The Winds of Change

Part 1

I’ve been dying to tackle Brexit and British politics ever since the process to hold a referendum began. An occasional tweet or Facebook post here and there won’t change anything. Nor do most blog posts, but perhaps- just perhaps- this little series will. 

Ever since the last shots in 1945, Britain has been stumbling forward, unsure of where it belongs. We were once the mightiest of nations, with an empire that spanned the continents and the oceans. We were explorers. We conquered the greatest of peaks and toiled in the most inhospitable of lands. We made quantum scientific leaps that changed the world. We created cultural tsunamis with our art, our music, and our literature. We fought on the beaches, in the landing grounds, and in the fields, and we never surrendered. We lit the flame of the industrial revolution, and watched our ideas spark off into distant skies. We watched a nation rise from the ashes we left behind, and grow mighter than all.

We like to remember those parts of our history, but we have a crippling amnesia of how those feats were achieved. We forget the piercing screams of the slaves who were the arteries of British development. We forget the Bengal famine and the terrible massacres in India. We forget the pillage of Africa. We forget that we established concentration camps, and used them to kill 10% of the Boers. We forget that we decided how to partition India during a lunch break, killing millions with the stroke of a pen. We forget that sons and daughters of the empire came to our aid during the wars, spilling more blood and making more sacrifices for us than could ever be repaid- and now we spit in their faces. We forget every murder, every robbery and every rape that we committed.

We forget that when we walk down Imperial London’s streets, they were paved by the blood and bone of cultures we didn’t try to comprehend.

For every brick, a bone. For every treasure, a theft. For every cobble, a crime.

We remember so little, and we have forgotten so much.

It is little wonder then, that in a time of such amnesia, of such little clarity and of such little knowledge, that a man conjuring memories of red coats, of gold, of glory and of Empire could leave the disillusioned, the elderly and those left behind enraptured? When no other orators are left, when men take dogmatic gambles, and when politicians forget they are the people, then who is left to man the barricades?

But the sun has set on the British Empire. 

Our problem is not our past. It is our future. We stumbled left and right after the war, but rarely forward. We watched our Empire be eroded by the winds of change, until there was nothing but the indelible mark left by us on the newest nations. We saw a staunch ally humiliate us in the Suez. We recaptured the Falklands alone. We fought like dogs for our government in the Middle East, and we made outstanding contributions to the environment, aid, and development after joining the European Community. We pioneered cutting-edge science and technology, and saw our universities rank amongst the best. Yet we’ve been fighting ourselves ever since the war. In Northern Ireland. In the black-coal pits of Wales and the Midlands. In the crushed metal and lost voices at Hillsborough. In Brixton.  In the communities of the immigrants who strived to rebuild a broken Britain. Today we are fighting ourselves again, divided as never before. Everything we know and are- as members of a United Kingdom- is under threat. What of Scotland, of Wales and of Northern Ireland?

It is time for the winds of change to gust across our nation.

Why have British politicians not stood at the altar of democracy and inspired our citizens with an exciting, radical new vision for a united Britain? We can no longer accept a vision that prioritizes London or the middle classes- we need a vision that will capture the imagination of the young adults of Ballymena, the veterans of Glasgow and the workers of Port Talbot. We need a vision that recognizes the struggles of the Cornish miners, that identifies the problems our newest citizens face, and that supports the homeless and that creates the social support infrastructure we so badly need. We need to recognise the value of our communities, of our shared kinship and of our shared home of Great Britain.

Politicians talk of a new ‘Global Britain’, but that is far from the truth. Their vision of a global vision is the ‘old guard’ returning to become a major trading bloc. Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand… India if we are lucky. Welcome back to 1970. Obsolete thinking from obsolete parties trying desperately to put a veneer of modernity on their creaking spines by pretending to engage with the public on social media. I’ll never forget being told to ‘stop talking Britain down’, because apparently political debate isn’t the province of us peasants- that is reserved for our feudal barons and overlords.

I hold them in contempt, and you should, too.

It is time to accept our own winds of change.

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128 Days Later: How Trump and Russia Have Changed Our World

Donald Trump has been president for just 128 days, and the world is already near-unrecognisable. His incompetency on the global stage has seen age-old relationships falter, and with this, the entire nexus of Western geopolitics has shifted. Whereas Obama once stated that”This is as important a relationship as I’ve had during the course of my presidency” about Germany’s Angela Merkel, highlighting close, amicable US-EU relations, it is clear that Trump’s America is altogether different. It is difficult to remember a time in which the United States has been more distant from Europe, or in which such a strong geopolitical bond has deteriorated so quickly due to the will of one man. Merkel, normally a relatively understated speaker, struck a defiant, revealing tone on Sunday, stating that “The times in which we could rely fully on others, they are somewhat over”, with the clear context of the previous day’s G7 summit. The underlying message being as obvious as it is appalling- that Europe can no longer rely on the United States as a close ally. The publication of confidential intelligence from the UK in the US press also drew sharp criticism of Trump, this time from the UK, in the wake of the Manchester attacks.

There is serious discord then, between the two most powerful Western blocs, that of the EU and the USA. This is a major, major issue. The damage from Trump’s first foreign trip does not stop there. At a NATO summit, Trump neglected to endorse Article 5, with is an omission of such gravity that it sent diplomatic tsunamis through military and geopolitical circles. Namely, Article 5 is the Collective Defence clause and the most important clause of the original NATO treaty, the concept being that an attack against one member is an attack against all members. It was a key part of keeping Western nations safe in the Cold War, and it is of great historical and strategic significance. So for Trump to not endorse at this conference, as new leaders are expected to, is appalling. Why?

Article 5 has only ever been invoked once, in response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which essentially launched the War on Terror. Allies responded in force and paid in blood. Britain lost 454 soldiers in Afghanistan, Canada lost 158, France lost 89 and Germany lost 57, among many other significant national contributions. 

The United States is thus the only country to ever invoke Article 5, and yet now hesitates to endorse it. It is unacceptable for the US to be ‘picking and choosing’ after so much blood has been spilled in their name by allies. This then, is rock bottom.

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A devastating visual indictment of Trump’s refusal to endorse Article 5

Elsewhere, Trump looks likely to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which would be a hammer blow due to importance as the world’s second biggest polluter. Whilst China is taking great strides both in environmental policy and technology, America is looks set to be resting on it’s laurels, plunging back down the mineshafts in search of coal. Regression isn’t a strong enough word to describe the Trump administration’s environmental policies in comparison to that under Obama, though perhaps we had good warning of this with his plan to gut the EPA.

Trump’s associations with Russia are never far from the news, and with every leak that emerges, it is increasingly clear that there is significant substance to these rumours. These are well documented in articles in both the New York Times and the Washington Post that cover this in better detail than I will go into here. They say that ‘where there is smoke, there is fire’, and there is so much smoke right now that it is difficult to see your hand in front of your face. I doubt we will see anything approaching the truth until decades after the Trump administration, but with every piece of the jigsaw that falls in place, the cries for impeachment grow only louder.

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Scratching The Surface: An outdated visual of Trump’s Russia ties.

Trump’s campaign ran on an anti-establishment platform, and a key part of that was penetrating the American consciousness with the concept of ‘fake news’ and how the mainstream media (MSM) is the enemy. Trump’s MSM is a broad church, with virtually every news organisation apart from Fox and RT included. The NYT and WaPo, representing the cream of America’s media organisations, have been particularly strongly attacked. On the face of it, this is just a quirk of Trump’s presidency and character, though calling them ‘the enemy of the people’ is obviously extreme. Some news channels can indeed be accused of being ‘too far left’, and perhaps publishing biased articles- but every media organisation has its own leanings. Trump’s attack is significant because his constant tirades about ‘fake news’ have decimated public trust in the media, and this is a major problem. Trump can now dismiss any negative story as ‘fake news’, deceiving the American people and making it very, very difficult to distinguish between the truth and a lie. Trump’s attacks on the media are an assault on the critical thinking of the American people, an attempt to neuter one of American democracy’s strongest assets- an inquisitive, tenacious media.

Taken apart, these events are already troubling, but when pulled together by a common thread, they are nauseating. That common thread, invariably, is Russia. One country and one country alone is benefiting from all of this, and it is isn’t difficult to work out who. There is obvious evidence that Russia strongly interfered in the US election, as confirmed by sources in the FBI and Department of Defense, helping to secure a victory for their preferred candidate, Donald Trump. Whereas before there were peace and a united front, the West appears to be fracturing before our eyes, creating a far weaker bloc in opposition to Russian aggression. NATO, the EU, the G7- all vital partnerships and all faltering. Vladimir Putin has played a long game and an incredibly smart game, and it is undoubtedly winning. Russia’s harnessing of social media and technology to interfere in US politics will be studied for decades to come, and it represents a step-change in cyber warfare. They are very obviously already reaping the benefits of this, particularly geopolitically.

Simultaneously, Russia has managed to carve out a positive image of itself, particularly within the left in the West. In Syria, Russia is seen to be ‘sorting it out’. In Ukraine, Russia was ‘opposing Nazis’. It’s time to call Russia out for what it really is. In Syria, regardless of the geopolitics, Russia is propping up a dictator who has undeniably gassed his own citizens and has committed a mind-boggling array of sickening atrocities. Russia’s displays of air power might be impressive in Syria, but accusing the West of causing civilian casualties when Russia is literally carpet bombing areas a la the Second World War is galling, to say the least. In Ukraine, Russia used ‘hybrid-warfare’ to invade a sovereign European state, capturing land of strategic significance to Russia in the Crimea. In both theatres, Russia has been accused of war crimes.

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Russia is no angel.

This is the same Russia that influenced an American election. People appear to have short memories, but it is not so long ago that the UK had the ‘British Army of the Rhine’ to delay a Russian attack through Europe, and that US troops were stationed across Europe. It is hard to imagine cooperation on that level in the wake of Trump’s NATO, G7 and EU summits. He is withdrawing from the world, taking America’s superpower status with him. The Cold War may have ended, but a new Cold War has just begun- and Russia is winning. What is more, Russia is winning unopposed. 

128 Days Later? The world is unrecognisable, and it is clear that Trump must go.

But of course. Fake News.

Scotland’s Great Colony

At the turn of the 18th century, Scotland launched an enormous attempt to start a colony on the coast of modern-day Panama. It was an act that had a profound influence on world history, ruining the Scottish lowlands and paving the way for the union of Scotland and England in 1707. This is the story of Caledonia. 

Whilst England began to capitalise on its position as a major mercantile and colonial power, Scotland was in the economic doldrums. The costly Wars of the Three Kingdoms had not gone well for the Scots, probably accounting for 50,000 of their soldiers, lost through battle and disease in both England and Scotland itself. No sooner had the nation begun to recover than the stirrings of the first Jacobite uprising began in the highlands, eventually surrendering to the Scottish government after initial successes including the Battle of Killiecrankie. The Jacobite cause would rise again, but not until 1715. As if things weren’t bad enough, the already limited trade with France and Baltic states became sluggish in the late 1790s, and a series of painful failed harvests led to widespread famine in the north of the country, killing up to 15% of the Scottish population.

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The fierce Jacobite charge at Killiecrankie broke Scottish ranks and won the battle, but arguably lost the war.

Scotland, then, was in dire straits.

The Bank of Scotland was established in 1695, and it immediately set about establishing trade with other parts of the world, including Africa and the indies. Regardless, Scotland struggled to compete for trade with the more successful English. Scotland had grand designs however, and the people desired to be as renowned as the English for their colonial endeavour and trading power. Raising money for such an endeavour proved challenging, with the English reticent to invest due to pressure from the East India company and from rivals Spain, who claimed the region.

Regardless, an enormous sum of money was raised from every echelon of Scottish society- this was their great hope. The money amounted to some £47 million today, an incredible sum when you consider the population of Scotland was far smaller then than it is today (1,265,380 in 1755- 5,313,600 in 2011). This represented around a 1/5 of all Scottish capital in circulation, underlining the enormous commitment from the Scottish people. Despite initially being billed as trade with Africa and the indies, the Scots were instead sold on an altogether different opportunity, something that was likely only given serious thought to because the English had rejected it weeks previously.

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A map of Caledonia- note Fort St Andrews and New Edinburgh.

The idea was to create a colony at the junction of the Atlantic and the Pacific on the isthmus of Panama, a place where they could hold the lucrative key to unlock easy trade between the two oceans. It promised great riches, and the Scots were hooked.

Some 1200 set off on the first expedition in 1698, including soldiers and officers involved in the Glencoe Massacre (later to cause discord in the ranks), as well as families. Avoiding detection by English warships, they set sail in July and landed at Darien on the 2nd of November. In the most ancient tradition of the Scots, they proclaimed their new land to be ‘Caledonia’, and they were determined to become rich for their country.

They quickly set about constructing Fort St Andrew, armed with some 50 cannon to defend it from raiding parties and the troublesome Spanish, though it lacked fresh water. A watchtower was also constructed at the headland of the bay to give early warning of enemy attack. Work then began on ‘New Edinburgh’, which was supposed to be the capital of the new colony, and this is where it began to go horribly, horribly wrong.

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Jungle in the Darien Gap- a tough environment by today’s standards, let alone the 17/1800s.

The colonists cleared land for agricultural purposes, but quickly found it challenging and perhaps unsuited for their crops. Even worse, they had planned to trade with the local native Indians, however they had no desire for the small trinkets the Scottish could offer. Crucially, passing traders had no interest in what the Scottish had to sell, putting paid to the plans for a great profitable colony. Despite this, letters home portrayed a colonial paradise, and this is understood today to have been a deliberate choice by the colonists to create a positive impression of the expedition. Evidently, this could not be further from the truth.

As summer arrived, the expedition began to fall apart. Malaria and other tropical diseases began to claim up to 10 settlers a day, whilst precious food gifted by local Indians fell victim to the greed of those who needed it least. The food they did have grew mouldy very quickly due to poor storage techniques, and only alcohol gave the settlers any respite from the terrible conditions they found themselves in.This in itself was a double-edged sword, as it accelerated the deaths of some, whilst drunkenness became commonplace.

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An additional map showing the position of New Edinburgh on the isthmus of Darien, Panama.

In just 8 months, Scotland’s great hope had been extinguished, the colony being abandoned in July 1699 with just 300 out of 1200 settlers remaining alive.

There is one more tragic turn to this tale, however. The letters that have fawned over the prosperity of the colony led the Scots to send 2 resupply ships of some 300 people, arriving to find graves and the ruins of New Edinburgh as opposed to the thriving colony they had anticipated. When one of the resupply ships caught fire, the Captains decided to flee.

Worse still, news of the expedition’s failure did not reach Scotland before a second expedition of over 1000 settlers had departed for Caledonia. Again, they arrived to find a ruined settlement that needed to be rebuilt. Unsurprisingly, morale plummeted. At last, the Spanish attack materialised, laying siege to Fort St Andrew. Despite a stout defence organised by Alexander Campbell of Fonab, sent for that purpose by the company, the defenders were surrounded, heavily disease, running out of food and surrounded. The settlers finally surrendered, and the colony was abandoned once again, but for the final time.

Caledonia was no more.

The news came as an enormous shock to Scotland, and scores of lowland families from every sector of society were affected economically, not to mention the loss of family members on the expedition. The lack of English support for the expedition led to an unsavoury affair leading to the hanging of an English ship’s Captain in Scotland, as part of popular discontent towards them after the disaster surfaced. Nonetheless, this was a purely Scottish expedition, and Scotland had to own the Darien Scheme’s failure. It is interesting that centuries later, the Panama Canal would open trade between the two oceans for trade for good, yet the Scottish site on the Gulf of Darien remains largely uninhabited.

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The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most important trade routes today, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific.

The Darien disaster is believed to have contributed heavily to the union of Scotland and England, as Scottish elites saw the best chance of becoming a global power lying in partnership with the English, as well as an opportunity to rescue the economy of Scotland. The two countries united in 1707- and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the Darien Scheme is regarded as one of the greatest mistakes in political history. Whilst a few people continue to argue that the Scottish were the first to truly appreciate the strategic significance of Panama in the terms of trade, the reality is that Caledonia became the folly of the Scottish people, nearly bankrupting the proud nation with a loss of nearly 25% of all Scottish money. There is still a debate today over whether the colony could have survived had the English assisted, though I find this hard to believe. This area of Panama is still relatively unpopulated. The conditions would have been a nightmare for the 17th/18th century human, ill-equipped to deal with the ravages of insects, fever and the sun, and the surrounding jungle would only have slowed progress. The Spanish were never going to be in favour of the settlement due to the threat it posed to their silver trade, and thus a confrontation was always brewing- and the tiny Scottish Navy would have been no match for the mighty Spaniards.

Caledonia failed then, and it remained great only momentarily in the minds of its greatest promoters. It was a truly monumental disaster, precipitating the fall of a proud and independent Scotland- all because of a small stretch of land on the Panamanian coast.

 

Attenborough Under Fire

An article written by Martin Hughes-Games attacking the Planet Earth II series has provoked great controversy in wildlife and conservation circles. It has been billed as an attack on 90-year old Sir David Attenborough (a cardinal sin in the wildlife world), and his views have been derided by many. To many of us Attenborough is our god- the person whom inspired many of us to pursue education and careers in this field, and thus criticism of the great man genuinely hurts. It feels unpalatable, like when people (quite rightly) point out some of Churchill’s (voted our greatest Briton) awful mistakes. Whilst I disagree entirely with his claim that ‘I fear this series, and other’s like it, have become a disaster for the world’s wildlife’, Hughes-Games does, unfortunately, have a point.

 

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Hughes-Games (left), with fellow AutumnWatch presenters Michelle Strachan (central) and Chris Packham (right). 

 

Hughes-Games is wrong in places. He states that: ‘The justification, say the programme makers, is that if people (the audience) become interested in the natural world they will start to care about the natural world, and will be more likely to want to get involved in trying to conserve it. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense’. He then uses figures from ZSL about nature’s ‘58%’ decline since 1970, stating that because this period runs parallel with Attenborough’s tenure as a living deity since Life on Earth began in 1979, then the programmes should have had an effect on it.

 

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A young Attenborough during filming for Life on Earth (1979). 

 

The first rule of science is that correlation does not equal causation, and Hughes-Games ignores it here. That there has been a recorded 58% decline in vertebrate populations worldwide has squarely nothing to do with the BBC, with wildlife filmmaking and certainly nothing to do with Sir David Attenborough. That scientific evidence says absolutely nothing of the effectiveness of Attenborough’s programmes, as he tries to imply. Hughes-Games sweeping assertion that the NHU’s programmes haven’t inspired people to get involved in conservation is utterly erroneous.

Whilst it would be easy to sweep that aside anecdotally, I’ve carried out a very brief poll of ‘A Focus On Nature‘, an absolutely brilliant, 1800 strong community of young ecologists and conservationists trying to make their way in the conservation world.

‘Did David Attenborough, and the BBC Natural History Unit programmes help inspire you to pursue a conservation/wildlife/environment-based career?’

 

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Breakdown of 52 individual Votes from ‘A Focus On Nature’ 

 

I had 52 responses in an hour, and it is evident that the results clearly show that Attenborough and wildlife documentaries have helped in some form to inspire a generation of environmentalists, naturalists and scientists to work in their respective fields. If I were to ask anyone on my Geography course, on on Environmental Sciences, Zoology, Conservation and Biology courses who their inspiration was, I doubt the word ‘Attenborough’ would be far from anyone’s lips.

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Percentage Breakdown of ‘A Focus On Nature’ Votes

 

In this instance, then, Hughes-Games is evidently misguided.

Where he is right, however, is that it is time for a paradigm shift in wildlife filming, and the BBC Natural History Unit is not excepted from that. When Hughes-Games writes that ‘the fantasy should be balanced by reality’, he is absolutely on the money. Recent NHU documentary series have focused on either animal behaviour or locations-remember the amazing ‘Shark’, ‘The Hunt’, ‘Africa’ and ‘Patagonia’? There has been mention of human issues in these documentaries, and brief coverage, but not enough has been done to expose the size of problems on a global scale, or even within these locations. Like Hughes-Games said, the NHU should of course continue to make these jaw-dropping documentaries showcasing the beauty of the natural world, and covering the various developments in zoological and ecological science- there is no need for them to stop.

 

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Perhaps the most touching moment of the Africa series was Attenborough with the orphaned baby Rhino- but does anyone remember it for the poaching, or for the cuteness? 

 

There is room for a new type of programme, however, that demonstrates the scale of the issues facing the natural world. The NHU tried something similar a long time ago in 2000 with State of the Planet, long before the era of HD, 4K and drone videography we are in at the moment. We need documentaries to expose deforestation, reveal the cost of pollution and to look at poaching in all its grisly detail. Wildlife documentaries are traditionally things of beauty, but I’d argue that we now need documentaries to be ugly, to shock too. Perhaps this requires a different breed of videographers and directors to take this more confrontational approach, but we certainly now have the technology for it. Drones are fantastic tools for showcasing the scale of deforestation, for example.

 

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 A Greenpeace image showing just how effective Drones can be at capturing the scale of deforestation. 

 

Whilst these documentaries will be difficult, it has be done and with great success. Virunga, the tale of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern National Park as it struggles to fight against poachers, the SOCO oil corporation and the M23 rebel offensive is a fantastic, award-winning example. The earlier Blackfish and The Cove are perhaps the other two stand-out wildlife/nature documentaries in this genre, whilst the more recent Ivory Game is another fantastic watch. Only Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood has tried to illustrate the scale of global issues however, with impressive results.

There is an argument to suggest that perhaps the success of the Plant Earth series amongst others is due to the very same utopian ‘escapism’ that Hughes-Games so despises, but I don’t think that is good enough anymore. In the face of rapid deforestation with no quarter given for habitat and wildlife, coral reef bleaching on an unprecedented level and significant climatic change, it is time for our wildlife documentaries to take the gloves off, and show the real world to the public. Will it work? There’s only one way to find out.

That Hughes-Games has written this timely article is a good thing, as it has sparked a healthy, impassioned debate around wildlife filmmaking and it’s purpose. Ultimately, whilst poor Attenborough doesn’t really need to be in the article, would anyone have read it if he wasn’t? 

 

 

Mirrorless: The Future of Expedition Photography

Selecting expedition kit is a tricky business. First of all, you need equipment that is going to survive the toughest conditions- perhaps the Arctic Tundra, the Yemeni Desert or the Indonesian Jungle, depending on the adventure you’ve got yourself into. You then look at the price and how useful it could be… and then you look at the size and weight. On nearly every expedition, especially self-supported voyages, weight and space are at a heavy premium- every gramme counts. This is even more important on long hikes, or treks up mountains- you don’t want to be carrying any unnecessary weight at all! So why, when it comes to photography and videography, do expedition teams still insist on the big, burly DSLRs of yesteryear? The image quality is the same or is nearly the same, the video quality is better, the weight is basically incomparable…

This article will guide you through the mirrorless world, and help you choose the perfect mirrorless camera for your next expedition adventure.

 

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Taken with my GX7 and humble kit lens in the Sierra Nevada, CA.

 

Sony

Sony has changed the landscape of the mirrorless market with the full-frame ‘A7’ series, offering genuinely brilliant image quality in a compact form. The smaller E-mount series offers a good amount of megapixels with lightning fast autofocus (A6000/A6300/A6500), but it is the full-frame E-mount series that has set the market alight. The A7RII contains a whopping 42 megapixels, offering ridiculous amounts of detail, whilst the A7SII offers light sensitivity performance so good that it can be used in virtual darkness. I remember the earlier A7S being used to great effect to film anti-Boko Haram operations by Vice News a year or so ago (find it here), and it really was quite incredible then, so god knows what you can achieve now! Both top-end bodies feature strong weather sealing, of course.

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Premium, but revolutionary. This is a brilliant camera.

 

The strength of this system is the image quality, offering outstanding images and shooting very, very good video in 4K. The downsides? The cost of the two top-end bodies is high, and the lenses continue to be very expensive. Make no mistake, the Sony Full Frame system is a very pricey game compared to all other mirrorless systems. My main issue with the Sony mirrorless system is the continued lack of lens choice in some regards, with a severe lack of native wildlife lenses, but this will improve in time. The lenses that do exist are superb, however. Martin Holland, a well-known expedition leader and explorer has just switched to this ecosystem, and I can’t wait to see how he gets on. I can’t imagine that he’ll go back!

 

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Somehow the one one the left has more megapixels… Both professional grade cameras, though!

 

When this ecosystem matures a little, it will be an excellent choice for expedition photography and videography, if you can stomach the price. The camera specification has to be seen to be believed, firmly leaving some DSLRs in the past, and if I could afford it, this would be my ecosystem of choice. I’d love the low-light performance in the jungle for example!

Sony A7SII (Low-Light, Video) £2200 

Sony A7RII (Pure Image Quality, Video) £2300 

Micro-Four Thirds

I had the very first M43 camera, the Lumix G1. It was tiny! It had nice image quality but was very much an initial foray into the market- it didn’t have a video function at all! Since then I’ve used both the Lumix G5 and the Gx7 in the jungle, and they are simply brilliant little cameras.  An advantage of the M43 series that I’ve appreciated in the field is the 2x crop factor, which is ideal in an ecological expedition setting. Being able to use my 45-200mm with a 400mm equivalent focal length has been a revelation, and it’s been incredibly valuable in the jungle, capturing images that simply wouldn’t have been possible without adding pounds more of DSLR-weight.

 

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The GH4 and GH3 are so popular amongst video producers that they have their own specific rig designs from a range of companies.

 

The Lumix series are renowned for their video quality, and they’ve been used on feature length films in the past to good effect. The GH4, in particular, is a compelling purchase, whilst the new G80 looks like the perfect lightweight documentary camera. The latest Lumix cameras shoot 4K at a variety of bitrates, yet the remain lightweight and compact. Unlike other mirrorless systems, there is a wide variety of lenses at very good price points- look no further than the Olympus 45mm F1.8 (£150) and the Panasonic 25mm F1.8 (£150) for excellent fast glass at bargain prices. More lenses are being released all the time, which is the advantage of having two companies competing within the same ecosystem, as it keeps the prices competitive and the quality high. I’m waiting for the Panasonic Leica 50-200mm F2.8-4.0 to improve my images, whilst there are plenty of 3rd party manual focus lenses that have been released, many aimed at the indie film market. If you after raw image quality, look out for the Olympus 300mm F4- that’s a stunning lens, but at a price to match.

 

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My friend’s kit after a long day in the field. My GX7 is tiny in comparison.

 

Whilst I’ve focused on Panasonic due to my own experiences with them, there is no denying the pedigree of the Olympus cameras, to the extent that I would recommend them over the Panasonic series if you are focusing on stills. The new EM1 Mark II is an exceptional camera (at an exceptional price point for a M43 camera too, though), whilst the EM5 Mark II and EM10 Mark II offer great image quality at a lower price.

 

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An amazing lens at an unbelievable price. Just get one!

 

The one thing that brings back to the M43 ecosystem after various flirtations with other brands is the lower price point. You can pick up the GX7, a great little camera, for less than £300, whilst if you search carefully you can get a GH3 around a similar price point. The lenses are high quality but cheap, and they are generally the smallest of all the mirrorless system cameras- just check out the new GX85, for example. The downsides? The image quality at times isn’t quite as nice as I’d like, but I’d happily swap that for the great video quality I get instead. Obviously though, you can’t compare the images from a Nikon D810 to these cameras though- they just aren’t comparable.

Panasonic GH4 £1200 (Amazing Video)

Panasonic G80 £700 (Great Image Stabilization, Video, Microphone Jack)

Olympus EM1 Mark II £2300 (The best M4/3 Camera, Stills)

Olympus EM5 Mark II £500 (Stills, High-Resolution Shot Mode)

Fuji

Edited 14/05/2017

After testing out an XT-10 myself for a few months, and falling in love with the build quality, image quality and manual controls on these cameras, I’ve come to the conclusion that Fujifilm absolutely takes the crown for expedition photography. These cameras are tough, even in their non-weather sealed XT-10/20 range, constructed of really solid metal that is far better quality than my past Gx7. The image quality is beautiful, with Fuji’s famous film simulations looking amazing in jpeg, though we all know we should be shooting in RAW. Video quality is seriously improving too, with the XT-20 and XT2 offering some form of 4K and being a really decent option for it too. These cameras are phenomenal, and you seriously won’t regret jumping into the Fuji ecosystem. The autofocus system on the new XT-2 and XT-20 is the best I’ve seen for this kind of photography, and the XT-2 is a really, really tough bit of kit. The Fujinon lenses are beautiful too, and not extortionately priced like their sony counterparts. The only area where Fuji is a little limited at the moment is lens selection- they could desperately do with a new mid-range zoom, something around the 250/300mm mark. The newer sensors are fab, with a 24MP APSC chip, and are pretty good in low-light too. Seriously, these are phenomenal cameras. 

Seriously, try Fuji- I will be for all my future work.

Fuji XT-2 £1200

 

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Highly recommended, just a little bulky for my tastes. Outstanding image quality.

 

 

Canon & Nikon Mirrorless

 

Nikon and Canon have dominated the DSLR market for so long that it is hard to imagine the world without them, and yet it is these two brands that have fallen behind today in the mirrorless market. Either through complacency or disbelief, their mirrorless ranges have seemed like half-hearted attempts in comparison to their masterfully engineered DSLR series, and thus I cannot recommend either in this category. The EOS M5 and the Nikon J5 are the best efforts by each company, but they are still treading water whilst other companies plough onwards. More than anything, the lens choice remains pitiful, with the Canon EOS-M ecosystem offering just 13 lenses in comparison to Micro Four-Thirds 108!

They might be light and have a nice brand name, but just don’t bother for at least another 3 years!

Conclusion

DSLRs offer an ever-decreasing number of advantages over mirrorless camera systems, and in the next 2 years, I expect that the competition between the two systems will be even fiercer. Given the importance of size and weight, and the only marginal benefits of a traditional DSLR, mirrorless cameras are surely a no-brainer for expedition media work. The bigger issue is weaning DSLR-users off their precious big bodies and down into the svelte world of mirrorless, which is perhaps easier said than done. For video work, the value of mirrorless cameras is already well-known, with the wildly successful Panasonic GH3 and GH4 being used on feature films, and video is now the best way to engage a target audience through social media and Youtube. The one downside that I’ve noticed is battery life, which is notably lower in mirrorless cameras than their DSLR counterparts. I’ve solved this by having a small army of 3 Gx7 batteries (fairly cheap too), but only once have I managed to drain an entire battery in a day.

 

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My GX7 at work in Kuala Lumpur.

 

The only other real downside I’ve recognised is that the autofocus on my GX7 and the basic 45-200mm zoom isn’t quite as good as it could be-perfect for record shots but not quite as good as I’d like. With a better camera, photographer and lens, I’m sure this would improve, though. I do occasionally wish I had a D7100, but that would be a 40% increase in weight (and in the jungle, that’s not okay)!

 

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I’m still so pleased with this shot! Hummingbird, Ann Arbor, MI. (GX7)

 

They are smaller and lighter, have equivalent or better image and video quality… It’s clear that the mirrorless camera is the future of expedition photography. There are few tools more versatile than the mirrorless camera, and I am able to take my Gx7 with 2 lenses equivalent to 28-400mm between my neck and my pocket- and in the field, that versatility is invaluable. In Malaysia I took to jamming my GX7 in a dry bag and stuffing it into the bottom of my rucksack, and it took up very little space at all.Try doing that with a D4! Ultimately, I’m certain that the mirrorless camera is the future of expedition photography. You can save weight that you could use for other things (food), save your energy during a long day in the field, and potentially save yourself money too…

UPDATE **JUST GO FUJI. DEFINITELY THE BEST OPTION**

Seriously, it’s a no-brainer!

 

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Green Crested Lizard, Perhentian Islands, Malaysia. G5 with 20mm F1.7 II

 

 

Another Term Ends

After spending approximately a million hours on my essay for Quaternary science, it’s all finally over, in what has easily been the most challenging term (though arguably the most rewarding) yet.

Michigan

I got to spend just under two weeks with my love, Catherine, after nearly 8 months apart, and it was wonderful. The little city of Ann Arbor is delightful, the university there incredible (even if their Wolverines fell slightly short the other day, but we won’t mention that), and we even spent a day or two in Chicago- the great windy city! Chicago has well-documented gun crime problems, but I wouldn’t hesitate to visit. I also got to see Hilary’s VP Candidate speak, Senator Tim Kaine, accompanied by plenty of Trump protestors. At the time we could see no way for Trump to win, but I’m not sure many people did back then. Being with Catherine again was magical, and seeing her again just can’t come soon enough!

California

The most AMAZING field trip imaginable. Yosemite National Park, the Sierra Nevada, I squeezed in a little bit of time in San Francisco to look at UC Berkeley… It was genuinely quite brilliant, and the memories will last a lifetime. I love America anyway, but being in an arid environment for the first time was incredible, and a real change of scenery. Yosemite is beautiful if not as wild as I thought it would be, and I really like the different climatic zones of the Sierra Nevada, from high mountains to absolutely boiling deserts. Sun cream definitely required! I got a pretty good checklist of wildlife too, though I missed out on the bears, with an amazing view of a Bald Eagle in the wild being my absolute favourite, with a random Pelican coming second.

You can read all about that field trip here: 

Cornwall

Jet-lag, deadlines, illness… and working in the shop! I’ve worked my backside off this term, especially on my dissertation, where I’ve been able to create a 3D model of a coral reef from my drone data from Malaysia. I’m excited to see it come to fruition in the future, but it’s going to be one hell of a lot of work!

I genuinely haven’t had a day off this term, so I fully intend to take some now- I’m going to the beach tomorrow! I’ve spent enough long nights in the library, from 9am to 10pm… I’m ready for a break. These limited images are from the sole field trip on the Quaternary science module, with a sense of deja vu as we headed back out to West Penwith again. And yes, it rained a lot, though I did get to test out my new clothing which was something. I also saw a female Hen Harrier, one of the more at risk species in the country.

The Term Highlight

That moment when the coral reef model worked for the first time. I couldn’t believe it, and I may or may not have shed a couple of tears.

 

The Term Lowlight?

Getting on the bus at the Moor and trying to pay with contactless. Oh my word, the humiliation and the laughter I caused. It’s taken a good few months for my self-esteem to recover, and I’m sure the bus driver has dined out on that incident many times now. ‘Oh ar, this ain’t London lad’ etc etc…. The pain!

What’s Next? 

I’ve also been working really hard on my graduate applications, with UC Berkeley submitted already and more to follow in the next few days. Balancing everything has been hard, but I’m very happy to be in the position I’m in at the end of it all. I have a feeling that my dissertation followed by exams and other deadlines is going to wear me out next term, so I’m planning one final adventure abroad in the summer. Not for as long as previously, just to do something a little different whilst I still have the chance. I like the look of Bolivia and India in particular, both countries I’d love to visit, with amazing wildlife and very different cultures. I’m always keen to learn.

But mostly…

CATHERINE IS COMING OVER FOR CHRISTMAS IN A COUPLE OF WEEKS AND I CAN’T WAIT!

 

 

 

Perhentians: Ready at Last!

It’s been a long, long time since I last blogged about the expedition, which is probably attributable to blood pressure. Being in the hot seat of an expedition is incredibly exciting and rewarding, but also incredibly taxing. You are responsible for an awful lot, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Against the odds perhaps, with enough personnel changes to form a second full team, FxPedition Perhentian Islands   has survived. There was a ridiculous amount of expeditions proposed by FxPeditions this year, and it is a huge testament to my wonderful team that we’ve outlasted the majority of them. Preparing expeditions can be a dangerous, and at times, damaging trail, with great highs and pretty galling lows- but every single member of my team has shown great character to get through that!

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Money wise, we’ve been successful in our applications to two grant bodies, the Royal Geographical Society and the Gilchrist Educational Trust, with more to come in. Thanks for their kind support, we’ve managed to cover the majority of the budget already. As an expedition that was designed to be cheap, I’m delighted with that to say the least. I spent 3 hours of yesterday sat in a paddling pool full of baked beans & god knows what else, as our last fundraiser before we head off. It was a fun event, the only downside really being the cold! Despite baking sun, I was stuck in the shade, and regular dousings in beans/mushy peas and gravy didn’t help… Nonetheless, I’m delighted to say that I think we’ve raised nearly £300 through the event, both online and in person. It might take a few years to regain my dignity, mind. If you would like to donate to our expedition, the link can be found by clicking here _1070601

We have a deal with Craghoppers that we are just finalising, providing kit for the team, which is a very useful coup- I’m a big fan of Craghoppers gear, and sell plenty of it in the shop, so I couldn’t be happier! I’m really looking forward to opening the box to see what we’ve been sent… It’ll be like christmas all over again!

After months of solid work, exams and deadlines, we finally get to reap the fruits of our labour, and it is one of the best feelings in the world. Buying kit, packing bags and making final arrangements all makes it that bit more real, and I cannot wait to be back in the jungle of the Perhentian Islands. I’ve seen my team mature and flourish over the past year far beyond my expectations, and thus I expect the emotions to flow once we make it to the islands. _1070693

In a way, I’m going home. To islands that taught me so much about biogeography, ecology and herpetology, and to country that blew away my existing concepts of culture and society. Finally, I’m going back to the jungle, where everything you can see is alive, and where everything poses questions, whether you can answer them or not. That environment is the beating heart of my science, the artery through which my innate curiosity flows the greatest, and I cannot wait to immerse myself in that unexplored again.

Terima Kasih!

Fighting the Falmouth Town/Gown Divide

With student numbers ever increasing thanks to the foolish rapid expansion plans of both Falmouth and Exeter Universities, it is inevitable that town and gown relations are going to deteriorate in the coming months. Locals are at risk of being priced out of their own communities in both Penryn and Falmouth. For many, Falmouth has been a place where they have been born and bred. Imagine how you would feel if your home village/town/community was systematically altered by the addition of thousands of students in just a couple of years? We students like to be seen as saintly, but there is absolutely no doubt that we are having a massive impact on the local community, whether we like it or not.

I work in a shop in Falmouth, and we have a excellent rapport with our customers. I enjoy talking to our regulars, but they all talk of the issues the students are posing locally. Whether it is loud house parties, the odorous scent of marijuana on the streets or a fight after a wild night in Club I, we have to admit as a student body that we are part of this problem. For the most of us, and probably most of you reading this, these issues may seem like they belong to someone else. But they do. The locals see us as ‘students’ collectively, not singular, and perhaps this needs changing. Whilst they see (and hear) all about these issues, who is telling them about all the great work our students are doing? Other than Science in the Square, are we doing enough in the local community?

For a long time, our student community has asked a lot of the local community, and we’ve received a lot in return, thanks to the efforts of the FXU and other concerned bodies. We have cheaper bus fares, student discounts in lots of shops locally, plenty of houses are being converted for student accommodation and by and large, we have received a pretty good deal locally.

I argue, however, that the time has come to turn this on its head. To paraphrase a much better orator than I, ‘Ask not what this community can do for you, ask what you can do for this community’. 

We have loads of student societies doing great things locally, but lets tell them about it. Let’s get the locals enthused about the great Green Living Project, and all the other things we are doing. At the moment we get to hear about our deficiencies in the local press, social media and in person, but isn’t this all they are hearing? We need to learn to celebrate and advertise our wonderful successes locally, and to make our community proud of what they do. Half the people I speak to in the shop literally have no idea that there are two universities on our campus; I hope you find that as shocking as I do. Importantly, we do have successes! We have some incredible artists on campus, amazing performances, world-class research, inspirational future leaders, a fantastically diverse community and some truly impressive feats from our various societies. Why don’t we actually make an effort to tell the locals this? Be it in a biannual event in the town hall, community events or press releases, this would be a step in the right direction.

Now I’m no grand marketing strategist, but I’d argue that the current strategy isn’t befitting the impact we are making on the local community, and this is something we need to work on.

We have some great volunteering schemes, but I strongly believe that it is time to create a ‘Falmouth Student Volunteer Corps’ for specific use within the Falmouth/Penryn community, as opposed to helping out on well known beauty spots around the county. Through the town council, the local press or a local forum, the local community should have the power to decide what said volunteer corps do. Perhaps cleaning a local stream, or helping out at a struggling local club; whatever the local community decides is most needed. It could even be improving a poorly-maintained area of Falmouth. We can do so much in this community that there is no need to stop there! How about society-sponsored sports competitions? A Town & Gown 10K charity race?

We need to commit to this community, and help dissolve the divide between students and locals. There will always be grumpy locals, in the same way that there will always be marijuana-toting students, but there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t challenge the current perception of us. Rather than seeing ourselves as part of the problem, we need to recognise that as a collective community, we are also the solution. Once we’ve realised this, perhaps the locals will begin to see what we are capable of too, and begin to be proud of what their local students can do for them.

It is time to stop ignoring the issues, and face them head on.

Only then will we see change.

More excitingly, we can make it happen.

(Nb. This isn’t to demean the efforts of our sabbatical officers, who have done a brilliant job in pretty tricky circumstances lately. This is what I think we should be doing on top of what we do already, and I really hope we do. If anything, this can only make the sabb officer jobs better, right)?!

 

 

360 Video: Inspirational Education

After a few months of little market-penetration, 360 degree video is finally making waves. I’m sure you’ve seen clips on social media, but if you haven’t, I’ll give a brief explanation. 360 video cameras usually have two lenses facing opposite to each other, giving a roughly 360 degree effect, with fisheye lenses in the same style as a GoPro. Using correction functions in post-production software, it is possible to make it look very much like a real scene, with an amount of unavoidable distortion.

The real beauty of 3D video is that it allows you to explore what is going on anywhere in the scene. By scrolling across the screen, you get to choose the direction of the camera at any given moment. As a platform, it really is quite brilliant, though the quality isn’t quite the 4K/HD quality most of us are used to by now. As shown in the linked video of Liverpool Football Club’s ground, Anfield, it has real potential as a medium. At the moment, the devices are quite expensive and haven’t seen much real world use- big events seem to the name of the game.

I’m keen to take one on my expedition this summer for an altogether reason: education. It is one thing to teach children and students through textbooks and pretty photographs on a presentation slide, but imagine if that student could explore the subject for themselves? Take the jungle for example; I can show kids as many horrific photos of me being bitten by leeches as I like, or of enormous monitor lizards roaming the jungle, but surely by letting them explore the jungle themselves, they would be more interested?

Like most wildlife videography, the scenes would have to be staged to an extent, with us already knowing what will be in each shot, but a student could scroll through video, searching for something, when they get to discover an amazing species, and feel that buzz- you know, the one that I assume all scientists get when they find something cool and are doing what they love? I believe that by putting this choice (and this chance) in the hands of students, perhaps on a website or as part of a presentation, we really could inspire the next generation of Bioscientists and Geographers, as well as other disciplines.

Could this be the future of Educational Science Communication?

I’d argue not the future, but I think it should certainly play a big role in the coming years, and I’m incredibly excited to see this technology develop.

360 Degree video is here, and you should definitely be paying attention!

 

Road to Grad School: The List Narrows

It has been weeks since I’ve posted about my goal of doing Postgraduate study at a solid American Uni, but believe me, the desire is very much alive and well. I’ve had a meeting with the Exeter Career Zone which offered some useful advice, though I gather that they don’t get many students doing this! The internet is my most valuable resource at this stage, and I’ve been fortunate to find a brilliant opportunity with Fulbright over the summer in the USA that would be fully funded, and fit my aspirations perfectly. Whether this comes through is another matter entirely, and Malaysia is still on the cards until then. I’ve also started to look at the GRE in more detail (the big, evil brother of the 11+), and am trying to work out when to squeeze that in.

For the uninitiated, you have to pay a fee to each university you apply to. It is generally accepted that you apply to as many as you can afford, and with the fee ranging from $50 to $300, you really need to get your decisions right. The fee is presumably a way of cutting out speculative applications from unlikely candidates. That being said, if you are offered a place, most top universities in the US will roll out the red carpet for you; my partner received a significant travel bursary from 2 colleges that enabled her to fly on a return trip from the UK to check 2 of them out. I guess, therefore, that whilst the fee is a lot up front, in the long-run it could be covered many times over- if you get in.

Anyway, I’ve been carefully pruning my list of colleges that I am interested in.

University of Michiganuniversity-of-michigan_logo

My partner’s alma mater, UMich is a big, big school. Well regarded nationally, the vast majority of their programs are in the top 10/15 within the US, and their School of Natural Resources and Environment is no exception.  Ann Arbor is an apparently beautiful small city, being significantly smaller than my own local city (Coventry, my benchmark). I will be visiting my partner at Christmas, so I’m looking forward to seeing UMich at what I assume will be its worst, in the snowy, frigid months of a Michigan winter. Oh, did I mention that Michigan has the 2nd largest sports stadia in the world? Strong faculty and pretty good funding makes this an application no-brainer.

Michigan State is quite close to my partner, which helps, only being 68 miles- an hour or so’s drive, from Ann Arbor. Regardless, MSU also has a very good Geography department with specific foci on GIS, and my research aligns quite nicely with some potential supervisors. Michigan State is another big school, and is a little bit closer to the best physical geography that Michigan has to offer.

Michigan State is quite close to my partner, which helps, only being 68 miles- an hour or so’s drive, from Ann Arbor. Regardless, MSU also has a very good Geography department with specific foci on GIS, and my research aligns quite nicely with some potential supervisors. Michigan State is another big school, and is a little bit closer to the best physical geography that Michigan has to offer.

Michigan StatedefaultMichigan State is quite close to my partner, which helps, only being 68 miles- an hour or so’s drive, from Ann Arbor. Regardless, MSU also has a very good Geography department with specific foci on GIS, and my research aligns quite nicely with some potential supervisors. Michigan State is another big school, and is a little bit closer to the best physical geography that Michigan has to offer.

Cornell University 

Cornell

Make no bones about it, Cornell is a big deal. An Ivy League school, Cornell is based in Ithaca, New York state, and is a tantalising 3 hours away from New York city itself- one of the great cities. Cornell has a beautiful campus, with Ithaca’s beautiful lakeside location combining with gorges and parks to make this a compelling destination for any geographer. Cornell is one of the best schools in the world, and their natural resources programme reflects that.

At the moment, these are my 3 ‘firm choices’. I have a list of other schools that require further research: University of Pennsylvania, Oregon State, Penn State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Chicago and possibly Yale.

This is my journey so far, and whether I am successful or not, it will stand me in good stead for future. There is a long way to go, and thousands of hours of work until I get there. I need the best grades possible, and they don’t come easily. Ultimately, it will come down to how much funding each university offers, provided I get in. And there is a long, long time until I find that out!

Regardless, these are the humble origins of my American dream. Lets just hope I don’t channel Of Mice and Men!

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