Sunday, January 25, 2009


I haven't got much for you at the moment apart from the fact that Bordeaux was struck by storms and extremely high winds over the weekend — and in an unrelated but far more serious incident — our dishwasher broke down.

But rather than regale you with stories of my disrupted life, I'll tell you about a little group I created on Flickr — The Robert Louis Stevenson group. I was looking for photographs related to RLS for a paper I gave a couple of months ago and found a few on everyone's favourite photo-sharing site, Flickr. But they were scattered all over the place, some were tagged with the author's full name, some with just RLS and some with some wild misspellings such as Robert Lewis Stephenson. So I created the group, then started inviting people to contribute their photos and the pool has now grown to include 255 items. It's not a scholarly enterprise of course - the photographs are disparate to say the least. There are lots of quite ordinary images, snapshots really, of places that RLS once lived: Heriot Row in Edinburgh and Vailima in Samoa notably; scanned pages from his books; photographs of monuments to his memory; portraits and statues of his slender figure. But these photographs are often very personal - showing what it's really like to visit the house at Vailima and then slog up the hill in tropical heat to RLS's burial site or what the front door of the house in Heriot Row looks like from the open top of a tour bus. Some of the photographs too have wildly inaccurate descriptions eg. "Robert Louis Stevenson was born in California...." but that's interesting as well. And then there are the contemporary black-and-white photographs, most of which are held in public collections (eg. at the National Library of Scotland), bodies which more and more often are sharing their old photographs on Flickr. Then the worn old books and the often beautiful illustrations inside them, and the lurid covers and intriguing titles of some foreign editions.

Now, to keep the group going, all I have to do is carry out a quick search on Flickr about once a week for any photographs that might be related to Stevenson, then invite the owners to join the group using a handy little drop-down menu that appears automatically under photographs for group administrators, and it's a strangely addictive and satisfying exercise. I'd thoroughly recommend creating a group if there's anything photographic you're particularly interested in: orange sweaters, cracked teapots, characters from your home village, anything goes. I'm thinking of setting up another one devoted just to pictures of piles of unwashed dinner dishes.

Here are the most recent additions to the group pool:

Monday, January 19, 2009

Show me your online lifestream and I will tell you who you are

An obscure French periodical recently published a piece about Marc L*** which to their feigned dismay has been widely picked up by the mainstream media. (They say they are surprised that the media are more interested in Marc than they are in the article they published in the same issue about the fate of twelve million European Rrom).

The author of the article chose some poor guy at random via his Flickr photstream and made him the subject of what he calls a Google portrait. He culled as much information as possible from the photos about what Marc looks like, his string of relationships, his trips for work and for pleasure, what he does at the weekend etc. From there, he followed him to Facebook and made a friend request. Not everyone realises that if somebody makes a friend request on Facebook and you respond to it —which is exactly what the unsuspecting Marc did — the requestor gains access to your profile for the next month. Bingo: the hack could now find out all about his job (just outside Bordeaux as it happens), his nights out, his friends. He even got Marc's address and his mobile phone number and checked it out. Then he looked him up in the archives of the local newpaper and found out about his past life as a guitarist in a punk band.

The point of the article seems to be to show just how much of an ordinary person's biography can be pieced together from the information that person voluntarily offers up on social networking sites and how much more cogent the information given out sparingly here and there becomes when it is all brought together and synthesised. And don't forget this is a guy who is only on Flickr and Facebook - think of how much more could be found out about the rest of us who blog and twitter and and generally sprawl out comfortably across the internets.

The next step is presumably to wonder about what somebody malicious might do with that information. Well, they might write a two page biography of you and publish it in a magazine I suppose, then act surprised when you discover the article and immediately ask for all the names to be changed. "You only have yourself to blame, Marc", the journalist protests at the beginning of the article, "you should have been more careful".

I think I'm relatively careful about the information I bandy about when it's related to other people. You can only see photographs of people's faces on my Flickr photostream if I consider you a friend, I don't usually use real names on this blog and just how harmful can it be for Big Bro to know that I used to watch Blue Peter and what I had for dinner. I do run my mouth off frequently on Twitter though - and I think I might protect my updates there (although Gordon reckons Twitter has jumped the shark, so maybe we'll all be stopping that soon anyway).

Ultimately, it's a choice freely made. We choose to leave traces of who we are here and there but we're not so naïve that we don't realise that if anyone was interested enought to piece it all together they'd get quite a big bit of the picture. But so what? In any case, I'll bet I know an awful lot more about people I only have a passing acquaintance with at work, in my street, at my kids' school, than I do about random people on t'internet.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

This is how old I am

When I watched Blue Peter, the presenters were called John Noakes, Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves.... and Shep was a puppy.

You had to get up out of your chair and fiddle with knobs to change channels.

I remember when getting money out of an ATM felt like engaging in a futuristic act.

Dials on telephones were the norm, buttons were new-fangled.

The first time I ever saw someone using a (gigantic) mobile phone — outside Marks & Spencers in Edinburgh — I did a triple take.

I wrote my MA dissertation on a typewriter.

I spent the first part of my life being driven around in cars with no seatbelts.

I remember when only people who wore Jesus sandals bought yoghurt - and it was all called Ski and came in waxed cardboard cartons.

In my young day, a packet of crips cost two and a half pence

I saw Jungle Book in the cinema when it first came out.

Our method of illegally copying music was to make copies of LPs on cassettes.

Pageboy haircuts were the height of chic when I was at school.

Everything was "magic" - as in "I've got a magic new pair of wedges".

I spent all night listening to Radio Luxembourg under my pillow the night Elvis Presley died.

How old are you?

(Thanks to Belgian Waffle for inspiration)

Thursday, January 08, 2009


While I was unwell and wallowing in lack of appetite, I read Animal, Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It recounts a year that she and her family spent eating only local - growing their own fruit and vegetables, raising their own chickens and turkeys, and shopping at the local farmers' market in southwest Virginia. I'm a great admirer of Kingsolver's fiction and of her essays but this book struck me as overlong and a bit preachy, and, despite the praise on the cover, somewhat lacking in humour.

The problem with books like this I suppose is that they are bought, or given to, people like me — bobos who are already convinced in principle at least of the need to eat locally and in season, within reason, and we end up feeling that we're being ranted at. If I have the choice between tomatoes grown somewhere in SW France and tomatoes from the other end of Morocco, I'll go for the local ones every time. Super/markets in France rarely offer out of season fruit and veg in any case unlike many British supermarkets which seem to stock strawberries, cherries and aparagus from January to December.

What about you? Are you a locavore or do you think you have a RIGHT to those bananas?

Monday, January 05, 2009


Oh dear. the best laid schemes for regular snippets are sometimes nipped in the bud by galloping flu. Never fear, I shall return to snip another day.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year

Not a very original title, I know, but I really do wish you all the very best of new years.

I have a feeling that for me 2009 is going to be the year of the snippet. If I can, I'm going to post some little snippet here most days (I'm hedging my bets and anticipating my inconsistency already. That sentences originally read "I promise that I will post something here every day").

I was also tempted to make a rash resolution about taking some sort of exercise most days too. I started out quite well today with a bit of swimming, fencing, hammer throwing and athletics, some motor racing and a little light trampolining (oh all right, it was all on the new Wii, but that's still quite tiring for a lazy git like me). I'm not going to make any promises on that front but rest assured I'll keep you posted on any massive increase in my fitness level.

Anyway, today's snippet is a photo from last week in Scotland. This is Kirk Loch in Lochmaben at dusk.

We had a lovely Christmas week in Scotland, with lots of eating drinking and making merry, helped along by the fact that Britain is currently a veritable bargain basement for anyone with euros in their pocket. Long may it continue, I say.


Being confined indoors most of the day, just the four of us, is reminding me of the days when my children were wee and most of our weekends ...