WITH MOL SMITH AND DAVID WALKER
BY ALEJANDRO ARIEL GARCIA
MiCSCAPE magazine was born in November 1995 so because of the 20th anniversary of MICSCAPE this November, I wanted to do an interview with Mol Smith and David Walker, the parent site coordinator and the editor of MICSCAPE magazine respectively, who kindly accepted to answer my questions.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL: How and when did you start your interest in microscopy?
Mol: I was looking to write a software program which had not been done before. Sometime, in the early nineties, I wrote a DOS based virtual microscope including a mini windows graphical system. This introduced me to a microscope.
David: Like many youngsters I had a general interest in nature from an early age. It was probably about ten when I first became aware of the wonders of the microscopic world. I remember having the ‘How and Why Wonder Book of The Microscope and What You See’ and later ‘The Observer’s Book of Pond Life’ by John Clegg which introduced me to the microscopic world. I was aware from my own pond dipping for newts etc that there were tiny organisms present that I could see with the naked eye. I’ve always had a particular interest in waterfleas (Cladocera).
ALEJANDRO ARIEL: When did you get your first microscope? Do you still have it and use it? What kind of microscope is it or was?
Mol: It was a mono, low priced microscope. I still use a similar one today although I have more expensive second hand ones.
David: I received a microscope as a birthday present in the late 1960s when I was about 12 with a small box of prepared insect slides. It was a basic toy microscope with a maximum mag of 300X. Toy microscopes were better made in those days with not too excessive magnifications (unlike many toy models today) and was good enough to not discourage me from the hobby. I gave it to a charity shop about 20 years ago hopefully for another youngster to enjoy.
When I had saved up enough money in my early twenties I bought myself a Russian LOMO Biolam. These were one of the few affordable true microscopes at the time and readily available from many photographic shops. I still have this microscope and was my main microscope for many years. I still use it but my main compound microscope now is a Zeiss Photomicroscope III built up with features when the budget permits.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL: How and when did you start with the idea of creating a page such as MICROSCOPY UK, and MICSCAPE MAGAZINE?
Mol: I was an early user of the then new Internet 1995. I saw the potential of it. I wrote a letter to The Postal Microscopy Society in the UK and they kindly published it. David replied to it. As far as I can remember. Between us we resolved to start a microscopy presence on the Internet aimed at non-professional microscopists.
We gained the support of a handful of other hobby microscopists who then, between us all, began creating articles for our web site and magazine. I was the least informed and Alan Potter and David often helped and advised me.
I had a twin aim, I must be honest. One the one hand I fell in love with this pursuit. On the other, I wanted to try and sell my software. David's aim was purely non-commercial.
Over the years, I have grown more like David in the aims of the site although in 2001 I created one of the first online shops in the UK to sell microscopes and accessories to hobbyists. This proved very successful but I just did not have the business acumen or resources to manage it. All my time was spent sending off little packets around the world.
I spoke with Alan, and he agreed to take over the shop and expand it for his business but maintaining his previous benevolent and supporting purpose and aim of aiding and helping hobbyist microscopists.
Without both Alan and David, and many other people who have given their time help and knowledge freely, there would be no Microscopy UK nor Micscape magazine.
David fast became the strength, pillar and main driver for the magazine and he is the reason the magazine exists for his unswerving effort over such a protracted period of time.
David and I are very different men but our mutual respect and years of working together and continually trying to find common ground for our differences has also created a great friendship based on tolerance and sharing for the good of the whole.
David: As Mol remarked it came out of our corresponding on his early microscope software venture. In early 1995 the Web was very fledgling and we swapped ideas via bulletin boards with 2600K modems and landlines to connect. Initially the Microscopy-UK venture was solely Micscape but other resources are now offered.
Mol’s initial and continued drive to build and maintain a stable website is a core element of the venture with many of his contributions unsung and in the background. Maintaining a reliable and fast access to the website, keeping up to date with modern Web technology and all within a very limited budget requires a lot of multidisciplinary skills which I don’t possess.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL: Mol and David how did you meet? Do you remember the moment?
David: We have never met face to face. A friendship based on shared interests has been built up via emails and occasional telephone calls in the early days.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL: Why do you publish every 13th of each month?
David: The first issue was November 5th 1995, Guy Fawkes day in the UK with firework displays. We later opted for a fixed date in the month rather than the first Friday etc. The 13th was picked in a rather ad hoc fashion I think.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL: When, how and why did you provide the opportunity for people around the world to contribute to the magazine?
David: This was a core aim of the project from the outset. The fledgling Web allowed this to be possible. To date we have had 350 contributors from 30 countries. The Contributor Index pages lists them all and the country breakdown.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL: How are MICSCAPE and MICROSCOPY-UK supported?
Mol: Very few donations are received. So I use my money but the site also provides a small income for me by way of a few books I advertise and from contributions from Brunel Microscopes who help sponsor the site in return for the limited advertising we provide for their shop (once mine). With the donations, money given to me for sponsorship, the funding of the site is not an issue.
We have limited resources but we compete effectively against much larger corporate sites because we truly aim to offer a benevolent web site which encourages mutual sharing of information to people genuinely interested in the small scale world.
I have received many emails over the years from large companies either wanting to buy the site or pay money to open up further advertising. We will never do this. We both believe advertising and marketing intent to sell things on the net has blighted its usefulness and has corrupted its original intention.
I believe we should all help one another. Yes. We all have to make money to get by and raise our families, but this is really no need for one human being to have lots more than another. Our web site tries to adhere to such philosophy and we carry on hoping it enlightens other peoples lives in some small way.
David: Mol has described this in the main. It remains entirely free and contributions are voluntary.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL: Have these first twenty years of MICSCAPE been rewarding for you?
Mol: They, it, Micscape, changed my life forever in many profound and unexpected ways. Mostly wholly positive.
Sometimes it is a chore, other times it is an inspiration and friend.
David: Very much so. Now retired it has become one of my main interests to keep me mentally active. As well as helping others to share their interests, writing my own articles helps to give structure to my own projects. I haven’t completely lost that first magic of the electronic means of near immediate correspondence with a fellow hobbyist many miles away.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL: How do you feel of having a project that has transcended around the world?
Mol: We rarely get feedback from our viewers so we really don't know what kind of impact we have. It is sad that few people write in. We just hope what we do is positive for others.
Our logs inform us over 4 million individual people look at articles on our magazine annually and site and it slowly rises each year.
David: As Mol remarked we don’t have much direct feel for its impact. The site logs provide an indirect indication of its value hopefully to visitors and last month (October 2015) the page accesses were 800 000. Because new material has been added each month since 1995 and our policy from the outset of never changing an article’s URL if possible, we have a high ranking on Google for subjects that we cover.
Wim van Egmond’s striking graphics and photography in his Micropolitan Museum are particularly popular as are Brian Johnston’s Macroscopy of Flowers and his Crystal Studies. The Virtual Pond Dip / Pond Life Identification Key designed and illustrated by Wim which links various contributor's articles on freshwater microorganisms is popular with schools. Other contributors, notably Richard Howey, have been most generous in sharing their enthusiasm and skills over many years.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL: Of course it is because you have transcended the world as I described in my article my Micscape experience that I found you because the articles published in Micscape are cited as a reference to teach microscopy. And you have contributors from many countries, I am an example of this—look how far I am from you in an other continent, nevertheless I met you
ALEJANDRO ARIEL: What do you expect for the future of Micscape and MICROSCOPY-UK?
Mol: It might just die with us both :( , I would like to package it onto a range of Blueray disks so it can be spread out and survive us. But there are big issues with that so we don't do it.
If Brunel Microscopes continues after our demise, they might look after the site without exploiting it further than their current advertising to act as guardians of the information.
We'll have to face that issue when we get there :)
David: Modern technology and what the Internet can offer is moving so quickly it is hard to predict. Each issue of the magazine very much reflects who is contributing at the time and their interests. Mol’s computing background has ensured we continue to offer up to date new media such as high resolution video commentaries like Pippa’s Progress and 3D and virtual reality resources.
Mol and I are very aware that a voluntary venture run just by two people without any formal constitution requires careful thought to ensure the archive is not lost. A freely accessible and, to date, reliable archive of the site without our intervention has been The Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive site which mirrors our entire site typically over ten times each year. In some respects their archive is more comprehensive than ours as it also retains snapshots of changing indexes that are not saved, such as the main site index and is interesting to see how these have changed through the years.
We have registered with the British Library’s UK Web Archive scheme as this should prove more reliable than the CD’s of the Micscape Magazine we used to submit at regular intervals to them (both the online magazine and CD archive are ISSN registered). Hardware based digital archives such as CDs / DVDs inevitably become out of date and eventually unreadable as hardware / software formats become redundant so quickly. Paper of course will likely remain one of the best archives for many ventures, particularly for those which are primarily paper based. This is unsuited for a web based venture like Micscape as it cannot maintain worldwide free access which remains a core aim. A paper archive also loses the features that web based resources can offer.
Despite the site’s current size and complexity, the core admin has become more straightforward and streamlined over the years partly because of technology advances. So hopefully the venture can continue in some form beyond Mol’s and my participation but the archive will certainly have the multiple free access points described beyond Mol's and my participation.
The venture’s continued success as it has from the first issue, remains totally reliant on the many contributors worldwide who have freely shared their interests and enthusiasm for which both Mol and I gratefully thank.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL GARCIA: Mol, who is Alan Potter the co-author of the first article of Micscape?
Mol: Alan Potter had a small family business selling microscopes to hobbyists. I contacted him and asked if he would help me. He was very benevolent and liked what I was doing. He kindly GAVE me a great quality microscope to help me take microscopic images for my software. I never forgot the terrific help he offered and later on the additional help and support he gave to me.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL GARCIA: Mol, I know that you also are a film producer, how do you combine it with microscopy?
Mol: When filming, David picks up my work thus allowing me the time for filming. Once filming is over, I can get back to being more flexible with my time.
ALEJANDRO ARIEL GARCIA ARRIAGA: Mol, David thank you very much for having answered this interview, now we have a new vision of what MICSCAPE is. Congratulations for these twenty years.
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Published in the November 2015 edition of Micscape.
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