reads Nick Smith's 'Travels in the World of Books' in the Gobi Desert. Photo: Nick Smith

 

When Jean-Baptiste Charcot became the first Frenchman to set foot on Antarctica, he celebrated in true style with a bottle of champagne, a newspaper and his trusty pipe. The year was 1904 and the bottle was a gift from his friend Georges Mumm, head of the Champagne house that sponsored the explorer’s Français expedition. The famous toast on the ice shelf lent Charcot’s expedition an air of style and suavity that polar travel previously lacked. Mumm’s distinctive red sash – or ‘cordon rouge’ – was inspired by the insignia of Napoleon’s Légion d’honneur. For Charcot his fine wine of choice symbolised the heroic and pioneering values of his adventures.

A century later the association lives on. In May 2008 one of the world’s greatest living explorers, Mike Horn, set sail from Monaco under the watchful eye of Prince Albert, on the most ambitious journey of discovery undertaken in modern times. The Pangaea project was born, with Mike’s ambition to reunite the seven continents of the world through an expedition that used no motorised transport. Spanning four years, Mike’s journeys were scheduled to take him through the North and South poles, far-flung desert islands and the oceans of the world, as a celebration of ‘the beauty of planet Earth.’

Mike teamed up with Mumm champagne to help spread the environmental message that the Pangaea expedition was to deliver. Ever mindful of the significance of Charcot’s iconic toast in Antarctica, Horn and Mumm prepared to celebrate each successful leg of the trip with an exceptional ‘Explorer Experience’ – a champagne-paired dinner prepared by a Michelin-star chef in the most remote, exquisite and challenging environments they could find.

Mike is now halfway through the Pangaea project. In fact, the ‘Explorer Experience’ in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert was the exact midpoint of the expedition. So far Mike has hosted dinner parties on an ice shelf in Greenland, a sand bar on the Great Barrier Reef and in the frozen Wastes of Antarctica. After Mongolia, he will head for the top of the world when his next gastronomic celebration will be held as close to the geographic North Pole as logistics will allow. This will be followed by expeditions into the Amazonian rainforest and the wilderness of Siberia. His mission is to ‘encourage respect for the environment and actively participate in the preservation of the planet’s natural resources to protect the world for future generations.’

Despite the conviviality and audacious luxury of champagne in the desert, as the dinner progressed, Mike used the beauty of the surroundings to describe his deadly-serious vision of sustainability for the planet. ‘I want to show the world through my explorations that there is so much beauty out there that needs to be protected. We are all explorers today. There is no moral message other than we must take positive action to save the planet. And we must do it today.’

I’ll be posting updates on the progress of the Pangaea expedition… next stop, the North Pole.

For more about:

Mumm Champagne visit www.mumm.com

Mike Horn’s Pangaea expedition www.mikehorn.com

Nick Smith interviews American philanthropist Greg Carr in E&T issue one, 2011

February 7, 2011

Bringing new life to Mozambique

A main player of the voice mail revolution, legendary American CEO Greg Carr amassed a colossal personal fortune. But then he turned his back on the business of technology to become a humanitarian. Interview layout

‘If you want to get anything done here you’ve got to stop thinking like an American CEO’ says Greg Carr, looking out over a small car park where field scientists, engineers and biologists are packing up their Land Rovers in the early morning African sun.

We’re sitting in the bar of Chitengo lodge, drinking iced-tea, while the soft hum of insects and the purple glow of neatly trimmed bougainvillea make this a pleasant place to be. ‘See the swimming pool over there?’ he says pointing through a stand of acacia trees where weaverbirds are busily building their nests. ‘That used to be a prison during the Civil War.’

Carr was one of the most influential American CEOs during the digital technology revolution of the 1980s. And the rewards were substantial as he amassed a colossal personal fortune. But here in the middle of Mozambique – the world’s poorest country – he has no Croesus-like delusions of grandeur, while pioneering telecommunications is a world away. There are no power trips, status symbols or trivial luxury. ‘If you look at the organisation chart, you’ll see I’m not even the boss’ he says, before explaining that what he does now, in partnership with the Government of Mozambique, this is his most rewarding challenge to date.

And it’s made him a national hero. Having once made a living from hacking through the lianas and creepers of the corporate jungle, he’s now dedicated his professional life to restoring a real jungle – Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. His aim is to return to Mozambique its ‘crown jewel’ in pristine condition, and in doing so provide sustainable employment, education and health for local people whose economy has been destroyed by civil war. Understandably, for the village people of this rarely visited country his new career is far more important.

Well known for his championing of humanitarian causes, Carr has signed a deal with the government in a ‘classic public private partnership’ that sees US$40 million of his own money ploughed straight into the project. Both parties hope that in 20 years time the Park will be a self-sufficient business that will put much needed economic activity into the country’s tourism sector with benefits for all. With the project still in its early phases, local people living around the Park have started to benefit from Carr’s corporate acumen. They now have jobs. And Carr has helped provide the local village of Vinho with water pumps, medical facilities and a school. But it’s only the start. ‘We need 750 medical centres’, he says referring to the other villages surrounding the National Park.

Carr is best known in the world of digital communications as one of the protagonists in the emergence of voice mail, a technology that informs so much of our everyday business and social lives that, as with other basics such as email, we never really stop to consider the engineering behind it. But the story goes that, inspired by the breakup of AT&T, he founded Boston Technology, one of the earliest organisations to market voice mail systems to telephone companies. Carr served as the chair of Boston until Comverse Technology bought it out. He went on to become chair of Prodigy, an early global Internet service provider.

These were good breaks for Carr and by 1998 he retired from ‘for-profit’ business an extraordinarily wealthy man and made entrepreneurial philanthropy his full-time job. Today he spends half of his life in Mozambique, and as he describes his new job it’s clear that, while success in the world of digital technology was a major milestone in his career, it’s what comes after financial success that really matters. ‘I’m a human rights guy’ he says just in case you might be thinking he’s still a hotshot CEO. What you really have to do is listen to what the people want. So what did they want? ‘Bicycles’ he says. That was the most important thing for almost everyone. As the employees took home their first wage packets from the restored Chitengo Lodge, most of them invested in a set of wheels. It changed their lives.

In the 1960s Chitengo was a hip hangout for cool and trendy (and very rich) South Africans who wanted to go into the bush to see elephants and lions at close range. Businessmen in their smart new Mercedes-Benzes drove up in, well droves, to visit a National Park that had arguably the densest population of mega fauna – lions, elephants, wildebeest – that Africa had ever seen.

But when the Civil War rolled in, Chitengo became popular for a different reason. Strategically placed on the Beira Corridor that links the Indian Ocean seaboard with Zimbabwe, it was also the only brick-built permanent settlement for miles around. The competing political factions Renamo and Frelimo were fighting one of the bloodiest battles seen in this part of Africa. They both wanted Chitengo as a military stronghold. Before long, or so it seemed, all the animals were dead and Chitengo was just another war-blasted ghost town. Meanwhile the war killed a million humans.

There’s still plenty of evidence of the war today. As Carr and I walk around the lodge he shows me bullet holes in the walls and gates, grenade damage to the water towers, while the path we take to the ferry to the nearest village Vinho threads its way through a cleared minefield. Cleared or not, you don’t stray from the path – just outside the chicken-wire fence enclosing the compound there’s a post close to buildings that were once used for interrogation. It’s riddled with head-height bullet holes.

But the mission the Carr Foundation is not one of a truth and reconciliation committee; rather it is to restore the park to its pre-war glory. The theory is simple: Get the land in shape and the animals will come back. Get the animals back and the tourists will come back too. Tourism brings money and the money, if fed properly into local communities, will bring health, education and employment. Or as Carr says: ‘sustainable economic development.’

For the visitor the most pressing question is that of where the animals have gone. Although there are lions and elephants today they’re present in nothing like their former numbers. ‘There have been two wars – civil conflicts – here in Mozambique in recent times’ says Carr. ‘The first, the War of Independence, didn’t affect the ecosystem that much. Mozambique got its independence from Portugal in 1974. And so the National Park in the late Seventies was in good shape.’ But then followed a civil war between the resistance movement Renamo and the liberation movement Frelimo. ‘That really got going in the Eighties, and there were battles fought here at Chitengo, and it changed hands a couple of times. The camp was shut down to tourism as it was occupied by the militia.’ He tells me of a local ranger working at one of the local who was held prisoner in that swimming pool.

It’s easy to imagine the scenario. Two factions competing for a place where the main military benefits were the occupation of permanent buildings and unlimited bush meat to feed the soldiers. While there’s no doubt Chitengo became a flashpoint because of the protection it gave, the bush meat issue is more complex. ‘The real carnage came at the end of the war’ says Carr. ‘This was when professional hunters saw an opportunity and raced in here with weapons and vehicles. There was a massive slaughter and they wiped out the buffalo and sold the meat. It took us a while to figure that out, because we just thought that the soldiers had eaten the animals. But it was more of an organised commercial activity than that. It’s true that ivory was being taken into South Africa and being traded for guns, but the problem was the commercial hunting.’ Carr says that when he first came to Mozambique he was told there were no elephants in the park. ‘But in fact there were 300 in hiding, and now we think there are 400.’

This was all a far cry from the heyday of the Sixties when, according to Carr ‘this was paradise and tourists were coming from all over the world and people loved it.’ But something else was going on at that time too: with so many tourists coming to Gorongosa, the National Park was also was also the economic engine of Mozambique. ‘I’m a big believer that if you do it right, National Parks can protect nature and create a lot of jobs. Good jobs too, because what does it take to run a national park? It takes a lot of knowledge. So you need scientists, biologists, engineers with certain skills, service industry people and guides.’

But it’s not always been done right. National Parks don’t have a good reputation for protecting human rights. In the bad old days it was like this: phase one, let’s have a National Park, if you’re not an animal please leave. But, says Carr, at Gorongosa ‘we have a rights-based philosophy, and that’s the new way of thinking.’ But not new for Carr, who’s always been more interested in human rights than making money in the business sector. ‘I was a human rights activist before coming here – I created a human rights centre at Harvard University and my philanthropy was based on human rights too. When I came to Mozambique to choose a humanitarian project I thought that restoring Gorongosa was a great opportunity for helping people.’

But when Carr arrived in 2004 post-war Mozambique was a wasteland. He waves his arm around as he surveys Chitengo: ‘everything you see here was rubble. I didn’t even know that there was a swimming pool here for the first year because the grass swamped everything. It was so overgrown it was difficult to find what used to be the flow of human beings here.’ He says that when he took his first game drive around the region he simply didn’t see any animals. ‘Maybe you’d see a warthog. Maybe you’d see a baboon. But you could drive for days and not see any animals. But, it turns out that they were hiding, because all of the human activity that had been going on had been bad news. But animals are smart and they do figure out who’s who.’

Within a few years the wildlife ‘started to calm down as they realised that nobody was shooting at them.’ And part of the success story of Gorongosa is that, as it is an unfenced park, animals can make their way back whenever they want to, while the Park authorities reinvigorate their protection. ‘Today if you’re lucky you’ll see elephants and lions, impala and magnificent birdlife.’ He’s right. I was woken up one night by a female lion roaring outside my tent. Nerve-wracking as this might have been, when I told Carr this, he smiled. ‘They’re coming back.’

And it is this return that means the tourism product will flourish and that the cycle of economic activity will gather its own momentum, requiring less and less stimulus from agencies such as Carr’s philanthropic foundation. But there’s work to do if this is to become a genuinely self-sustaining ecosystem: ‘What we were missing most are bulk grazers – big buffalo, zebra, wildebeest – of which there were thousands and thousands. You need them because they eat a lot of grass. We really need 10,000-20,000 grazers for the proper functioning of the park.’

As Carr leans back it’s hard to see him as a trailblazer in the digital world. But as his story unfolds it becomes clear that the challenges are familiar to him, and the citizenship values that make the wheels of good business turn well are transferrable to life in the bush: ‘I’ve got 20 years to make it work. We’re two-and-a-half in and we’re getting there. I think that the government of Mozambique is open to healthy relationships with international partners. They invited me here and that’s a very critical point – they said to me let’s do something together. I couldn’t turn up in someone’s country and just say here I am. It’s about partnerships. This is a new philosophy in aid and philanthropy. It must be done together. If you look carefully at this organisation chart you’ll see I’m just a member of a committee. I’m not here as a big cheese.’

Case study: Local people made good

According to Greg Carr, roughly 80-90% of the workers hired at Chitengo or otherwise in connection with the Gorongosa National Park are locals, many from the village of Vinho, a few miles away. ‘They get a salary, but what’s important about this is that it might be the first formal salary they’ve ever had in their lives.’

As employees they are trained in a range of park management skills, learn languages and advance their education. But it’s the salaries that really count because this takes hard cash back into their village, where only five years previously the economic model was subsistence farming. ‘I’ve got to tell you’ says Carr ‘that it’s hardly the Champs-Élysées now, but five years ago you never even saw a bicycle. Now one of the first things they do when they get their first pay packet is buy one. They ride their bike to get water or go to the market or get their kids to school. It’s changed everything.’

The bikes have created an entrepreneurial buzz in Vinho. Once there were no markets, but now there’s transport to collect goods and set up shop close to home. The real entrepreneurs set up bike-fixing workshops, and the mechanics wear football shirts and baseball caps. ‘They used to be in rags – now people are starting to dress better.’

‘The other change I’ve seen in Vinho is that the farming has increased and diversified to meet the demands of the sustainable tourism. Also in our 20 year agreement with the government we’re obliged to the communities by Article 8 to build them a school, a health clinic and so on. We also share 20 per cent of the Park gate revenue with them. We talk to them to see what they want – maybe a new roof for the school – we listen.’

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Gorongosa National Park visit http://www.gorongosa.net/

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