Monday, 26 July 2010

Shoot ten: Brian Cox and Gia Milinovich

Gia, Greg and Brian Gia and Brian (and a toaster)

A domestic setting for our tenth shoot, at home with Prof Brian Cox, Gia Milinovich, baby George and their two cats.

We really liked the idea of having a geek couple for one of our shoots, and Brian and Gia seemed like the obvious first choice. Gia's been taking some time off work recently, but she is well known for media work on science and technology, and is a long-time blogger. She's also the reason Jonathan Ross is on twitter (but we'll forgive her). Brian Cox recently presented the acclaimed Wonders of the Solar System for the BBC, and is currently filming a follow-up series. He is also a working scientist; writes for the Sun; was scientific adviser on the movie Sunshine; and is becoming well known for his advocacy of science funding. Oh, and he used to be a rock star.

Inspiration for this shoot came from a great suggestion on twitter to show Brian struggling with the instruction manual to a microwave. We folded in the idea of a geek couple, added retro theme into this, and the idea evolved into a set complete with broken toaster, instruction manual and martini glasses, all shot in Brian and Gia's kitchen. The cats were quite taken with all our audio, photography, video and lighting equipment.

cat and camera landscape

Once we could tear Barry away from the cats, we did a quick interview with Brian and Gia about what they felt geekiness means. To Brian, a geek is someone obsessed with how the universe works and the tools for understanding the universe, including cameras and buses. The reason he mentioned buses was that, as 6 year old, Brian was a bit of a bus-spotter. Well, "bit of" is probably an understatement: he would stare out of his front window for hours collecting the serial numbers of buses (not route numbers, not registration numbers: the serial numbers). He has since graduated to plane spotting, as you might guess from his twitter avatar.

Gia's felt her definition was a little less narrow: "it's just being obsessed with anything". Gia also had one of the best answers we've heard to the "who's your favourite geek" question: Ben Folds. She said she feel in love with his music but he also made feel ok about being a geek.

Here's another shot of one of their cats, this time exploring the props. We know what you internet people like.

cat drinks the martini

This was also the second shoot where everyone got very excited by the Guardian's microphone (again, joining us to record some interviews), and also yet another shoot to include a bit of a geek-out over cameras. Though Aleks and Greg's camera-off last week made an awesome image, Brian and Greg's discussion of charge, vibration and collection of dust in their cameras has to have been the geekiest. Even the cat talk turned into discussion of enzymes, as the man from the Guardian told us if you put a Siamese in the fridge, it goes black (NB: He hadn't actually tried this, and wouldn't suggest you do either. Please be nice to your cats).

We'll finish with a shot of one of Gia's shoes. She knew they wouldn't be in the calendar photos, but wanted the outfit to be complete anyway. A professional from head to toe, that Gia.

shoes - from side

Monday, 19 July 2010

Shoot nine: Aleks Krotoski

Technology is obviously a big part of geek culture and plays a big part in bringing geek communities together. When we started planning Geek Calendar, this was one of the first areas we wanted to represent, and who better than Aleks Krotoski.


Dr Aleks Krotoski is a journalist and academic interested in technology and interactivity. Her recently completed PhD was on the impressively titled 'Social Influence in Second Life: Social Network and Social Psychological Processes in the Diffusion of Belief and Behaviour on the Web' and she is currently Researcher in Residence for the British Library's Growing Knowledge project.

On the media side, you may remember her from the classic gaming TV shows Bits and Thumb Bandits. Today you may have seen her on the recent BAFTA award-winning BBC documentary series, The Virtual Revolution, or heard her in her regular role as host of the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast.

(Fact: Aleks was also once named one of the Top Ten girl geeks by CNET, above Paris Hilton, but below Lisa Simpson).

Our idea for this shoot was to use somewhere tech-heavy, but related to Aleks's many professional roles. So what better (and convenient) place than The Guardian podcast studios?

Aleks K's glamour shoot

Thanks to The Guardian's Alok Jha and Andy Duckworth, we gained access to one of the studios for an afternoon. For the record, the Guardian has about five audio recording studios, though sadly the big one where Tech Weekly is usually recorded was in use -- unfortunate, as we were looking forward to meeting its resident Sarah Palin ;)

Aleks carries a tremendous number of exciting gadgets with her: daily equipment includes her iPhone, Macbook and SLR camera, making for a good weight-lifting workout just carrying her handbag! But this all provided useful props for the shoot.

Taking the mic(s)

Our idea was to photograph Aleks surrounded by microphones and tech to capture her Tech Weekly role. We tried a few variations with different headphones and impersonations of Geordi La Forge and Minnie Mouse. This was her point of view.

Our other, crazy, idea was to show Aleks' 'wired' brandishing two interconnected iPhones and decorated with a variety of colourful cables borrowed from the Guardian's multimedia storeroom.


Yes, Jesus did cross our mind, an irony that was not lost on us when Aleks told us of her Catholic upbringing!

In-between shoots, we kept our subject fueled with Haribo and talked Twitter, iPhones (there were no less than five in the room at one point) and Dopplr.

Camera, varnish, Mac

We also discussed the mysterious lack of clocks on The Guardian's 'multimedia' floor and King's Place's terrible wifi (seriously, what's up with that?).

This was also the first Geek Calendar shoot for our other photographer, Greg Funnell, and he and Aleks bonded over their love of photography, SLR settings and who had the better camera. Who won? I think Greg (he does this for a living, after all ;) ).

Shoot off!

In her video interview, Aleks named Simon Pegg (for geek favourite Spaced), Cory Doctorow ("the man so prolific he puts us other geeks to shame") and fellow Geek Calendar-er Ben Goldacre ("He has great hair") among her favourite geeks. I also liked her description of a geek as "someone who wasn't in the in-crowd when they were younger, but is now changing the world and making it a better place".

Aleks was a really good sport, going along with all our zany ideas, and it was a real pleasure to work with her. You can see more behind-the-scenes pics of the shoot on our Flickr page.

*UPDATED 19/7/2010 10.47. Corrected title and link to Aleks's PhD thesis.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Shoot eight: the multi-media one

A multi-media shoot. There was the usual GeekCal silliness of Alice taking photos (for the blog), Barry filming (for the video); and Ben taking photos (for the actual calendar). But this was especially media-heavy, as our subjects are all members of the UK science press pack. Hannah Devlin and Mark Henderson from The Times science desk, Nigel Hawkes (late of Times Health), blogger Ed Yong and New Scientist editor, Roger Highfield.

Behind the Times

Another layer was provided by Alok Jha, from the Guardian Science Weekly podcast who popped along with his microphone for a few interviews. He refused to be photographed though, and instead hid behind a biscuit. That's the pic on the left hand side. In the middle, Ed momentarily turns his back on Hannah. On the right? Well, those are some chips...

who is this shadowy figure? Hannah and Ed Today's chip wrappers

... the chips were one of our prop ideas. Each of the writers had a poke of chips wrapped in their newspaper or magazine. Or in the case of Ed, printouts of one of his blogposts. Yesterday's news being today's chip-wrapping and all that.

As the shoot progressed and the chips got a bit soggy, the mainstream media types all had some fun throwing them at Ed. We're not sure what Mark is doing to them here though (singing?).

Roger, Nigel and Mark

While we were shooting we noticed a guy taking photos on his phone of us. Alice thought she recognised him from a tweetup he had organised at Broadcasting House last February. She googled him when she got home and lo, if a pic of our shoot wasn't already uploaded to his Flickr page?

Yes, our photoshoot of journalists was paparazzi-ed by the Radio Four blogger. I don't think it is possible to be more rock and roll than that. Thanks to Steve Browbick for letting us re-publish the photo here.

Event in the park

The shoot took place in Gordon Square (thanks to UCL for letting us use it), just a stone's throw from the location of our sixth shoot, the week before. This connection provides us with our closing question. Bloggers vs. journalism, who has the best shoes: Ben Goldacre or Roger Highfield? (....& as loads of people have said on twitter, what's with Ben's purple socks?).

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Shoot seven: Sydney Padua

Sydney's books

An artistic seventh shoot, as our subject was Sydney Padua. We know of Sydney from her webcomic, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. You can follow these on her website, see a BBC's Tech Lab feature on it, there's a slideshow at the Oxford Museum for the History of Science, and/or watch a lovely video of her presentation on graphic storytelling.

This all started when Sydney agreed to do a biographical sketch of Ada Lovelace for a friend who co-ordinates Ada Lovelace Day. The punchline was "Wouldn’t it be hee-larious if there was a comic about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage fighting crime?". The answer being clearly "yes", she kept going.

If you don't know who Babbage or Lovelace are, Google it. Trust us, the internet loves them. All we'll say here is that they were around largely in the 19th C, hence the hat.

Babbage's hat!

One of the best things about meeting Sydney (and there were lots) was the definition of geek she gave us. We've been asking a few of our geeks this question, part of a small video of the shoots we're making. Sydney's answer was that "geek", to her, means having a passion. Be this for your work, your hobby, or something in between. To spend all day at work, often doing something you love and feel passionate about too, and yet still find the time and energy to, for example, set up a world famous web comic about crime fighting heroes in the history of technology*.

By day, Sydney works in visual effects. You've probably seen some of her animated creations at the cinema. We were especially excited to spot a figure of the Iron Giant on her window sill (and an original sketch from the film). As she explains on website, she does the comic for "no particular reason" other than she likes "history, science, comics, primary documents, and pointless non-remunerative projects". This is something Team GeekCal can identify with.

Ben sets up a shot of Sydney sketching

Our setting was Sydney's studio, and she sketched throughout the first part of the shoot. As she tweeted later, pencil geeks will be interested to know this was a real live blackwing she was working with. Apparently blackwings are a thing (seriously, if you aren't a pencil geek already, google "blackwing". There is a whole world of geekiness out there waiting to be discovered).

A member of Team GeekCal knew a musician who used to import special music pencils to London from LA. Apparently they were somewhere between HB and 2B and had a different shaped/ sized led which was especially good for quickly forming clear musical notation. Sadly, this musician isn't around anymore, so we can't forward him the link to the blog on music and pencils we've just found. Suffice to say, pencil geekery = not just for people who draw (also, that somewhere, there is a blog about anything and everything).

Sydney sketches

A better shot of Sydney's sketch, below. This is still unfinished version though. She polished it off and signed it later, and it's now safely under lock and key at Geek Calendar HQ. We are debating whether to auction it off for libel reform. We're pretty tempted to keep it for ourselves though, it's pretty darn cool, no?

Babbage sues for libel.

* After Sydney's comics, our favourite bit of Babbage-inspired geekery has to be the person who made a Difference Engine out of Lego.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Shoot six: Ben Goldacre

Dr Goldacre is a prolific guy: you've probably at least stumbled across his blog, tweets, seen him on telly, radio, in the Guardian, on stage or read his best-selling book. You can even buy the tshirt (or underpants*).

The dude gets about, and he isn't afraid to bring his opinions with him. Even the calmest of press officers spill their coffee at the merest rumour he's on site. Quacks, spin-doctors, PRs hide. The most hardened of journalists shudder at the very mention of his name.

So, our 6th subject: The angry young man of UK science? In person, not in the slightest. Ben was cheery and relaxed, humble even. He was also incredibly patient about our various silly requests.

Ben Goldacre

We got him to sit on a set of different chairs (including a very tiny stool, which must have been a tad uncomfortable) and lay about on the windowsill, draped in about fifteen different broadsheet newspapers whilst reading a life and style freesheet.

Our location was the Club Room at Wellcome Collection, and we played around with "framing" him through some of their bookshelves for a while (framing, as in media-framing geddit?).

Ben framed

He chatted about the web, scientists and the media, and his new (awesome) idea for linking the first two of these. He also said he wanted to eat the brains of one blogger. That was a bit scary. We suspect he was joking though, and meant it as complement (e.g. see this lovely piece about science bloggers by Ben, from 2008).

Ben (photographer) sets up

Then he toddled off and we packed up, with a great set of images for the calendar on file. All in all, a very pleasant shoot. Plus he was wearing shiny shoes. Yes, that is a tweet-pic of a load of mainstream media (dead tree versions) lying at the feet of Ben Goldacre. SYMBOLIC.

* When I am not messing around doing silly things like Geek Calendar, I am a (semi) serious academic and recently wrote the entry on popular science for the SAGE Encyclopedia for Science and Technology Communication. I take immense professional pride in the fact I sneaked a mention of these underpants into my piece (the book's out next term, we'll see if it made the final edit).

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Shoot five: Alex Bellos and Matt Parker

Monday night saw our fifth shoot: almost halfway there. Or maybe it's only a third, if we go for a fifteen-month calendar? Such fractional debates are appropriate as this shoot was maths themed. This was also geek calendar multiplied. A duel-subject shoot: Matt Parker, “standup mathematician”, and writer Alex Bellos.

laughing at maths

You might have come across Matt's work on maths-busking, these awesome vids promoting maths teaching, or his wondrous way with socks. We also spotted a tweetpic preview of his forthcoming Edinburgh show (including shark costume).

Alex represents a more literary end of maths-popularisation. You can watch co-geekcalendar subject, Adam Rutherford, interviewing Alex about his new book, Alex's Adventures in Numberland on the BBC's Culture Show site. Alex was the Guardian's South America correspondent for five years, and ghostwrote Pelé's 2006 autobiography.

pondering bill

Seeing as we'd found two such super-cool maths geeks, we had an idea for the image of both of them arguing over the division of a bar bill. As soon as we mentioned this to Alex, he remembered a 15th century woodblock of Pythagoras and Boethius having a counting contest - one with numbers, one with counting table - and suggested we took this as an inspiration.

Geeky-credit where geeky-credit is due, it was quite geeky that Alex referenced a 15thC woodblock as an image idea, but when I forwarded this to the rest of the team, art director Louise emailed me back within minutes with the exact image. Louise is a picture researcher at the Wellcome Trust, and knows her stuff.

Matt and Alex hadn’t met before, and it was funny watching them bond over mutual maths-y acquaintances, love of puns and, most of all, calculation machines. As Mun-Keat dead-panned : “I had no idea eBay was such a depository for retro-maths kit”.

abaci Alex's curta
Matt's old calculator calculator

The coolest of these was quite clearly Alex’s Curta (top right hand corner). The Curta is the only mechanical pocket calculator, and the most accurate one up until electronic ones hit the market in the 1970s. They have quite a dramatic history, too: Curt Herzstark invented it while a prisoner in Buchenwald concentration camp (read all about this on p.194-6 of Alex's book). You can watch Alex's Curta in action in what is possibly the greatest book trailer ever made, which also has some great advice on cutting cake. On a similar topic, we can recommend a vid from Matt too, featuring his "skills for bills" (it also mentions cake).

Our location was the Jeremy Bentham pub just off Gower Street, which is officially a geeky place for a pint, Londonist says so. All in all, I think this was probably the geekiest of the shoots we’ve done so far. Trust me, Imran’s affection for research policy documents took some beating. Maybe it was the pub location, but it was also one of the most convivial.

If this snap of Louise looking at photographer-Ben’s computer is anything to go by, it looks like we caught a good shot for the calendar too.

checking the pics 2

Finally: the “cake crumbs” on the plates are actually a mix of coffee granules and mayonnaise. FACT.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Shoot four: Kat Akingbade

Another week, another shoot for Geek Calendar. This week our subject was the writer and broadcaster Kat Akingbade.

Ben takes a closer look at Kat

Kat has a degree in Clinical Sciences and has conducted research at the University of Oxford, worked for the World Health Organization and BBC Radio 4, and written for Nature, amongst others. However, her best known work is perhaps the the Channel 4 TV show Science of Scams, which she presents with Derren Brown.

The idea for this shoot was to play on her Science of Scams persona, with her examining a 'quack' bottle of pills with that detective/scientist's friend, the magnifying glass.

'Homeopathic Pills'

The pill bottle is actually a large brown lab bottle, courtesy of our previous subject, Lewis Dartnell. We filled it with cheap paracetamol pills and labelled the bottle with two different labels: a leftover from Wellcome Collection's 'Quacks and Cures' event, and a finely written (thanks to our friend Laura Pastorelli's lovely calligraphy!) nod to the UK sceptics community.

Restitution fluid

The location itself was a convenient one. We were looking for a backdrop featuring unusual items that might fit in with the investigative theme of the shot. We didn't have to look very far -- a number of the Geek Calendar team work at the Wellcome Trust and next door is one of the finest collections of weird scientific/medical ephemera you can imagine: Wellcome Collection.

With the help of Kirsten Warren and Sam Horston at Wellcome Collection we were granted after hours access to the two permanent galleries: Medicine Man and Medicine Now.

Medicine Man

Medicine Man features bits and bobs from Sir Henry Wellcome's vast collection -- everything from medical instruments and paintings to sex toys and shrunken Incan mummies. An earlier recce with our photographer Ben spotted a lovely collection of well-lit bottles just by the entrance, so this was the first place we tried.

Strike the pose

Following that, we moved on to the brighter, more modern surroundings of Medicine Now, home of the giant jelly baby and a DNA sequencing machine.

Medicine Now

There, we tried a few shots of Kat at the clinical-looking white tables, to a background of the colourful pictures contributed by that kids (and adults) visiting Wellcome Collection.

Medicine Now shoot

Watching in the background

In-between shots Kat told us about her day filming the new series of Science of Scams and how she'd spent her afternoon at a trapeze artist training facility(!).

Kat and Louise chat between shots

Kat was really good fun to work with and spoke passionately about her investigative work. She was also extremely modest, embarrassed almost to be the subject of a photoshoot (and, like the rest of us, came to realise that being a model is harder work than you'd think!).

We were really pleased with the resulting shots. You can see further behind-the-scenes shots over on our Flickr page.