Tag Archives: photography

Novgorod: medieval democracy in Russia

An index to this series is found on its first post.

October 27, 2017

With several hours left in Novgorod, I set my sights on understanding the remarkable “veche” government of the medieval city.  What would 14th-century democracy look like?

First, though, I scratched an itch by returning to Holy Wisdom for another look at the Novgorod stone cross inside the cathedral. While I was there, I found a couple of gifts for people who might not have been expecting presents from this trip.  While I dithered over potential purchases, I realized I was standing right next to a chapel in which a service was taking place.  A priest in the chapel intoned from a script.  Individual parishioners stepped out of the service at my left to consult with a priest at my right.  From time to time he would punctuate the other priest’s litany with a singing cry, to which the other would respond “Amen.”  You can listen to a brief sound recording of the duo.


A dusting of snow makes anyone seem friendlier.

Snow continued to fall through the night, so I got to see the city plazas and statues with a light blanket of white. I realized that I recognized the figure standing in the plaza outside the Novgorod kremlin (walled fortress); he’s Lenin!


Five looks for the Monument to the Millennium of Russian Statehood

I took photos all around the periphery of the Millennium of Russia, a statue unveiled inside this city’s kremlin in 1862 to celebrate the 1000th year since Rurik came to rule over the Slavs and Urgo-Finnic people in this area.  Rurik appears in the left-most panel above; he’s the one holding the shield.  The next panel shows a ruler holding a cross aloft; this commemorates Vladimir the Great becoming a Christian (and forcibly converting all his followers) in 988.  The martial-looking dude to the right of the first panel represents Dmitry Donskoi, beginning to push back the reign of the Golden Horde in 1380.  The fellow who looks like a monk in the third panel represents Ivan III, “The Great,” who assured the power of Russia against the Tartars, Livonians, and Lithuanians in 1491 (just before Columbus’ fateful voyage).  The fourth panel shows the nobility guarding the ascent of the Michael I Romanov to close out the Time of Troubles in 1613.  The figure in the final panel should seem familiar after my post on Peter the Great!


Novgorod History Museum

From there, I turned to the history museum of Novgorod (called the “Novgorod State Museum-Reserve”). From its front step, one looks past the Millennium Monument, straight towards Holy Wisdom. There’s a lot of culture, all in one place! Sadly, the museum frustrated me, right out of the gate. I had walked through about four rooms of the place when I gave up; not a single exhibit in that space had an English label (or even one with Latin lettering)! I had already paid 200 RUB to enter the museum, and now I had to pay 200 RUB more, plus a 1000 RUB deposit, to rent an “audio guide.” As I walked through the exhibits, I touched the pen to the provided map to indicate where I was. The numbered spots would play back a recorded audio in English to describe those items. I would have preferred a printed book, because then I could capture the information with my camera.

It is plain that Lake Ilmen was popular with settlers from many tribes, over a very long period of time. The sediments around here are just loaded with the leavings of all the groups from which Russia was merged. I was fascinated with the quality of artifacts that have been recovered from Rurik’s Fort, just southwest of town. These ruins have produced a fair bit of glass, including an intact drinking cup. In the ninth century, glass was only available to the very wealthy!


The daily grind

The audio left an important leap of logic unfilled. It reported that the soils around Novgorod are not particularly great for farming, therefore the population turned to arts and crafts to get by. Generally, I think of cities working in the other direction. Once food production is ensured, then people start differentiating into specialties. In any case, Novgorod became very good at pottery, iron and copper working, and any number of other specialties. As I mentioned before, the city became part of the Hanseatic League. If any League member wanted to sell items in Russia, they were only allowed to sell to Novgorod. Sales to other communities in Russia would subsequently be handled by the merchants of Novgorod.


Some of the biggest and the smallest of coins!

Correspondingly, Novgorod has proven a rich site for coins from throughout Eurasia.  I particularly enjoyed a large sheet of metal that served as a high-denomination note.  The trove also includes large numbers of coins first struck in Moscow under Ivan III featuring a horse on one side.  The coins came to be called “kopeks,” nicknamed for that equine image.


While it may seem odd to make a wooden road, it would carry the weight of people and carts just fine.

Wood was in abundant supply to Novgorod. Almost everything was built of it. A model showed a reconstruction of a district of town. The mansions were wood. The lesser homes and outbuildings were wood. The roads were made of wood, and the walls separating public and private property were wood. In fact, when a segment of road had degraded too much, the city would add a new layer parallel to the flow of traffic and then another layer perpendicular to it. Over time, the roads became somewhat elevated, and drainage became an issue (as you may have guessed, the channels were also made of wood). A wood-construction open air museum devoted to wood construction has been open since the 1960s, but unfortunately I didn’t have quite enough time to see it.

Novgorod also became involved in long-range trade routes between Asia and northern Europe. I hadn’t been aware that a northern companion silk route fed this product to Scandinavia. The variety of coins and foreign products that have been found in layers since the 10th century is quite surprising. Obviously the city built close ties to Byzantium, considering its religious link.


One student became bored with writing exercises.

I hadn’t realized that Novgorod had been such a center of literacy for the Old Russian language! The museum had two forms of written works on display. The first was a small tray to produce a thin layer of wax. A student could practice with a stylus on the wax and then re-melt to erase. A psalter in this format was on display, one of the earliest examples of the written communication in this part of the world. The next type of written work was birch bark. Certainly, there are enough trees of this type in this part of the world! They displayed a few “pages” from a small boy who enjoyed doodling when his attention wandered.


The bells on display at the St. Sophia bell tower range back to 1614.

Novgorod is remarkable for its form of government. The merchants had enough sway that they were able to retain right of approval on their political leader; essentially the merchants pushed the nobility out of town and elected a prince from time to time. Novgorod was the city that elected Prince Alexander Nevsky in the time of Swedish and Livonian attacks. They retained him as Prince even though he agreed to pay the Mongols protection money; in fact, Novgorod paid more than its share of Russia’s tribute under the “Mongol Yoke.” A key symbol to Novgorod democracy was the bell calling the city to have a veche, or assembly.


St. Nicholas, by Alexa Petrov, 1294

The museum has a really phenomenal collection of Russian Orthodox icons. I’ve seen enough that I know this isn’t my favorite style of art! Just the same, the collection is astounding. The Peter and Paul icon is taller than I am; it had been placed in the Holy Wisdom Cathedral in the twelfth century. The St. Nicholas icon is pretty recognizable. When I was at the museum, an artist was trying to duplicate the face of the saint on a fresh canvas. I particularly liked an icon that showed a battle between the Prince of Suzdal (another Russian princely state) and the people of Novgorod. An archbishop held one of the city’s icons up on its wall, and an arrow apparently bounced off the icon. The bishop then exclaimed that the icon had begun crying in response. The icon representing the battle then showed heroes from the dead (such as St. Nevsky) fighting on the side of Novgorod’s defenders.


Detail from icon of battle with Suzdal

All good things come to an end, and the Novgorod Republic found its end in Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584). He felt that their ties to the west represented a betrayal of Russian ideas, and he sent his unsavory Oprichniki forces to raid the city. They burned and pillaged Novgorod, killing thousands. Perhaps their most symbolic insult to the city was that the bell to call together a veche was taken down and ported on a sledge back to Moscow (though legends reported the bell never arrived). After the assault of the Oprichniki, Novgorod would forever be part of a greater Russian state.

The museum really did have a great collection. I wish that they would improve their accessibility with more signs in English. I should also mention that Russian museums seem to be part of a large scale employment plan for little old ladies (LOL). Every room has its attendant LOL. As I completed the arts side of the first floor, a LOL kept interrupting my audio recording. Eventually I understood that she was saying that for the rest of the arts side, the audio guide was not in sync with the updated exhibits. She kept following me around and insisting about something or other. Eventually, my part of the conversation sounded quite like this: “I know you want to have a conversation, but neither of us speaks a language the other understands. What I want at this point is for you to sit back down let me get on with the museum.” In the end, I just turned my back and walked away. I sat in another part of the museum to hear about the literature that was no longer on display.


St. Sophia (it’s only a model)

Having finished with the history museum, I wandered back to the visitor’s information center. A line of sheds have been put in place to sell souvenirs. Of course one can buy bells, but many types of wood art are available. I bought a couple of items for loved ones. With that I went to the information booth itself.  I bought a bottle of kvas, which is a beverage fermented from rye bread. I had heard about it before this trip, and I thought I should try it. How would I describe the taste? It’s a little like beer, but not as sharp. It has very little alcohol in it (less than one percent). I like it!


The grounds of the St. Gregory (Yuriev) Monastery

The information folks hoped I would go ahead to visit the monastery of St. Gregory, just south of town. To get there, I needed to catch a city bus across the street. The bus cost was minimal (just 22 RUB), so I just gave it a whirl. In fifteen minutes, I was at the monastery. I took several photos within the grounds, but I saw my battery was running flat.


Palm Sunday?

I took a couple of shots in the Cathedral of St. Gregory. The floor is only partially intact, but there are some lovely works of art to see in the columns and the ceiling. As I stepped outside to take a picture of yet another pretty church, the dreaded “change the battery” warning appeared on my camera. Where was the spare? Dreck. I’d left it in my laptop case, which was waiting back at the hotel.  For some reason I had left my inferior camera battery from Watson in place rather than using the proper Canon battery.

My secret agenda in coming to St. Gregory’s was actually to see Rurik’s hill fort, visible from the river bank at St. Gregory’s. I walked over there, in hopes of squeezing just one more shot from my battery. The first place was on the water, but my view of the fort was blocked by trees. I crossed a concrete bridge after trekking through a muddy road bed. Then I slogged across a very muddy trail up and down a bluff to get to the perfect spot. I said a brief wish for good things and attached my 55-200 mm zoom lens. The camera powered up! I fixed my zoom on the fort (at least on the church above the ruins), hit the shutter trigger, and… “change the battery.” I didn’t get my photo after all.



Tygerberg Nature Reserve: a conspicuous absence of tigers

With cloudy skies to start this springtime Saturday, Natasha and I resolved to visit the nearby Tygerberg Nature Reserve for a much-delayed hike!  Since the trails do not offer much shade, an overcast day seemed just right for our stroll.  We approached the Reserve from the east, so our path led by the Welgemoed neighborhood, one of the notable security estates in this area.  The grounds of the Bellville Golf Club provided a nice, green background for our drive up the foothills.  As we gained altitude, the property values escalated, as well, with the final row of houses against the Reserve perimeter sufficiently opulent to qualify as micro-mansions.

From my previous comments about the Tygerberg Hills, you might recall that the name of the hills comes from the patchwork of small bumps (heuweltjies) on these hills that become visible in summer time.  After we parked in the Reserve’s tight parking lot, we entered for a mere R15 per person (approximately one USD).  A signboard we found upon entry explained the layout of the trails in the Reserve.  I was keen to see the highest point of the hills, and so Natasha and I headed uphill to the Watsonia trail (2.7 km).  We joined the trail at its southern end, a small grove of pine trees creating a shady spot with picnic tables.  I’ve seen these trees from the N1 a hundred times, so it was a treat to rest there a moment.  This grove offers really nice viewing for my place of work, the Tygerberg Hospital campus.


The white complex is SUN FHMS, where I work. The yellow brick building is Tygerberg Hospital.

I was sad to see that the trees had been affected by the pine pitch canker.  As non-indigenous trees, the pines are not the best option for this Reserve, but I always feel sentimental about dying trees.


They cannot muzzle me so easily!

In no time flat, Natasha had charged up the hill to the highest peak in the Tygerberg Hills (it’s quite close to the Southern end of the Watsonia trail).  Once we reached the top, we found a canon that dates from 1723.  It had been used to call Western Cape forces to its defense on four different occasions (twice in 1781, once in 1795, and once in 1806).  Because of the overcast, the view from the peak was not quite as clear as it might have been.  Assembling a 360 degree panorama is not really possible due to the large radio masts at the crest.  As we gazed toward Table Mountain, Natasha observed that the city must be getting plenty of rain from the clouds blanketing the plateau.

We followed the Watsonia trail toward the north, taking a swing to the east as it descended the slope.  On the northern face, we saw massive meadows of tall grass.  Natasha reminded me that the hills had been preferred grazing grounds for the Khoi people of the Western Cape during the early years of the Cape Colony.  One can certainly see fynbos in the Tygerberg Hills, but the plants are a different selection than one would see on the slopes or top of Table Mountain, in part due to less rain.  In fact, Tygerberg is one of the largest remaining areas where one can see the Swartland Shale Renosterveld.


The Watsonia trail came to an abrupt end at its intersection with the Honey Badger and Grey Rhebok trails.  We decided to follow the latter as it would loop back to the main drag after giving us a chance to explore the eastern slopes.  This walk led us down dirt trails that were considerably less established than the wide Watsonia.  Natasha was delighted in the tiny blooms she spotted next to the trail.  One flower she identified was the endangered Chincherinchee.  This one’s blooms had not fully opened.



We continued down the slope to the boundary fence.  We paused beside a little pool abutting Kanonnier Crescent.  I realized I was not far from the home of my friend Gerard!  As we were walking past the back yards of many homes, we considered their landscaping.  Some homes in this area have made little English gardens, and others have created water-wise plots that use indigenous flowers.  We saw cottages and more modern designs along the boundary.  We were concerned to see swimming pools without covers (not permitted under our water restriction conditions).


Reserve meets suburban neighborhood

My energy was flagging, but I tried to keep up with Natasha’s stalwart pace.  The hill back to the Watsonia trail was steep going.  As we returned to the visitors’ center we opted for another alternative path, named after the caracal, a wild cat one can find here.  Happily we were done with the steep slopes of the Grey Rhebok!  With that, we were finished with our adventure at the Tygerberg Nature Reserve.

Enjoy 28 landscapes in South Africa on your desktop!

I’m pretty easy to spot on vacation; I’m the guy with a small, white, surprisingly heavy camera draped around his neck.  I bought my first Canon mirrorless camera for a 2013 trip to Alaska with my dad, and I had so much fun with it that I bought its successor, the Canon EOS-M2.  Since then I have acquired more than 10,000 snapshots!

In today’s post, I would like to share some of my favorite landscapes from South Africa with you in the form of images for your desktop “wallpaper.”  You can find the whole collection in a zip file from my Google Drive.  Each image has a resolution of 1920×1080, a common widescreen resolution for monitors (or HDTVs).  In this post, I would like to give a little explanation for why I selected each photo.


In my very first weeks at Stellenbosch University, one of my new friends made sure that I had a chance to visit the area near the city of Stellenbosch (the original campus for the university is located there).  The grounds of the Postcard Cafe really swept me away.


We visited some of the wine farms near Stellenbosch, and I enjoyed this view from the Delaire-Graff Estate.


On my first visit to Paarl, a smaller town northeast of Cape Town, I stopped by the Taal Monument, celebrating the Afrikaans language.


I felt a bit nervous about leaving the familiar area around Cape Town, but my friend Jill convinced me to run down to the true southern-most point of Africa, at Cape Agulhas.  The point itself is so rocky I settled for this nearby image instead!


On one of my visits to the Stellenbosch Campus, I took a little wander rather than brave the rush-hour traffic.  The peaceful course of the Eerste (first) River was very soothing.


My first long trip away from my new home came at Easter in 2016.  I stopped at a little farm store on my way out of the Boland via the N1, and the clouds were magical!


My visit to Karoo National Park acquainted me with the experience of viewing wildlife in their natural habitat.  Learning to slow down and enjoy the view was very rewarding here.


I simply loved the atmosphere of Graaff Reinet.  The museum featured a very long-lived grape vine that had survived a recent fungal infection.


The Big Tree at Tsitsikamma was a fun hike.  This is not one of the the big trees, but it’s an interesting looking stump.


My early morning at Knysna found me at the Heads, admiring the view of a cave on the far side of the channel.


This photo from an olive farm restaurant just north of Oudtshoorn looks north to the Swartberg Mountains.  This was the moment when I decided to try a run straight home at the end of my Eastern Cape trip.


I was on a boat with the team from the MRC SHIP program when I turned back toward land to capture this photo of Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak at sunset.


While driving to the Northern Cape, I stopped for a photo after we drove up a very steep incline, just east of Vanrhynsdorp.


I liked this picturesque koppie in Akkerendam Nature Reserve, just north of Calvinia.


When we reached the Orange River at Keimoes, I stopped to enjoy the sound of running water; one doesn’t get to hear that sound frequently here!


Augrabies Falls National Park is built around the massive ravine that the river has carved into the ground.  This image, taken just after sunrise, shows one of the wider sections of that ravine.


Quiver trees are the best.


While driving back from the Northern Cape, we paused to see rock art near the Cederberg Mountains.


I spent an afternoon at the Cape Flats Nature Reserve.  Here we see the Chemical Sciences and Life Sciences Buildings of the University of the Western Cape rising out of the flats!


In Kimberley, they call it the Big Hole for a reason.


Visiting the limestone quarry on Robben Island was a sobering experience.


Cape Point is such a dramatic place!  I didn’t think this angle would produce a comfortable image, but I love how it turned out.


The Spice Route is a fun place to shop, eat, and enjoy life.


On a day when Table Mountain features its “tablecloth,” the cable car descends from the clouds!


The grounds for Chelaya Lodge are simply lovely.  Our choir retreat took place there.


I enjoyed my short hike at Monk’s Cowl.


I didn’t expect to see much water at Golden Gate Highlands, but the dam creates a little reservoir where police officers were enjoying some canoeing time.


I cheated on this photo, since it comes from Thaba Bosiu in Lesotho; this is the only image that is not from South Africa!

I hope you enjoyed this brief tour.  I feel very lucky to have been able to travel so widely in my new home.

Legal Stuff: I am happy for others to use these images freely (including their import to Wikimedia Commons), though I should be acknowledged as the photographer. If you include these images in a product for sale, I require that you publish a link to this blog post, where potential purchasers can acquire the images for free.

Sacred sounds with the Cape Town Chamber Choir

I believe there’s a spark within each of us that turns our hearts to music.  For some, listening to beautiful (or at least catchy) tunes will be enough.  For others, though, we must try to create music, whether it comes from tapping out a beat on a makeshift drum or singing with our voices.  For some, the audience will be only shower tiles or a car interior, but others will seek to share that music with other people.  I caught this “bug” very early on, and for most of my life I have been part of one choir or another.

As I have mentioned before, I first joined the Stadskoor Tygerberg, a city choir that rehearsed quite close to my workplace in Parow.  After a while, though, I found that the group’s strong penchant to converse and rehearse in Afrikaans left me feeling like an outsider.  I am sad to say my progress in that language has been abysmally slow!  I am happier in my new role with the Stadskoor; I come to their events as a photographer and videographer now.

At the start of 2017, I auditioned to join the Cape Town Chamber Choir.  The group rehearses at the Reddam House in Green Point on Monday nights.  Coincidentally, I spend my Tuesdays at the Groote Schuur campus of the University of Cape Town, so the scheduling works out nicely.  Since I recently enjoyed my two performances with the group, I wanted to share that experience with my readers!

First, I must say that the level of musical expertise in the Chamber Choir is substantial.  At my very first rehearsal with the group, I was a bit startled to see how rapidly my section picked up the rhythms and intervals of “Exsultate Deo” by Palestrina.  I soon learned that some of the choristers had strong connections with Cape Town’s Fine Music Radio station.  I felt grateful to have succeeded in my audition; I’d definitely bumbled the sight-reading part.

I learned a lot about the personalities of people in the choir during our weekend-long retreat in March of 2017 at Chelaya Lodge.  We had a lot of fun with the fact that three of the basses are named David (I’m not the only Professor David, either).  The site for our camp was a good complement, with its quirky English decor– I particularly liked the telephone booth.


The group enjoyed some really lovely food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  On our final night, we had a proper braai, with boerewors and singing, of course!  The retreat was not just about fun (or food), though.  We worked on our music very intently.  At the time, the group intended a formal performance including most of our repertoire in June, so we invested a lot of effort in learning the bones of all the pieces.  The group did agree to a fun group photo while we were there:


I’ve often thought that I’m not really part of a choir until I have performed with them.  Frustratingly, that seemed to take a really long time.  Our plan for a June performance fell by the wayside since some of the pieces were proving to be rather difficult to get just right.  The group scheduled a less formal church performance during June of 2017, but I was unable to take part because I was in the United States.

The piece that seemed to be the sticking point was “Benedic anima mea Domino,” by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi.  The piece is an aggressively-timed six-part harmony.  Probably the most challenging aspect of the piece is its highly inconsistent time signature, starting in 3:4 but flipping to 5:4 for a single measure even before one has left the first line!  Along the way it pops to 9:8, 6:4, and 4:4 time.  Essentially, the piece is a challenging series of ever-changing eighth-note rhythms.  By the end of our March retreat, I was pretty impressed with the choir’s ability to tackle it, but we didn’t stay in that solid state for long as our attention moved to other pieces.

At long last, our director, Marijke de Villiers Roos, decided on a fixed date for our big show.  On Sunday, September 3, 2017, we would perform at St. George’s Cathedral, at the heart of downtown Cape Town!  I was particularly delighted because I would have the chance to visit the cathedral where the parents of J.R.R. Tolkien were married!  The lead up to the big event, though, would be very taxing.  on top of our usual Monday rehearsals, the group added a pair of half-day Sunday rehearsals on August 20 and 27.  We also added a “dress rehearsal” on Tuesday, August 29.  By the day of the performance, my energy levels were pretty heavily drained; I had served as a photographer for a Stadskoor Tygerberg concert on the first of September.


Photo courtesy of Elize Erasmus

I was very pleased with the concert we produced.  The cathedral filled up quite nicely for the show, and I loved seeing some young people near the front who were already acquainted with some of the pieces from our set of a dozen or so songs.  The concert was also my first chance to hear Nathan Julius perform (he appears on the front row of the picture above).  Nathan has a truly powerful countertenor voice.  He is one of the South Africans who have benefited from training at the Drakensberg Boys Choir School.  His concert with us was his last in Cape Town before attending Schola Cantorum in Switzerland.  To hear a male voice embrace such high, soaring notes was really unbelievable in that space!

While I was very happy with the subtlety of most of our repertoire, I must say I felt less content with “Benedic anima mea Domino.”  Perhaps our section was rushing or we were working with a slower tempo for performance, but I didn’t feel like our rhythms “clicked” as they should.  I was happy with “The Deer’s Cry” by Arvo Pärt (which requires the choir to show restraint to give a good contrast in dynamics).  For once, our “O quam gloriosum” by T.L. de Victoria sounded like we had something to celebrate!  I left the cathedral that day feeling elated.


Photo by Natasha Foley

We weren’t done performing, though!  For the next three Mondays, our choir rehearsed with special intensity because we were supporting the Cape Town Baroque Festival!  For four of the pieces presented on the opening night of the festival, specializing in the operas of the Baroque period, our choir provided the choral support.

It was a complete change of pace from the concert at St. George’s.  Our parts had us singing of the joys of love Semele enjoys in the heavens, impersonating shepherds extolling the natural loving to be found in peaceful groves, singing in French of the peaceful forests of the New World, or finally giving stern direction to the cupids guarding Dido’s tomb.  I know I really admired the voices of our soloists, and it was a genuine treat to be conducted by Erik Dippenaar, who can infuse an amazing amount of enthusiasm into the movements of his head (he conducts with his head while both his hands are busy accompanying on the spinet).

In short, I have loved singing with the Cape Town Chamber Choir.  I hope that I can keep up with the group, even as my travel schedule kicks back into gear!  Making it to rehearsal each week can be blocked when I am teaching workshops and contributing research seminars outside Cape Town.  I will just have to do my best.  Singing with these excellent performers is very rewarding!

You can be an academic YouTube STAR!

Many universities have begun exploring the use of the Internet for sharing academic coursework, either via “flipped classrooms” or Massive Open On-Line Courses (MOOCs).  Over the last year, I have uploaded approximately 50 videos to my YouTube Channel, most of them academic lectures.  I hope that I have learned something in this process that will you to publish your work more broadly, as well!

I would start by explaining that my lectures come from multiple purposes and even multiple university campuses.  My longest-running series of lectures came from a weekly seminar on topics of my own choosing called “the Useful Hour.”  I produced fourteen of these sessions (with help from Brigitte Glanzmann when I had to be away for a week), though I only started recording them on video for the last twelve.  I recorded the eight-session bioinformatics module from our division’s B.Sc. Honours program as a trial run for creating a “flipped classroom” in future years (a model where students watch lectures outside of class and spend in-class time working exercises).  More recently, I collaborated with the H3Africa BioNet to produce a four-lecture module on Gene Expression.  From time to time, I help the Tygerberg Postgraduate Student Council by recording a lecturer.  Each of these experiences has had its own lessons to convey.

The technical aspects of recording a video are generally easy enough that even a Ph.D. can do it!  Today’s budget camcorders capture more detail with better sound under lousier conditions than did cameras that cost five times as much even five years ago.  Best of all, one no longer needs to wrestle with tapes and analog-to-digital transfer loss.  Today we simply pull the Secure Digital card out of the camcorder and plug it into the socket on a laptop, where the video files are instantly accessible.  Of course, many people record video using digital cameras or cell phones.  Preparing videos for upload to a public server, however, is frequently more difficult than the initial capture.  I’ll talk about these aspects below.

Focus on the speaker


Speak softly, and carry a big stick!

We must start with video that is worth watching.  Far too frequently, I see that people recording lectures focus on the slides rather than the person who is delivering the lecture.  Reading text from video is generally unpleasant, and the reality is that looking at people fires circuits in our brains that academic content does not.  Video is a format designed to capture motion; it is a notoriously inefficient method for capturing still images, though!  Keeping the camera on the speaker, then, makes more sense.  This comes with some caveats:

  1. Viewers still need to be able to see the slides.  My answer has been to produce a PDF from the PowerPoint or other presentation software, since almost everyone has the ability to view PDFs on any platform.  I post the PDF to a shared directory on Google Drive, and I include the URL leading to the PDF in the YouTube description.
  2. From time to time a researcher will point to a particular part of a slide.  This is probably problematic on video; if he or she has used a laser pointer, the spot of light will either be too bright (green) or too dim (red) to appear well on video.  A moving mouse pointer might be better.  If the speaker is old-school (like me), he or she may use a stick to point at the slide instead.  This can create a problem of the lecturer “blooming” as he or she moves away from the bright field created by the projector into the relative dark outside the projector’s light.
  3. How will a person watching the video know to advance to the next slide?  Hopefully the speaker says “next slide” out loud.  When my parents recorded my brother’s and my first efforts to read aloud, they told us to bang a spoon against a mug to produce an audible chime with each page turn.  That was even more fun than reading!
  4. Software is publicly available to integrate the slowly-changing slide video with the quickly-moving speaker video.  Screencast-O-Matic will produce videos of up to fifteen minutes in its free version.  This approach will guarantee that your viewers are seeing the same slide the lecturer is seeing as the talk progresses.

Screencast-O-Matic insets your image atop the slides you are presenting.

Light and detail go hand in hand

As I alluded above, lighting is frequently a problem in academic lecture videos.  We frequently keep our lecture halls very dim in order to make the slides stand out as much as possible.  In a large venue, you may have a spotlight on the speaker, which will help.  In a medium venue, you may have a light in the ceiling directly above the speaker, which can make him or her appear somewhat ghoulish.  The more you rely upon zoom, the less light will reach your camera!  Keep that camera close.  If you can open the blinds on a window so that your speaker is lit, you will have a more interesting video.  Try to find ways to position your camera between the light and the subject (without casting a shadow, of course).  Never forget that the projected slides are much brighter than the subject you are trying to record.  If even the corner of the projected image appears in-shot, expect the speaker to become a flat silhouette.

Today’s cameras can record in very high resolutions, such as 1080p (the same as your HD television).  If lighting is truly problematic, you may want to consider forcing your high-resolution camera to a lower resolution, such as 720p; this may allow it to combine intensities across multiple transistors for each pixel.  Similarly, you should expect that a camera with a larger “retina” will outperform one with a tiny CCD in low light.  To put this in plain terms, do not expect a cell phone to produce quality video in semi-darkness, no matter the name on the label.  That said, I have observed that my “mirrorless” Canon EOS-M2 is inferior to my much cheaper Canon VIXIA HF R62 for video.  The lenses and electronics of the EOS-M2 are optimized for photos, not video.

Privacy issues are a big deal

Ensure that your audience knows that the lecture is being recorded.  Bad things can happen when a person does not want his or her image to be on-line and somebody else decides that they shall be.  Imagine how much worse this becomes when that member of the audience is a minor!  Nobody should be forced into public view because he or she attends a talk.

We frequently expect a period of questions and answers at the end of a lecture (and sometimes in the middle).  A novice camera operator may automatically swing to capture the questioner in action.  Depending on the situation, this part of the video may need to be truncated outright due to privacy issues.

Video is big and hard to handle well


I use my hands a lot.

When I upgraded to my Canon VIXIA HF R62 from a JVC Everio (GZ-HM30AU), I had a rude shock.  My old camera had captured 720p video in very manageable MTS files, but the new camera captured 1080p video in massive MP4 volumes.  I used a 16 GB SDHC card for videos.  The cameras assumed that no file should be allowed to be larger than 4 GB (linked to 32-bit computing).  With the new camera, I consume 4 GB every 33 minutes!  At a couple of long events I recorded, I found that I needed more storage than the 16 GB card could provide.  I solved that problem by upgrading to a 64 GB card.

Naturally, keeping the raw footage of every event I video is not practical.  If each of the 50 videos I posted to YouTube over the last year produced 66 minutes of raw footage, I would need to archive 400 GB for just this period!  Similarly, posting these videos to YouTube would be a problem.  Each hour would span two files, which would require my viewers to watch part ‘A’ and then queue up part ‘B’ immediately afterwards; many would just skip watching the end, humans being humans.  To compound the problem, I live in South Africa, which means my upload speeds to network servers are dreadfully slow.  My home DSL line, for example, achieves 0.3 Mbps.  I have uploaded one GB before, but it takes hours.  In any case, I will probably need to truncate a bit of time off the front and the back of the video.  In short, I need to do video editing.


While semi-professionals might opt for Adobe Premiere and those who “think different” will break out iMovie, I am a bioinformaticist, and I like software that lets me master high-quality videos with a minimum of fuss and bother.  I use ffmpeg, a very powerful suite of tools that one can use directly on the command line.  Most of the time, I am (a) concatenating my source video files into one movie, (b) including only a middle section, and (c) writing a more compact movie from the source materials.  To use a recent example, I have two input files; I write their names into a file called list.txt:

file mvi_0031.mp4
file mvi_0032.mp4

Next, I run a command line that looks like this:

ffmpeg.exe -ss 00:00:15 -f concat -safe 0 -i list.txt -t 00:50:00 -c:v libx264 -preset slow -c:a copy output.mp4

In order, the options do the following:

  • -ss specifies where in the combined files ffmpeg will start the output video (in this example, after the first fifteen seconds).
  • -ff concat -safe 0 -i list.txt specifies that the files listed in list.txt should be combined into one video and that they are formatted the same way.
  • -t specifies the total duration of the video to be encoded (in this example, exactly fifty minutes).
  • -c:v libx264 -preset slow specifies that my output video will be MPEG 4 pt 10, a very common format for storing video (and one that YouTube knows how to read).
  • -c:a copy directs ffmpeg not to re-compress the audio, making it sound just as nice in the output as it did in the original.

The ffmpeg software is very good at reducing the size of videos without compromising its quality.  I find that I can represent an hour-long lecture in a two GB 1080p video, rather than the nearly 8 GB of source footage.  If I am filled with caffeine for my lecture, the video size increases a bit (more motion requires more bits for accurate representation).

These smaller videos can then be uploaded to my YouTube account.  Happily, if you have a Gmail account (or if you use a different email address to log into Google Services), you can simply use that login for YouTube.  One clicks the arrow pointing up, and a screen will appear to which you drag your video file.  All done, right?

No job is finished until the paperwork is through!

Meta-data is key to your video reaching an audience, and too few people spend adequate time on this step.  I would call your attention to both the “Basic Info” and “Advanced Settings” pages that video authors can complete.  Of course, you should enter a paragraph of information in the basic description blank.  Ask yourself what web searches should find your video, and be sure you include those key terms in the text.  For good measure, add them again in the keywords section!  I like to include the university name where the recording took place.  Hopefully the social media minders for these schools will highlight your video to their large audiences.  YouTube will sniff the video for still frames that might be representative for the video.  I always try to pick the one in which I do not look like I’m suffering a fit of some sort.

Advanced Settings has more options to help users find your video.  Pick a category; generally my lectures fall in the “Science and Technology” category.  Be sure to enter a video location.  Google will translate your information to GPS coordinates so people can find videos shot near particular locations.  Enter a recording date, and select the language of your video (especially if you are not using English).

In many cases, you will have several videos that belong together as a set.  When I produced a short biography and four videos on Gene Expression for H3A BioNet, I also created a “playlist” that contained all five videos in the correct order.  Remember, if you can hook a viewer into watching one of your videos, you might be able to retain their interest for a few more!  Ideally, people will like your stuff enough that they subscribe to your YouTube channel, receiving a notification every time you post a new video.  You will be launched on your next career as a YouTube star!

The photographs of a life in motion


At last count, my trusty Canon EOS-M2 had produced 9099 images for me.

The last two months have been chockablock with professional and personal activities.  As a result, I have neglected my blog!  I know what my next post will address, and I have plenty left to say on other topics, too.  I will return to writing posts when I can sneak in some extra time (late June?).

In the meanwhile, I hope you will enjoy these albums of photographs that I took during the busy travels of 2016 and early 2017.  Looking back at that period, it is amazing to me that I traveled so much!

Inside South Africa

Date Blog Post Images
20161221 Table Mountain Google Photos
20161216 Cape Point Google Photos
20161213 Robben Island Google Photos
20160908 Kimberley Google Photos
20160702 Northern Cape Google Photos
20160319 Eastern Cape Google Photos
20160312 Cape Agulhas Google Photos

Outside South Africa

Date Blog Post Images
20170113 Prague Google Photos
20161019 Warsaw Google Photos
20161015 Berlin Google Photos
20160926 Shanghai Google Photos
20160917 Beijing Google Photos
20160611 London (no post) Google Photos
20160416 Ghent Google Photos

A tortoise for Turtle House

“Why do you call it Turtle House, Dave?”  When I am at the entrance to my complex, I can see it! The braai area pokes to the east as a head, and the gray tile roof arches over it all like a shell.  Do other people see it?  Not so much.  This week, though, I am happy to unveil a special addition to my home that will clarify its identity!

This adventure started in September of 2016, just before I left for China.  I had a lovely tree beside my driveway.  It had plenty of charm, with gnarled roots, a dense network of twigs, and a leafy canopy that the birds adored.  They loved the little berries from the tree, too, as evidenced by the splash pattern on my driveway.  That tree, though, produced very invasive roots, and it had forced a ripple in the sidewalk that was a serious tripping hazard.  Its next extension would push it under my garage wall, and my neighbor’s garage was also under threat.  I bowed to practicalities and contacted the “body corporate” (the homeowners’ association).  Within the month, the tree had been removed, and soon thereafter the bricks in my front walk had been reset after the removal of the root.  Nice work, body corporate!


Turtle House with stump

The problem, of course, was the sight that greeted me as I pulled into my driveway.  I should explain that some members of my family feel the same way about trees that most people do about their cats and dogs.  On one road trip I took when I was a kid, I distinctly remember my dad surreptitiously planting seedlings at a rest area.  Sure, I had practical reasons why this tree had to go, but that stump made me feel guilty every time my eyes fell upon it.

Happily, my friend Philomene had a solution for me!  She introduced me to Robin Hauptle, a young entrepreneur and artist who runs a succulent nursery called “Cape Cacti” in an area called Zeekoevlei (“Hippopotamus Marsh”).  We started a good conversation about carving the stump into a turtle.  We had a humorous misunderstanding when I sent him a photo of a yardstick against the stump since he thought the markings were centimeters rather than inches!  I felt embarrassed that I didn’t even know what kind of tree it had been.  Robin argued in favor of the Brazilian Pepper, while Natasha thought Chinaberry was much more likely.  Robin soon sent me some carved turtle images he thought might be good prototypes, and he laid out a work plan that called for four full days to complete the work.  I looked at the total quote, gulped a bit, and then said to myself, “this is art!”  My feedback on the prototypes was that I wanted the turtle to be lifelike rather than cartoonish, and I did not want to scandalize my neighbors (some turtle statues are quite… well, suggestive).  He also clarified that I meant a tortoise rather than a sea turtle.  With those questions resolved, I agreed to start the project, paying one-quarter up front.


Robin shifts to the chisel from the chainsaw.

On December 14th, Robin drove up to Turtle House for his first day.  The day was a complex one since I was writing a tutorial workshop from home and was also receiving Mango Cat from a friend at work; we hoped Mango would like Turtle House.  Her first experience of it, though, was a bit noisy since the first stage of carving took place by electric chainsaw.  Robin asked about turning the turtle’s head toward the driveway to reflect the shape of the stump, and I was content with that. Any worries I had about the project dissipated when Mango Cat arrived.  She liked Robin just fine, and she came to visit him each time he came into the house for a short break.  He knew just what to say to her, the sweet talker!  By the end of the first day, the rough cut was complete, and the shape of a turtle had begun to emerge, with a head, shell, and even leg bulges emerging from the stump.


This worked okay… until the wind picked up.

December in South Africa can be tremendously hot, and the 15th was no exception.  We applied our imaginations to the task and built a complex canopy from my extension ladder, tarpaulins, some wires, and a bungee cord.  Robin was applying some serious sweat equity in the project, applying chisels of various sizes and a heavy mallet.  Jessie, a neighboring cat, came by the house to pay his respects to Mango (through the window), and he paused to eye the carving critically.  By the end of the second day, the thick form of the turtle was evident,  though I wondered if he would be cartoonish, after all.


The sun and the air can do amazing things to freshly-cut wood.

Robin was next at the house on December 20th, and the carving had been transformed.  The light, freshly carved wood in the earlier photos had reddened quite strongly, and an odd wet patch had emerged at the crest of the shell.  At first, I thought a bird had perched atop the turtle for a while, but Robin explained that the stump was still getting water drawn into it from the earth, and the center of the stump was where those transport vessels (called xylem) were concentrated.  The red color of the wood reflected that it was oxidizing after being exposed to the elements.  I was pretty excited to see what this third day of carving would bring, and sure enough, Robin brought serious definition to the upper part of the shell (called the “carapace“), highlighting each intersection of “scutes” (which are made of keratin, like your fingernails).  The edges of the shell became well-defined, and he began experimenting with the feet, as well.


This tortoise is no longer a block of wood.

On December 22nd, Robin began the fourth day of carving.  Would the newest addition to Turtle House be complete in time for Christmas?  Robin had left plenty of detailing for the fourth day, and the tortoise’s head and feet gained form relatively slowly.  Robin explained that as the days go by, the amount of wood he was removing was falling rapidly.  His smallest chisel was helping him to define the turtle’s face and legs.  The finish of the shell was also looking quite a lot nicer as he sanded the wood.  Even though day four finished without the completion of the tortoise, I felt really proud of how nicely he was shaping up.


A man and his tortoise

As the silly season reached its peak, Robin and I each had responsibilities elsewhere, but he came quite close to finishing the project on December 28th.  Because he had quoted me four days of work, he did not charge me for the added days!  The photo above, from December 30th, shows the personable face that Robin created for the tortoise.


Finishing touches

His final visit, on January 3rd, finished a bit of detail on a back leg.  Robin then applied a boiled linseed oil concoction that will penetrate the wood and make it more resistant to water damage.  I took a final photo of it the following morning after the linseed oil soaked into the wood overnight.  My tortoise is nearly finished!  The only remaining step requires time.  This stump is still trying to supply water to the absent tree, and it must dry out.  We will likely apply a chemical to forestall any further growth, as well.  After a month or two, Robin will be back at Turtle House once again, this time to apply a varnish to the carving.  Perhaps now my visitors will not need to ask why my home is Turtle House!


This tortoise is happy to soak up the sun.