Put a little birdhouse in your soul

Birdhouses by See-Ming Lee

“It’s crazy. I would consider it one of the worst photos I’ve ever taken, but it has become the most popular photo on my stream.”

As someone who ends up reading a lot about journalism, online communities, Twitter and social media in general, this pic has cropped up regularly in the sites I tend to scan. It’s a pretty easy image to link to the bird-icon behemoth of Twitter, itself a huge flitting community of twittering folk. The more I saw it, the more I wondered about it, and where it came from. Part of the joy of social media is the shrunken proximity – you can generally find someone and reach out directly to them incredibly easily. And so I got in touch with See-Ming Lee.

See-Ming is a particularly forthcoming and chatty bloke, with numerous presences on Twitter and elsewhere online to support his design business, which he operates from Hong Kong.

He posts a lot of pics on his Flickr stream, allowing most of them be used widely via Creative Commons. I’ve posted about that aspect of things over on Storyful. He’s earned cash and profile from the use of some of his pics – this one being an unexpected success. He was planning to erase it, having taken the shot to test a new Canon 70-200mm f4 lens he had on his camera. He snapped a pic of the community garden near where he was living in New York (mapped below) to see how the lens performed, back in December 2007. The birdhouses can’t be seen from the Google Earth view (he shot with the lens zoomed at 126mm, according to the EXIF data – perhaps from outside the fence) but you can see where the blue paint stops at the north-east corner of the garden. A dust spot nearly persuaded him to deleted, but instead he stuck it on Flickr and intended to forget about it. Until it got picked up and went gangbusters.


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If you recognise it, you might be surprised as I was to hear that no-one has ever asked See-Ming about the genesis of this photo, despite its ubiquity. It’s been used widely in the 4 1/2 years it’s been on the web, its birdhouses and bright colours making it an easy target for people looking for something to loosely tie to Twitter, or community, or whatever. Most people have credited See-Ming Lee for its use, as asked. But no-one ever wondered who he was, or how his photo ended up on Flickr.

So now you know.

It’s just one example of how there’s a story behind every piece of content unleashed on the web. Sometimes the story is inordinately dull. Sometimes the content is posted with a purpose, and sometimes it’s an act of serendipity that finds it ending up online. It’s often worth probing, though.

Long Train Running

I’ve done two bona fide ‘classic’ journeys in my time travelling. The first was a slow boat along the coast of Patagonia, which didn’t go exactly to plan and now this, the Mombasa-Nairobi train journey. The train is an old iron snake, split into first, second and third classes, with those up front having cabins and access to a dining car for meals. €36 buys you a first-class ticket, 13 hours of relative comfort, and a 500-kilometre passage from the sweltering coast up to Kenya’s capital on the Maasai steppe.  That’s good value.

‘Classic’ travel denotes a certain olde-world charm, a sense of nostalgia. It’s a warm reminiscence of a simpler time before digital displays on train platforms, laminated plastic timetables and the swiping of smartcards. It’s steam and smoke, and polished chrome.

Of course, any owner of a ‘classic’ car will tell you that classics break down on a regular basis, are slower and less efficient than modern cars, and unless kept immaculately, demand that you sacrifice some comfort for the sake of aesthetics.

All this was present in spades when I arrived at Mombasa. I had already received a phonecall warning me not to turn up on time for the 7pm train, which would not be there, so I arrived at 8pm as per revised instructions, and would find myself hanging out on the platform until well after 2am the next morning, in hopeful expectation of a train appearing out of the dark.

When I arrived, there was a singsong going on, with a teacher from Kaugi Primary School on the guitar leading 40 or so primary school children in some folksy hymns. I took out my sound recorder to capture some of it, and drew a crowd (pictured above).

The podcast below gives a better impression of it, so I’ll leave you to listen to it.

Thirteen hours on a train is not something I’m accustomed to. The train bumped happily along the tracks, and sleeping was akin to lying down on a bouncy castle full of sugar-mad kids at a birthday party. You were gently rocked, not in the typical back-and-forth, but vertically up and down. Similarly, I felt seasick for the first six hours at the far end, having grown accustomed to the movement underfoot.

In Nairobi now for the next while, and looking forward to meeting some interesting groups of people over the coming days.

Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant. Editors/producers looking to contact Markham for material or contributions from Kenya should email markham [dot] nolan [at] gmail [dot] com, or text +254 732 580 147.

John Cuts Himself

Every now and then you do a piece that catches you in the throat. This piece stemmed from an interview with a blogger who was tackling some intensely personal stuff on his blog about his own self-harm, which he has now ditched as he has stopped harming. Result.

Sunday Business Post – Jan 26, 2006

John cuts himself. He takes a razor blade, draws its edge slowly across his upper arm until it parts the skin and glides smoothly, steely into the soft flesh beneath. He says that when he sees the blood, it feels good; it feels like the sting of sunburn and a release of pressure. Continue reading “John Cuts Himself”

Desert Trolley

I’m no festivalgoer. All that mud, all those drunks. It’s not my bag, not in the hardcore sense, at least. I drove to Oxegen and drove home Saturday night, rather than have my head stepped on in my sleep, or have to brush my teeth with the end of a flagon of Linden Village. But a festival in the Sahara has a certain appeal. Gimme a cotton tent, some rebellious desert nomads, a few hundred camels and toilets with no water and I’m all set.

Sunday Business Post, February 20, 2005

For the smug, self-satisfied world traveller, nothing brings on a smile like a heavily-stamped passport. Above that, the greater goal is stamps that say ‘I’ve been there and back’ on the road less travelled. The trump of all passport stamps must be that inked in the fabled city of Timbuktu. Continue reading “Desert Trolley”

Doing the Marathon for Mum and MS

mum.jpgI had never seen this photo here before my mother died. It’s of her, aged about 21 (I assume), clutching a champagne bottle, with a glass on her head and obviously, from her facial expression, a fairly high blood/alcohol level. I found it as I sorted through her things in the house, tucked into an old briefcase she had kept since the 70s. I keep it in my wallet now.

This image of Mum is the best way to remember her. When myself and my sister were teenagers, the front door of our house was always open to every one of our mates, and parties were encouraged. Mum would often be the last up, drinking and chatting with our mates until the wee hours. It was fairly special, and we realised we had it pretty lucky.

Everything changed when she was diagnosed with MS. A substantial personality overhaul can be fairly common with MS, I found out later. Mum got less rational, more emotional and withdrawn, and then began the slide into physical deterioration. For someone so active, so alive, it was gut-wrenching to watch the person she was disappear. No more golf, tennis, sailing. We had to take the car away from her, and she went from using a stroller to needing a wheelchair. She could see it too, and the frustration of it drove her deeper into depression, and the spiral of decline steepened.

Mum spent the last year of her life, unable to walk and barely able to mumble a word or control her limbs, in a nursing home in Stillorgan. At 49, she was the youngest person in there by close to 20 years. Continue reading “Doing the Marathon for Mum and MS”