Paris Wakes Up

# photography

Last week I went out for two beautiful, cold morning strolls in Paris. They were my first proper excursions with my new camera. On the first day, I left my hotel before sunrise and walked down to the Seine. The city was still quiet, as Parisians start the day late.

A couple walking across an intersection

This camera has a wider lens and a different focusing mechanism. The wider lens creates a challenge with composition. It captures a bigger frame, which means that details are smaller and there are more of them. Instead of photographing a subject, the camera captures a whole scene.

A woman crosses the street at Hôpital Saint-Louis
A woman crosses the street at Hôpital Saint-Louis.

A man unloads flour from a delivery truck
A man unloads flour from a delivery truck.

Firefighters on a morning run
The Paris pompiers (firefighters) take their morning run.

A cyclist rides down the quay of the Seine
A cyclist rides along the Seine.

An old man crossing a bridge in front of Notre Dame
An man crosses the Seine at Pont Marie.

A woman standing in an intersection.
A woman pauses to decide which direction to go.

A couple sitting on a bench
A young couple takes an early smoke break on the canal.

A man standing on a bridge over the canal
A man stops while crossing a footbridge over the canal.

By ten o’clock, the city is alive as everyone has finally left for work — including me. I put my camera away and make my way to the office.

New Olympus Trip 35

# photography

Christmas came early this year. Literally. Claire and I exchanged gifts at home in Glasgow before flying to Canada for the holidays, and I got a new camera.

This is the camera I’ve been using for the past year, the Revue SC-3:

A 35mm SLR camera sitting on a table

Technically, it belongs to Claire. She bought it at Mauerpark Flea Market in Berlin. It was cheap, and it’s fantastic.

This is the camera that Claire gave me for Christmas, an Olympus Trip 35:

A 35mm compact camera sitting on a table

This is a beautiful, small, well-built camera. It’s a compact camera, meaning it doesn’t have all of the settings of the first camera.

The camera automatically sets the shutter speed and aperture. Amazingly, it doesn’t need a battery to do so. It uses something called a “selenium cell,” which is still powering the auto exposure after many decades. The camera will also block you from taking a picture if the light is too low. You manage your focus with generic settings (portrait, two people, group shot, infinite).

This is not a precision instrument. It’s small, light, and effective. It’s really meant for street and travel photography, hence the name “Trip.”

I love the idea of a camera that I can throw in my backpack or my pocket to go out for some street shooting. I also really like that it’s less obtrusive than a clunky SLR, which makes it better for street photography.

I had a roll of film in the Revue. I took the above photo of the Olympus with the Revue, then transferred the film to the Olympus and took of a photo of the Revue. You can see some differences between the two.

With the Revue, I overexposed the photo to compensate for back-lighting, and I used a low depth of field to keep the focus on the camera.

With the Revue, I didn’t have that control. Due to the backlighting, the camera was a little underexposed. And, because I couldn’t control the aperture, the background is less blurry.

However, it’s still a great picture and the focus is quite sharp. Due to the latitude of my film, it’s no trouble to boost the exposure in editing to bring out more detail on the dark camera body.

Afterwards, I had a few shots left in the roll, so I finished them off on a walk around the neighborhood.

A woman standing in front of an empty yard

I was most worried about the focus, but most of my pictures came out sharp. This is in part because the camera defaults to a narrow aperture, making it ideal for outdoor photography, when you have lots of light and want a wide depth of field.

A man walking past a building

The nondescript camera definitely made it easier to photograph passersby. Most people didn’t seem to notice me.

A woman walking past some storefronts

The camera also has a 40mm lens, which captures a wider field of view than the 50mm I’ve been using with the Revue. This creates a challenge, because you can get more action in your shot, but you need to be more careful to avoid cluttering your composition.

A woman walking past an empty storefront

But a wider angle also means you get more environment, like these broad shopfronts.

Glasgow Frost

# photography

On Monday last week, a thick fog bank rolled in off the ocean just as the temperature snapped below zero. Ice immediately covered the streets, and frost clung to everything else.

The following morning I went out for a magic walk through a winter wonderland.

A woman standing in a frost-covered park

No snow had fallen, but a dusty white frost covered everything. The fog lingered for a couple of days, creating an ethereal mist.

Claire and I had gone to see The Snow Queen at the Royal Theatre Glasgow the Saturday prior, and that’s exactly how Glasgow felt — like an enchanted ice palace.

Bushes in the park covered in frost

A leafy plant coated in ice crystals

Everywhere, invisible cobwebs picked up frost crystals, turning into heavy strands of icy yarn.

A plant covered in frozen spiderwebs

A signpost covered in frozen spiderwebs

A fence covered in frozen spiderwebs

Queens Park is so-named because it is the battlefield where Mary, Queen of Scotland and pretender to the throne of England, fought her final battle against the soldiers of Elizabeth I. She was captured and spent the rest of her life in English prisons.

A sign on a fence, which reads 'The Battle of Langside was fought on this ground on 13th May 1568 between the forces of Mary Queen of Scots and the Regent Moray and marked the queen's final defeat in Scotland.'

I had never stopped to read this plaque before, but I really loved the look of it all decorated with frosty spiderwebs.

Links for December 9, 2022

# reading

I recorded a SvelteKit 1.0 tutorial

Svelte (the fastest-growing web development framework) has finally released their long-awaited back-end framework, SvelteKit. I’m currently building a personal project with SvelteKit, and I love it.

What is an essay anymore?

Here’s a harsh truth: today you can an original generate a college-level essay on any common subject. For free. Instantly.

Will you get an A? No. But we have to face the question: what is the point of an essay in the era of information overload? For time immemorial, teachers and professors have asked students to analyze the themes in 1984. If you ever found yourself writing one of those essays and wondering, What’s the point?, AI is finally forcing the question. As one PhD researcher tweeted:

Why would students want to use essay generation? Because the university is not seen as a place to engage with ideas but has been made into a job factory.

In an essay in The Atlantic, former professor Stephen Marche writes:

I figure it will take 10 years for academia to face this new reality: two years for the students to figure out the tech, three more years for the professors to recognize that students are using the tech, and then five years for university administrators to decide what, if anything, to do about it.

How to do crime good, according to OpenAI

Because apparently I’m obsessed with AI this week: apparently you can bypass GPT’s safety feature with a special encoding, to get back any illicit information, including how to hotwire a car or make meth.

Until I saw this tweet, I hadn’t thought about the intensive censorship that must go into training a model like this; not just for political correctness, but for all sorts of problematic information.

The actors recall Best in Show

Best in Show is one of my favorite movies, and this oral history just helps me appreciate why. In short, there are actually very few jokes in the movie. And the jokes that are there aren’t the funniest moments. The funniest moments are completely deadpan — because the real joke is life itself.

Inflation is corporate profiteering

This is one of those things we already know. But this report in the Calgary Herald explains how corporate profiteering is the main driver of inflation.

Enrollment at Nova Scotia schools is rising for the first time in half a century

The tide is turning on Nova Scotian outmigration.

Around the world, swear words tend to sound like swear words

A study from researchers at the University of London finds that swear words in all languages tend to have fewer “y”, “r”, “l”, and “w” sounds. Furthermore, in most languages you can make a swear word sound less sweary by adding these sounds — think “frig,” “beyotch”, or “darn.”

Let’s talk about advertising pollution

I hate advertising. On billboards. On buses. On packaging. In grocery-store aisles. On news websites. It’s like a gauze that consumes everything.

I often fantasize about a world without advertising, so I was happy to read this article about one person’s experience traveling between the more-subdued marketingsphere of Montreal and the rest of the world.

This graphic explains The Dress

And now it feels a lot less disturbing.

Dry Docks and Wetlands

# photography

On Tuesday, I took a detour on my lunch break. While biking from Glasgow’s Southside to the West End, I stopped at the derelict Govan Graving Docks.

The dry docks were constructed from hand-carved granite over thirty years, up to 1898. A graving dock is historically used for scraping, cleaning, painting, and tarring the hull of a ship, but these ones were built for ambitious repairs on the largest ships in the world.

A dry dock filled with water

The docks closed in 1988. Even after thirty years of abandonment, the granite basins stand strong. Today, they’re open as a sort of ad-hoc city park. There’s no signage for them, just an entryway through a metal fence behind some warehouses. The cobblestone quays are completely overgrown with weeds, bushes, and trees. In some places, it’s full forest.

A city skyline beyond an overgrown pier

Walking through the bushes, you feel like you’re wandering in a wetland, before you emerge and see the Glasgow skyline directly ahead.

A fence barricading an overgrown pier

There are a few barricades fencing off areas that are presumably dangerous, but even in the open areas I watched my footing. There were holes in the ground, slippery ledges into the river, unsteady wooden bridges, and broken guardrails.

A toppled guardrail on a wooden footbridge

It all feels a touch overwhelming. Men here created a monument, and nature has built another on top. Forests on the piers. Wetlands in the dry docks.

A sapling in the sun on an overgrown dock

One building remains on the site: the old pump house. Fences lazily protect it, but there’s a wide opening where a gate used to stand. Whoever maintains this place seems to think that upkeep is futile.

The pump house is an impressive stone building that no longer has a roof, windows, or doors. Between the tall stone walls with huge empty windows, it feels like a roman ruin.

Posters with abstract art hanging in an abandoned building

Inside the pump house, I discovered a treasure: a guerrilla art installation. An anonymous artist had strung up abstract calligraphies between the walls in the main hall. Despite Glasgow’s incessant rain, the papers were crisp and dry in the open air. The artist has just installed them within the last day.

I stood and stared for a long time, absorbing the feeling that I was in a temple. The impenetrable posters felt like hanging prayers — like a secret in a secret place. Who hung these? Who for?

Two swans sitting on a floating dock

Two swans flying over the River Clyde

After a while, I wandered out, passing some community garden plots and a pile of burnt garbage. In the river, two swans rested on a floating dock, heads tucked under their wings. They peaked up for a moment as two more swans flew overhead, traveling west from the city center toward the ocean.

A sign that says 'The Govan Wetlands' painted on scrapwood

Leaving, I paused to look at the sign at the entrance — hand-painted on scrap wood — announcing the Govan Wetlands. The sign stands in lieu of any official signage that might otherwise welcome visitors to a city park, a historic monument, or a future development site. For now, at least, the place has been reclaimed.

The Artifice

# writing

A new “artificial intelligence” tool called “Lensa” burst into social media this week. For $7.99, Lensa will upload a handful of photos of a person and output a collection of stylized avatars. Social media flooded with users sharing their new pop-art profile pictures, making them look like characters in comic books or movie posters. Critics quickly followed, attacking the software that powers Lensa.

“Artificial” comes from the latin ars, meaning art or skilled work — what we might call “craft” today. Artifex means craftsperson. Artificium means skilled work; the adjective form is artificialis, as in artificial. Ars comes full circle in the phrase “artificial intelligence art”: crafting intelligence that itself can craft.

But I use scare quotes around “artificial intelligence,” because AI is a buzzword, not a real thing. When people say “AI,” usually they’re referring to a computing practice more accurately called “machine learning.” Machine learning is a type of computer program that self-corrects based on parameters defined by human engineers, which they commonly call “learning.”

But machine learning never actually learns, because its metrics of success and calibration are always defined by human engineers. To demonstrate this, look at the mistakes that come through in machine learning models like the one that powers Lensa.

Women who use Lensa report that it outputs highly sexualized and even nude images. Women who input only headshots will get back full-body shots with huge breasts and a skinny waist. Some women find that they get more accurate and less sexual images by setting their gender to “male.” Asian users say that the app makes them look more stereotypically Asian.

The old-school definition of AI is a technology that can think for itself. Obviously, Lensa has no power to think. It consistently makes the same absurd mistakes. These aren’t thoughts: they’re the recycled work of the immature white men behind the curtain.

Our definition of AI has shifted over time, largely due to its over-use. Like the word “literal” coming to mean “figurative,” the phrase “artificial intelligence” has come to mean “pretend intelligence.” AI today is technology that mimics human intelligence, which — compared to the promise of technology that can actually think for itself — is a much lower bar.

Is a barometer, which can tell whether or not its raining, an AI? Is a nine-digit calculator?

That’s a pedantic argument, but there’s a real point: we use words like “learning” and “intelligence” to humanize technology. But at its core, most machine learning programming is proprietary software that generates value through cost-cutting by replacing human labor.

When we talk about AI art, we often fall into the trap of whether a computer can produce art. Are the Lensa portraits art? That question misses the point. The rarified ideal of “art” as separate from (and higher than) craft is a relatively new idea — and a strange one.

Art is labor. The creation of art demands skill, time, and effort. And, while some art may seem to transcend the artist, most art is the product of mundane and repetitive work — photo portraits, upholstery patterns, birthday cards, social media avatars. And, work that is mundane and repetitive can be automated.

Computers automate repetitive tasks — even nuanced tasks like painting a portrait. Does that mean that the computer is intelligent or artful? No. A computer has no “artificial intelligence” just like a cotton gin has no “artificial skill.” This isn’t skill or intelligence — it’s a machine that has been designed to mimic the skilled work of humans.

What makes humans different is that we can think for ourselves. And human artists spend thousands of hours studying artwork from around the world to develop their skill and style.

Maybe this is what Lensa has automated: the free and open tradition of artistic inspiration. After all, the greatest outrage over Lensa is how the company trains its model on billions of source artworks — many copyrighted, none credited. The company has sucked up the collective knowledge of mankind (with an apparent over-representation of white male fantasy comic book artwork) in an attempt to establish a sort of ownership.

Lensa claims to bring art to the masses. In truth, they’re taking art from the masses. They offer nothing new or superior in the world of pop-art portraiture. Instead, they compete by undercutting the human craftspeople who make their livelihood as portrait artists — turning the production of art into a factory process.

It reminds me of the textile artisans who lost their livelihoods through the 18th and 19th centuries as new technologies arose to produce bolts of cotton cloth by the mile. The factories turned cloth into a cheap consumer good. Undercut by industry, the artisans lost the market for their goods, lost their livelihood, and lost their traditional craft. They protested in the streets, but the police and government responded with gunfire. Across Europe, rebellions failed and textile craft disappeared.

Though Lensa hasn’t created a thinking machine, I think they have created something new. They might be the first company to sell “artificial intelligence” as a cheap consumer good. The consumers pays $7.99 in exchange for a few seconds of processing time on the Lensa servers, cutting out the millions of artists whose work built the software. Like the weavers centuries ago, artists today will lose the market for their intelligence, undercut by a pretend intelligence.

So, no, Lensa does not sell art, and they don’t sell artificial intelligence. But they still sell ars in one sense — that of the artifice: a clever or cunning device used to trick others. You might think you’re buying a computer’s original thoughts. In fact, you’re just cutting the artist out of the art. Call it the art of deception.

Links for December 2, 2022

# reading

People are obsessed with Spotify Wrapped

Spotify Wrapped is an annual visualization of each Spotify user’s individual listening habits. It’s an amusing vignette of your music for the year. And apparently for some people it’s make-or-break.

See Glasgow dressed as mid-century New York in the new Indiana Jones trailer

In the springtime, Claire and I walked around downtown Glasgow when it was done up as a nostalgic American parade route. It’s fun to see the result in the new trailer for the movie.

New music from The Brood

This is the band of my highschool best friend. He was obsessed with bass when we were in highschool. It was probably the first time in my life that I saw someone really committed to something.

The Millennial Pause

When Millennials record a video, there’s a moment where we stare blankly at the camera, waiting for the recording to start. Apparently. According to some Gen-Zedders (who are well-accustomed to the whiplash editing of TikTok, where the subject is often already talking when the video starts) this is the “Millennial Pause.”

Can absolute silence drive you insane?

NYT investigates.


Made me laugh.


# photography

On Sunday, I confronted one of my greatest fears: photographing strangers.

A woman in a leather jacket

The winter sunlight in Glasgow creates a permanent sunset feeling. It was midday, but the faint sunlight painted everything gold. I took the subway to the beautiful West End.

I planned to walk up Great Western Road — a straight line from one subway stop to another. Great Western Road is on top of a hill, so it gets good light. I would stay on the north side of the street, where the light would be stronger. As I walked up the street, I would stop oncoming pedestrians and ask to take their photos.

A couple standing on the sidewalk

The first photo was terrifying. “Excuse me, I’m a member of a camera club, and I’m learning street photography. Could I take your picture?” They were tickled and they obliged me. I forgot to set my exposure, and my framing was off. But I got a photo.

A man standing on the sidewalk

Right away, I felt more comfortable, and I started asking almost every person I passed. The first four or five people were all completely friendly. As I shot, I started getting a handle on the basics.

Two man standing on the sidewalk

Most people were quite business-like. As soon as I took a photo, they nodded and kept walking, leaving no room for re-shoots or chit-chat.

Eventually, I encountered a few people who said, No, but most people said Yes. A few said Thank you.

A man standing on the sidewalk in a soccer uniform, holding a soccer ball, looking at the camera

Most people didn’t pose much. This man barely stopped as I asked the question. When he realized what I wanted, he stopped, stood tall, and looked straight at the camera. Then he immediately kept walking.

A man with white hair standing in the street

This is one of my favorite photos from the day. This man seemed resigned when I asked. He made no attempt to pose, and casually looked around as I framed my photo. I waited for his gaze to fall into the distance.

A young woman standing in front of a greenhouse

This is Camila. For almost every photo, I stuck to my quick speech, Excuse me. Hi there. I’m a member of a camera club… When Camila walked past, I tried something more concise.

Can I take your picture?

Uh, what for?

Oh, sorry! I’m a member of a camera club…

I explained my project to Camila, and she asked some questions about it. It was one of the only actual conversations I had among twenty interactions with strangers.

The exchange confirmed my theory: people need to know why you’re taking the picture. Most people didn’t even seem to absorb my explanation, but the fact that I had one sufficed.

A couple standing in a park

This couple was really friendly, and they were the only ones who asked for my Instagram handle.

A man in a wool coat standing on the street

Great Western Road runs from the art school to the university. I figured that people in the university area would be a little more laid-back than the rest of the city. On my way home, I decided to keep photographing people in my own neighborhood. I was really happy to discover that people were just as welcoming.

An old couple standing in a doorway

This couple gave me my favorite couple of the day. They were very kind and encouraging.

A young man standing on a footbridge

I shot almost a full roll of film on strangers, and at the end of the day I felt great.

Traveling, I meet lots of new people. I also spend a lot of time feeling isolated. When each of these people let me photograph them, they gave me their trust. That feels like an uncommon and wonderful thing between strangers.

Overall, this was really challenging. Even after approaching a stranger on the street with an odd request, you still need to consider framing, exposure, facial expression, converging lines, your position relative to the subject, and the subject’s position relative to their surroundings. I made a lot of mistakes. But I learned a lot too.

Links for November 25, 2022

# reading

Municipality released their new album

My good friends Will and Peter just released their latest album, and it’s great. Check it out on Spotify.

Turkeys terrorize Massachusetts town

“Some days it is frustrating. I’ll be like: ‘Oh my God, there’s an Amazon package’ and I can’t go get it, because the turkeys are there.

Happy thxgiving.

Peppa Pig ‘spiders can’t hurt you’ episode pulled off air in Australia – again

This article is from 2017, but the headline is timeless.

I try to make an infinity pool of soup

And almost succeed.

An interactive guide to Flexbox

On Tuesday I was Googling “flexbox cheat sheet” for the thousandth time. On Thursday I read Josh Comeau’s excellent flexbox explainer. I might not need to use the cheat sheet as often anymore.

Courtney Barnett covers “Everything is Free”

Have you ever heard a cover and thought it was the original? And then heard the original and thought it was a cover? Like when I was a kid and I thought “Big Yellow Taxi” was by Counting Crows, because that was the version I heard on the radio all the time.

Well, until this week I thought “Everything is Free” was by Sylvan Esso, and that Gillian Welch had done a folksy cover. Then I was listening to a playlist of music from the aughts, and the Gillian Welch version came on, which prompted me to search the song and realize that not only is Welch’s the original — a Napster lament — but the song is now enjoying a renaissance in myriad cover versions, now repurposed as a Spotify lament.

I can get a tip jar
Gas up the car
And try and make a little change
Down at the bar
Or I can get a straight job
I done it before
Never minded working hard
It’s who I’m working for

Workers’ complaints never lose relevance. The Courtney Barnett version might be my favorite.

Paris Light

# photography# travel

Paige jumping off a diving board, surrounded by my siblings

I don’t know where my family got the travel bug. There are six kids. Four of us have lived in France (separately), and all of us love to travel.

I think we were partly inspired by our parents. Both of them had formative experiences traveling in Europe. Mom did an exchange to a small town in Germany. Dad did the grape harvest in the south of France, then bummed around the Netherlands. Our family never had much money, but both of my parents saw value in travel, so they encouraged us on our own adventures.

Our oldest sibling, Paige, was the first to go abroad. She went on a trip to London as a teenager. I was in elementary school, and she brought back British candy that made England seem like a magical place.

When she graduated from high school, Paige went to Paris as an au pair. This time she returned not with candy, but with photos.

Photography was part of my upbringing. My mom was deft with her film camera, and she passed the practice to my sister, who started taking beautiful pictures as a teenager. Mom stuffed the bookshelf with albums of family photos. For a family that went through multiple fractures, those albums were one of the things that maintained our sense of wholeness.

Paige’s photos from Paris pushed the envelope. She took black-and-white pictures of people and places that were both artful and playful. She had an exhibition at the Khyber Art Gallery in Halifax of a series of photos of a clown on stilts. I remember that the photos used dramatic angles to make the clown look larger than life.

My family had a running debate about digital versus film. I used digital cameras as a teenager. But for Christmas when I was eighteen, my mom gave me an old film camera — an Olympus OM-1 with a 35-70mm zoom lens: a great kit for street photography.

A train bed filled with snow

The first photos I took were simple observations of my world: objects, cityscapes, friends.

A piece of plastic wrapped around a highway guardrail

Two months later, I left on my first trip. I’m the second oldest child, and I was the second to leave home. I went to Africa for six months and brought my new film camera.

Traveling alone in Africa was profound and also boring. I had the greatest adventures of my life, made wonderful friends, and discovered amazing places. But I was also a confused, tentative eighteen-year-old, far away from home without much money and with little to do. I would go outside and just walk around the block for fear of getting lost. So I took pictures.

A child running down an alleyway in Zanzibar

In 2008, you could still buy film and get it processed almost anywhere. I took hundreds of photos. I learned to photograph strangers. Five months into my trip, my light meter died, and I learned to guess my exposure.

a man on a boat in lake victoria

a child on a bus

Later that year, my 14-year-old brother, Allister, took his first trip: he came with my sister to meet me in Germany at the end of my Africa trip. We backpacked in Europe for a month. Allister had my digital camera, and my sister and I both had Olympus OMs.

me and Allister

We all traded cameras, taking pictures of each other and of fun things in the street.

Allister and Paige on swings

This photo is from a park in Berlin, near our hostel.

Ten years later, when my wife Claire and I moved to Berlin, we ended up in an apartment around the corner. I walked past this swing set all of the time.

Claire also grew up around photography, and so it has always been something we’ve shared through our whole relationship.

But, for a long time, I largely stopped taking pictures. I got busy with school, and then work. Last year, Claire encouraged me to get back to it. She told her dad to get me some film for Christmas, and I started taking pictures again.

A 'No fouling' street sign with a sticker that says 'Vote Enya' on it

As always, I was drawn to photograph funny things in the street. And sometimes those photos are great. But often they feel a little empty. I realized that a human makes a photo more interesting, so I started thinking about how to take pictures of people. I picked up a book on photography, I joined my local camera club, and I practiced.

In Glasgow, I still feel uncomfortable taking pictures in the street. People seem very suspect of the camera. But in Paris, it’s fine. They ignore the camera. So, each time I go to Paris for work, I go out for photo walks.

My sister has always had an uncanny ability to disappear behind the camera. She makes her subject feel comfortable, and gets spontaneous photos. In contrast, I always feel stiff and awkward, like I stick out. For me, taking pictures of strangers is a practice in balancing humility (be unimposing) and bravery (be bold).

A man arranging plants on the sidewalk

Here’s what I’ve tried:

I wear nondescript clothes, including a baseball hat. When I find a scene I like, I stand out of the way and set up my shot. I appear relaxed and stay relatively still, with my camera ready in front of my face. When a person comes into the frame, I casually raise the camera to my eye (if it’s not already there) and take the picture.

Bikes crossing an intersection

At this intersection, I noticed that the bike lane switched sides, so the bikers had to come diagonally across the intersection, creating diagonal movement across the scene. I stood behind a car on the edge of the intersection, positioned my camera, and waited for some cyclists to come through the frame.

A woman walking along the canal

Back in 2008, Paige, Allister, and I stayed in a loft apartment on the Canal St. Martin.

When Claire and I moved to Paris in March 2020, we wound up in an apartment at the other end of the canal. So during lockdown, that’s where we took our walks — up and down the landmark that welcomed me to Paris many years prior.

On one of my photo walks this past September, I walked down the canal. I noticed how nice the pedestrians looked as they walked through the light, next to the calm water. So I stopped with my camera, and waited for a the next approaching pedestrian to come through the patch of light.

I like taking pictures because they freeze these special places in time. But, on reflection, I recognize that it’s not the place that’s special — people make it so. Like in the photo of the swing set, and the canal: they move me because they connect me to people I love.

I think that’s what photography is. Each photograph reminds me of people: mom and her kids on vacation; my sister’s black and white pictures in Paris; my wife giving me tips for shooting portraits; and all of these anonymous passers-by, living their own lives. Each photo tells a story — about the photographer and the photographed. These photos make me feel connected, like those family albums. They foster a sense of wholeness.

Paris Shadows

# photography

a man walking on the sidewalk

Black and white photography searches for shapes. Colors appear grey, so texture only comes from contrast. Paris offers a lot of contrast.

long, soft shadows on a paris sidewalk

One morning in September, I went out for a walk with my camera before work. The morning light poured out of the side streets, casting dramatic shadows across the ground.

a man running on the sidewalk

I stopped for a while at the intersection of Rue de la Fontaine au Roi and Boulevard Jules Ferry. I like irregular intersections, because they create great scenes. Here, three streets converge at strange angles, creating a wide-open sidewalk, which on this morning was full of busy Parisians on headed to work.

I love the shot above, with the young man sprinting toward the camera, outlined by sunlight, briefcase in hand.

a squad of firefighters jogging in the streets

As I was ready to keep walking, a squad of firefighters came around the corner on their morning jog, heading directly into the sunlight, and I snapped this chaotic shot. I wish it was cleaner, but somehow I feel like it works: the trees framing the firefighters; the out-of-focus woman’s light face against the dark buildings; the light completely washing out the end of the street, like a portal to heaven. It feels like a little slice of life.

the shadow of a traffic light on a wall

I spent a while trying to capture a person walking past this funny shadow on the wall. In the end, I decided my first shot, devoid of people, was my favorite. The traffic light is talking to the tree.

a man walking in the street

This photo has two problems. It’s out of focus. And, I snapped about a half a second early — I wanted the man in the middle of the frame. But every time I scroll past it, it stops me. I think it’s the movement: left–right light–dark; the man walking with a heavy head, heavy bag, and maybe a heavy heart; the old, battered door weighing the photo down, tilting it to the left. It feels like a long march home.

Parable of the Sower

# reading

Yesterday I went out for coffee and finished Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Butler wrote an oddly optimistic-yet-harrowing dystopian novel, which describes an America in decline — riddled with crime, corruption, drought, famine, and slavery. Butler tells the story of a teenage girl who watches an already-broken society fall further into chaos. The main character, Lauren, figures out how to survive in the new world while also creating a philosophy that articulates why to survive, a collection of original scripture called Earthseed.

My friend recommended Butler to me a few years ago, and — as a compulsive non-fiction reader — I was thankful for a good fiction recommendation. A few months ago I walked into a recently reopened queer bookshop in my neighborhood, and I found the Butler in the sci-fi section.

Butler was a Black feminist lesbian, one of the most influential sci-fi writers of the 20th century, and a MacArthur “genius grant” fellow. She died of a stroke in 2006 at the age of 58. Parable of the Sower was written in 1993, but it feels like it could have been written last year. The book’s narrative starts in June 2024.

Parable of the Sower never had me completely transfixed as a gripping page-turner does, but I enjoyed reading it all the way through. I found the dialog a little clunky. The narrative felt very linear, with no unexpected twists and no grand climax; though, I think that’s a deliberate style, as it conveys the plodding quality of a long march and a steady social decline: a whimper, not a bang.

The book bears comparing to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which was published thirteen years later. I imagine that McCarthy must have read and admired Parable of the Sower. Like Butler, McCarthy’s dystopia was a story of family traveling by foot down a long highway in a post-collapse America. Both books have harrowing scenes of cannibalism. And both books explore the themes of grief, helplessness, and hope. McCarthy’s writing is much more spare, while Butler’s writing is more socially relevant. While McCarthy’s book reads like a horror story, Butler’s reads like political observation.

And Parable of the Sower feels very real. This story from 1993 described refugees seeking safe harbor and instead falling into the trap of slavery. Here in 2022, the world is getting ready to watch a World Cup built with migrant slave labor. And I think that’s the point. Dystopian fiction processes our current reality. Orwell’s 1984 was not a warning about the future. It was a satire about the British power politics of the day.

Good dystopian fiction is a powerful reminder: when we talk about the end of the world, we’re not actually referencing annihilation. We’re talking about the end of the world as we — we the Western liberal class — understand it. An end which is always already underway. We know this because modernity has already brought an end to many worlds: the Indigenous worlds of Oceania and the Americas, the Jewish worlds of Europe, the imperial worlds of Africa. As Indigenous journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, “To be Indigenous to North America is to be part of a postapocalyptic community and experience.”

Next on my list of dystopian fiction to read: Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents; Moon of the Crusted Snow, an indigenous perspective on dystopia by Canadian journalist Waubgeshig Rice; and Disnaeland, about the experience of the apocalypse in a poor Scottish town.

The Collapse of Twitter

# writing

Twitter has a governance problem.

I think a lot of people mocking and criticizing Elon Musk’s product decisions at Twitter. I have no idea if they’re right. But I think the product decisions are the smallest problem right now. Twitter has always had product problems. Virtually no one will leave because of a bad interface, useless features, poor performance, or bugs. Musk might ruin the product. But, he’ll also slash costs. And Twitter will likely totter along.

But this month it’s become obvious that there’s a problem on the platform. If it’s not Musk’s disastrous management decisions, then what is it?

People feel alienated. We humans crave control over our surroundings, and Twitter is an important part of our world. From essential emergency alerts to intimate personal diaries. For the millions of people who use it, it’s a part of their lives.

And of the millions of participants in Twitter’s influencer meritocracy, one user has now broken the rules and taken control of the whole platform. You can’t mute Elon Musk anymore — he’s in the woodwork.

And, now, as Musk bullies and offends millions of his users, those users are waking up to the fact that they have no power in this relationship — their relationship to the world. They’re panicked, and they’re angry, because they have no agency.

There are some user- and worker-governed social media platforms, like Cohost and Mastodon. I don’t know if they’ll get big adoption (I doubt it). But, if they succeed, I think it will be because they make their users feel like they’re in control.


# reading

We just started reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers at my office book club. In the first two chapters, Gladwell says the book is about the concept of success. I think the thesis is that conditions predict success more than ones’ individial determination does. So far, it’s compelling.

In my feature writing class at King’s Journalism, we read Gladwell’s essay on ketchup. It was really fantastic, and it has always stuck with me. At the same time, I’m sceptical of Gladwell’s pop philosophy and his weird political views. On the whole, I had written off Gladwell, but after 30 pages of reading, I’m reminded that he is a very engaging writer, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

A Trip to the Isle of Mull

# travel# photography

Last week, Claire and I took a trip to the Isle of Mull with our friend, Nelly. I met Nelly at my web development bootcamp in France. We both launched our web development careers at the same time in Paris, and Nelly and Claire became good friends while we lived there. Claire and I were thrilled for Nelly to visit Glasgow — and at the perfect time of year.

A cloudy, autumnal tree-covered landscape reflecting in the still waters of Loch Lomond

Mull is an island off the west coast of Scotland. Shortly after leaving Glasgow, we made an impromptu stop on the side of the road to take in the breathtaking site of Loch Lomond, shrowded in mist, covered in fall colors, reflected in the perfectly still water of the loch.

The dramatic landscape of Glencoe

After leaving Loch Lomond, we drove through one of Scotland’s most famous landscapes: Glencoe. We stopped at the lookout at the top of the glen, where I got this photo. The landscape feels sumptuous, with the rich orange heather covering the ground, and the pillowy clouds crowning the hills.

We took the long way around to Mull, around the stunning Morvern Peninsula. Nc’nean Distillery sits at the tip of the peninsula, in a beautiful and very remote woodland — so remote that most of the staff live at the disillery. So remote that when we realized we were down to a quarter tank of gas, we were genuinely unsure we would find a gas station. (We did. It was a small, unstaffed, community-run pump.)

A row of whisky barrels

Nc’nean is a new, sustainable, women-run distillery. Single-malt scotch whisky has three ingredients (water, yeast, and barley) and a very strict recipe that all whisky distilleries must follow. Within that recipe, Nc’nean experiments as much as they can. They use different types of yeast and produce alternative barley spirits. Theirs is a brave strategy in the old boys’ club that is the whisky world. In 2017, they sold their first bottle at auction — a youthful three-year-old scotch, which fetched £42,000.

A photo of the water from aboard a ferry

We ended the day with a sunset ferry to Mull, and then a short drive to the famous seaside town of Tobermory, where we had dinner at the pub.

The next day, we went for a hike on the shore. We were looking for otters, of which we saw none. But We did see many golden eagles.

A rugged road running between the ocean shore and rocky cliffs

After the hike, we followed the one-track road for the breathtaking two-hour drive around the island.

Sheep blocking a one-track road

A ram and two sheep blocking a one-track road

We got caught in many Scottish traffic jams.

The next morning we caught the ferry from Tobermory back to the Ardnamurchan Peninsula on the mainland. From the ferry landing it is a very long and winding but incredibly beautiful drive back to Glasgow. The Ardnamurchan Peninsula is one of the only areas of Scotland that the locals have started repopulating with native oak trees, replacing the conifers that have covered most of Scotland. As a result, Ardnamurchan is uniquely leafy and the fall colors are amazing.

Looking up at the canopy of an oak tree from under neath, with green, yellow, and orange leaves

We stopped for a walk in the oak forest, and I could have stayed forever.

The view through a forest of oak trees, with a moss covered ground

From there, it was a long, peaceful drive home. All three of us had the quiet contentment that comes from spending time in a beautiful place.

Allister and Jesse in Scotland

Last month, my brothers Allister and Jesse came to visit me in Scotland. They arrived on Friday, and on Sunday me and Claire and Jesse and Allister departed on a highland roadtrip.

We visited Stirling Castle, which is one of my favorite landmarks because it’s the historic seat of the Scottish monarchs. You can stand in the royal bedchambers. It astounds me to imagine what our Scottish ancestors would have thought about their descendents standing in King James’ bedroom.

Allister looking at the ceiling in Stirling Castle

My friend Francois gave me a box of long-expired Kodak Ultra film, which I loaded up for Allister and Jesse’s visit. I pushed the exposure two stops, which still feels a little dim, but the photos have a fun texture. Here’s Allister staring at the ceiling in Stirling Castle.

From there, we drove through beautiful Perthshire to Pitlochry, where we did a distillery tour at Blair Athol distillery.

Allister and Jesse outside the distillery

Here are Jesse and Allister outside of the distillery, which was a beautiful old ivy-covered building.

Jesse standing in the middle of the road

Allister standing in a red phone booth

We spent the night in Pitlochry at the youth hostel. In the evening, we walked to the neighboring town of Moulin for dinner at the pub. Allister tried haggis, neeps, and tatties, which he said was actually pretty good.

In the morning, we drove across the highlands.

Jesse holding Allister upside down

In the middle of the country, we stopped at a coffee shop. I switched to my digital camera because I knew I’d be taking lots of pictures. We had some pent-up energy from driving all day. So, when I asked the guys to pose for pictures, Jesse immediately picked up Allister and dangled him upside-down.

Allister and Jesse standing on Aonach Mor, with highlands in the background

On the West Coast of Scotland, we took the Nevis Range Mountain Gondola up the side of Aonach Mor, for rainy views over the highlands.

Allister and Jesse standing in front of the William Wallace memorial at the Glasgow Necropolis

Through the week, Claire and I showed the guys around Glasgow. Here’s Allister and Jesse at the Wallace Memorial at the Glasgow Necropolis.

Portrait of Allister

Portrait of Jesse

Here’s Allister, moments later, crossing the bridge from the Glasgow Necropolis to the Glasgow Cathedral — one of the oldest buildings in Glasgow, and the site of the original Christian settlement, and then Jesse outside of the cathedral.

Allister and Jesse climbing stairs

The weather rained for a lot of the week, but one day this beautiful golden light came out and I spent at least half a roll on it.

Jesse out of focus

I missed these guys the minute they were gone.

See the Stags of Glen Etive

# photography

A stag standing in a glen.

Kate and Clare from Scottish Sisters Photography say that Glen Etive is a prime spot for wildlife photography. At a talk at the Queens Park Camera Club on Thursday, they told a great story about stubmling across a stag in the glen.

So, I was keen to drive the glen yesterday on a highland roadtrip with my brothers Allister and Jesse and my wife Claire. The glen was more beautiful than I was expecting. As we entered, I said, “Keep your eyes out for deer,” not really expecting to see any.

A road running through a Scottish glen

Halfway down the glen, Allister shouted, “Doe! Doe!”

“Where!?” I asked, stepping on the brake.

As the car came to a stop, we rolled up alongside a stag who calmly watched us all gasp in amazement. The rest of his family — the doe and two fawns — were about ten meters away in a field. All of us grabbed our cameras, and I got this shot. Allister and Jesse both got videos of the stag making a loud groan.

After a while, the whole family wandered away together across the field.

Practice Street Photography

# photography

A man on a bicycle in Paris

Last month, I tried street photography for the first time. I like taking candid photos of people in the street.

People walking on a paris sidewalk at dusk

I was in Paris for most of August. No one seemed disturbed by my camera. Nonetheless, I struggled to point my lens at strangers in the street. It really challenged me to balance my confidence and my meekness. To stand in the street pointing a camera at a passer-by, you need to be bold. But you also need to seem unimposing and harmless.

Visit Arichonan

The ruins of a stone house in the forest.

Arichonan is an abandoned village on the West Coast of Scotland. In the 19th century, the landlord evicted the villagers — farmers — to rear sheep.

When the villagers protested, the police came and carried them away.

An abandoned house on a hillside.

Last month, we visited Arichonan. It was me, Claire, and our friend Erin.

Hidden down a path in the forest, the village overlooks a valley stretching miles out toward the ocean. The village itself sat on the slope, old stone walls criss-crossing the hill. The walls drew the outlines of store rooms, gardens, and cottages. A main house stood at the top of the village.

A fireplace heath in the ruin of an old house

The buildings appeared ancient, but some crisp details remained. A cracked cauldron sat on the ground in one house. An ornate iron hearth leaned against the wall in another.

It was just a few weeks prior when we hosted our friends Liam and Laura. Laura, a Canadian, had ancestors from Scotland. They moved to Canada in the 1800s when they were displaced from their land by sheep.

I thought about my own ancestors, who moved from Aberdeenshire to Canada around the same time. They were poor farmers, too.

According to historians, the farming way of life was difficult and leisurely in turn. Crofters, like my ancestors, rented a small farm from a landlord. Farm work was heavy in the harvest season. For the rest of the year, they had spare time for leisure and craftwork.

During the Industrial Revolution, demand for wool made shepherding more economically valuable than farming. The wealthy landlords who owned most of the countryside evicted their tenant farmers and let the farmland go fallow so they could graze sheep. The farmers were forced to find a new livelihood, farming on poorer land, working for wages in the cities, or making a new life over the ocean. This new flood of cheap labor provided the engine for Britain’s industrialization.

At the same time, in response to Scottish resistance, the British military was stamping out community and heritage in rural Scotland, destroying the traditional way of life.

The combination of military and capitalist subjugation drove Scots out of their traditional homelands, emptying the Scottish highlands. Countryside that was once full of farms and villages became desolate.

During the same period, Romantic painters discovered the dramatic mountains and desolate moors of Scotland. The Romantics popularized a new image of Scotland as a majestic, untamed wilderness — the image that persists today.

Flash-forward to the 1900s. Workers in the cities returned to the Scottish countryside — not to live, but for leisure. Sir Hugh Munro mapped Scotland’s mountains and made hiking the country’s national pastime. Landlords tried to ban hikers from their territory, but Scots fought back. You can’t own the land, they said. The people won, and access to the land became law in 2003.

When you ask a Scot what they do in their spare time, they’ll likely tell you they go hiking. Glasgow itself sits at the foot of the highlands, and you can see the hills from any high point in the city.

When you venture into the hills, it can feel like you’re completely alone.

But you’re not. And sooner or later you’ll walk past a crumbling fieldstone wall or the foundations of a farmhouse — reminders that this place wasn’t always empty.

Our friend Erin relaxing in a tree

After we got home, I Googled Arichonan to find out what happened to the villagers. After their revolt was quashed — like Laura’s ancestors and mine — they moved to Canada.

Create a Pure-CSS Expanding DIV

# coding

At Prismic, the sidebar in our navigation has some accordian elements. When you click on them, they expand smoothly and a group of children items appear, using only CSS.

An expanding div is a classic effect, which basically looks like this:

Click me

Seeing this effect in the Prismic docs made me want to try to implement it myself, but I could never find a solution I liked. Most solutions rely on max-height, which — though I won’t get into it here — I’m not a fan of.

Then, yesterday, I saw a tweet from @Steve8708 showing an example where Apple uses this effect, but without explaining how they achieve it. Steve challenged readers to figure it out themselves.

The basic mechanism relies on a common trick where the checkbox modifies the style of its siblings. This works because the checkbox state can be accessed with the :checked pseudo selector. But changing the height of an element, specifically, is much harder.

This is difficult because of the way that web browsers understand an object’s inherent size and a manipulated size: they’re completely different. It’s like the difference between measuring coffee in milliliters and mugs. I might have a mug of coffee, but I can’t double my coffee by getting another mug, because the other mug might be a different size. Instead, I must measure the coffee in milliliters and double the milliliters.

Similarly, web browsers mostly don’t allow relative sizing of elements. You can’t directly say, “Make this element twice as big.” So, instead, you have to measure the size of the element and use math and JavaScript to resize it. That basic operation is probably one of the most common uses for jQuery — the infamous JavaScript library that dominated the web through the aughts.

Here’s the operative (Svelte) code for that box above:

  let open = false

<div class="first" class:open on:click={() => open = !open}>
  Click me

  .first {
    height: 50px; // Initial height is hard-coded
    border: 2px solid black;
    transition: height 1s;

  .open {
    height: 100px; // Final height is hard-coded

As you can see, the initial and final height are hard-coded, which is bad practice.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to crack this problem. There must be a way to do this without JavaScript!

There is!

It turns out, there is one relative CSS unit that can achieve this pretty nicely: line-height.

Open / Close
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Here’s the relevant code for that example (this is just HTML with CSS):

<input type="checkbox" />
<strong>Open / Close</strong>
<div class="collapse">Lorem ipsum...</div>

  .collapse {
    transition: line-height 1s ease-out, opacity 0.6s linear;
    line-height: 1.5;
    margin: 0;
    overflow: hidden;
    opacity: 1;

  :checked ~ .collapse {
    line-height: 0;
    opacity: 0;

I’ve combined line-height with opacity to prevent a mess when the lines overlap. However, if you don’t have any word wrap, you can prevent this with overflow-hidden:

Open / Close
  • One
  • Two
  • Three
  • We can hide the checkbox and replace it with a label element, which will function as our toggle button.

  • One
  • Two
  • Three
  • Here’s the code for that one:

    <input class="hidden" id="toggle" type="checkbox" />
    <label for="toggle">Open / Close</label>
    <div class="collapse">
      .collapse {
        transition: line-height 1s ease-out;
        line-height: 1.5;
        margin: 0;
        overflow: hidden;
        opacity: 1;
      :checked ~ .collapse {
        line-height: 0;
        opacity: 0;
      .hidden {
        display: none;
      label {
        font-weight: 700;
        cursor: pointer;

    That’s a pure-CSS animated div.

    See the skeleton code and styled code on CodePen.

    Signal Change

    # photography

    A collection of construction signs under an overpass.

    Glasgow is under construction: a city of changing priorities. Always signaling the times.

    A sign reads Changed Priorities Ahead

    It’s a place of mixed emotions: Victorian tenements, brutalist high rises. Long summer days, endless winter blues. Wild highlands, industrial wastelands.

    A highway sign rises above wild shubbery

    It makes me happy and it makes me sad.

    Eat Grass

    # travel# photography

    Cows on a hill by the beach.

    In April, Claire and I went to Skye with our friends Liam and Laura.

    A white calf grazing on a ridge near the ocean

    We camped on a ridge overlooking a white-sand beach. Between the ridge and the beach was a pasture.

    A white calf looking around a ridge near the ocean

    In the evening, cows came out to graze. I took these photos at magic hour.

    A herd of cows grazing along a steep hill over a white-sand beach

    I love how the photos came out. They feel slightly psychellic, like nature photos from a 1970s textbook. It feels true to the moment: beautiful and surreal.

    A cow striding through a pasture, looking straight at the camera

    I took this photo and then my battery died. I climbed back up the ridge to our campsite and we watched the sun set.

    We had a small fire, which we used to make a hearty stew and hot chocolate with whisky.

    The sunset took forever, and the afterglow lasted until late in the night. When it was finally gone, the sky filled edge to edge with stars. Claire and I laid out for a while, staring up.

    Sometimes I get vertigo when I stand close to an edge. Laying on the ground, staring at the celestial fresco on the infinite vaulted sky above, I felt the same feeling — that I might slip off the ground and fall into space.


    # coding

    This website is made with Svelte, which allows you to create really robust websites really easily. For this project, I’ve combined Svelte with Markdown. You know when you put asterisks around words to make them italic in whatsapp? That’s Markdown.

    That means that I can write something like this:

      let product = 5 * 5
    > The **product** of five times five is {product}.

    And it will appear on the page like this:

    The product of five times five is 25.

    In fact, you can look at the code for this page on GitHub. You’ll be surprised by how simple it looks.

    © Sam Littlefair, 2023