Thursday, August 31, 2006

Newcastle & Tumbleweed

Yesterday evening I commented:

It's as if the shutters will be going up across Newcastle tomorrow and the tumbleweed will be blowing across the streets by 1st September!

That was pretty much the case. We turned up this morning at the sea front Tropicana water pool - all the publicity and signs point to it opening at 11am during July and August (and June weekends).

Yet when we arrived at 11am, there was a bit of paper stuck to the open gate saying that it would only open to the public at 1pm on Tue 30th and Wed 31st. All summer to advertise one set of hours, and then change their mind at the last minute. Tourist friendly or what?

Even the swans were chained up.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

East Belfast news - Charges against Philip Johnston dropped

From BBC NI news ...

Philip Johnston - the East Belfast estate agent accused of involvement in money laundering during a police probe into the financial affairs of murdered loyalist Jim Gray - has had all charges against him dropped.

Johnston's arrest in April 2005 led to him selling off his estate agency chain - it morphed into the brown-signed MCW Residential, bought out by three of the managers. (If I recall correctly, one of Johnston's colleagues paid his bail when he was first arrested.)

Earlier today, Johnston's lawyers were told in Belfast Magistrates Court that the Public Prosecution Service had dropped the case. No reason was given.

Johnston's solicitor, Joe Rice, said: "Mr Johnston is now considering his options, including compensation, to restore him to the position he was in 17 months ago ... He wants answers to several questions and has already lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman's Office."

It will be interesting to hear if the PPS make any comment on their decision to drop the case, and whether they clear his name of the rumours and baggage that will otherwise continue to abound.

Ok ... so we went to Zio Newcastle after all ... twice

After being narked that paninis were off the menu at the colourful Zio Newcastle restaurant, we ended up going round for dinner last night ... and tonight!

Now their service isn't perfect - it took two attempts to get a high chair last night, and it was filthy when it arrived - but the food makes up for it.

The Swiss burger was divine - creamy mushrooms drizzled over a home-made burger, with particularly good chips. So delicious, I nearly had it two nights in a row!

A noticeable difference in trade between the two nights. Bank Holiday Monday was quite busy, with "Reserved" signs on a few large tables. Tuesday night was empty. Schools back, holiday trade over. It's as if the shutters will be going up across Newcastle tomorrow and the tumbleweed will be blowing across the streets by 1st September!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Zio Newcastle

Caught in a rain shower, we thought we'd pop into Zio Newcastle for lunch. (I've previously commented on a visit to Zio Portrush.) The restaurant window was emblazoned with "paninis".

However the table menu didn't include any such snack. So we got up and left.

What's the point of advertising something and then failing to deliver? Conning people to come inside to be faced with a more expensive menu?

Not good for business or reputation. And not good for me staying dry!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Gourmet Burger Bank - a local resident's opinion

I reproduce a comment left this morning to my original posting about the Belmont Road's Gourmet Burger Bank in Belfast.

So far, most of the discussion has been about the quality of the food and service from a customer perspective. Now we hear from someone who lives nearby.

- - -

I won't deny that Gourmet Burger looks the part and on the few occassions that I have been in when it first opened, the food was fine, but you wanna try living in the surrounding streets.

Try stepping out your back door to the smell of burning meat EVERY day! Try living around the corner from this place when they leave out their empty glass bottles much to the amusement of the local kids who use them as ammo and throw them at the cars parked in the surrounding streets.

And what's the attitude when you ring up to ask if they can store their empties more carefully ? [Quote] The kids were here before we (Gourmet Burger) were, so I think you shall find it is not us (Gourmet Burger) who is the problem, it is the kids [Unquote]. Nice attitude eh ?

Try walking past the end of the alley way to see the chef sitting on the ground of the dirty alley having a quick break and then getting up and going back into the kitchen to prepare your meal. Nice. Hygenic too.

Try getting back to sleep at 6am in the morning when the industrial bins are being wheeled out into the next street to be emptied - have you heard the noise a full to over-flowing industrial bin makes?

As well as looking after the customer, the staff are very well looked after too. They have been provided with a large smoking area straight out the back door in the dirty alley way beside the stinking bins. It's very well equipped - deck chairs beside the bins for them to have their fag breaks and then go straight back in and serve you your food.

So, yeah give Gourmet Burger a go if you want your food cooked by someone who sits in an alley way and is "Assistant Managed" by someone who doesn't give a toss about the local residents.

Oh yeah, and if you are lucky enough to take up one the parking spaces in the surrounding streets, cross your fingers that the kids who pile in from other areas don't use your car as target practice with the glass coke bottles that Gourmet Burger kindly leave out. You can always resort to what the residents have to do if you come out and find the kids sitting on your bonnet (glass bottles in hand) - ring Strandtown PSNI station and they shall come and move them on.

10 out 10 - keep up the good work. Seriously.

Posted by pyssed_off_resident to Alan in Belfast at 8/28/2006 11:47:33 AM

- - -

I've been minded to try and interview someone from GBB - since they seem publicity shy (they opened without any advertising and thrive on word-of-mouth recommendation) and opinions on their standard of service and quality of food seems to vary wildly between customers. Something to pencil in for September.

PS: The weather in Newcastle and down the coast to Kilkeel switches between bright sunshine and heavy rain with a period ("T" - for the physicists reading!) of 10-30 minutes. Constantly either soaked or sweltering. But having fun nonetheless.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Saturday – Ian McEwan

(Ian McEwan's Saturday seems a suitable book to post about today!)

Henry Perowne is a successful neurosurgeon. Yet he wonders if there has not to be more to life than merely saving lives? The discipline and responsibility of medicine crowds out the inventiveness and freedom that he feels is missing from his life.

Unable to sleep, he looks out the bedroom window early on a Saturday morning and sees what looks a plane on fire, blazing through the sky, descending to an uncertain future.

The book follows Perowne through his eventful day. Early morning conversations with his jazz-playing son, driving through the central London streets, an aggressive altercation after a scrape in the car, playing squash with a competitive colleague, visiting his mother and calling in at rehearsals to hear a new song. All the while, anti-war protesters are marching nearby through the capital.

Perowne seems to be increasingly on the back foot as the day progresses, more and more out of control with events. Familiar tasks and patterns are more complicated today. Even looking out the window brings the possibility of seeing tragedy. His actions too - including the minor offence of driving across a road closed to traffic - have consequences for the rest of his day. And perhaps for his family too. Yet his mind remains rational and clear - at odds with the manic world around him. Even when threatened, he can't help but diagnose the illness of his attacker.

The culmination of all this activity is a family reunion, with his daughter flying in from Paris. An unexpected violent twist invades this family scene, shaking the family - yet Perowne remains calm as the situation threatens to spiral out of control.

It's a very personal 24 hours spent with Perowne. He demonstrates his personal poise and morality. He shows his concern for individuals, and his ability to stand up for his beliefs when challenged by another person. Yet he has less time for the feelings of the masses, of those further away - the anti-war protestors and the citizens of Iraq.

How can he protect his vulnerable family? Is revenge appropriate - particularly when an easy opportunity presents itself. The final pages log Perowne's thinking as he analyses his response. In some ways he has done nothing wrong; yet by saving a life he has committed a man to torture, to a continued life with an affliction.

It's the first Ian McEwan book I've read, and it wouldn't put me off reading another. While it's not quite as riveting as the early series of 24 and there’s too much descriptive prose at times for my liking, the story keeps moving towards its satisfying conclusion.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Methodist College

Methody - more formally known as Methodist College Belfast - will have been celebrating good GCSE results this week, on top of their A-Level performance last week.

Maybe I've been out of school too long, but isn't it crazy for the school periods to start at different times on a Friday to the rest of the week.

And is it not unusual for a school website not to mention the name of their head teacher? A google search for Cecilia Galloway under only turns up a single reference - and that's on the separate Form 1 Induction site, which isn't linked to from the main school website.

The Sunday Life's Ciaran McGuigan recently interviewed Methody's first female head teacher, Cecilia Galloway, now 6 months into her new role leading Northern Ireland's largest school. She succeeded Wilfred Mulryne who retired after 17 years in the post.

While stating the obvious that she is different from her predecessor, she "spoke out following claims that a number of staff at the Malone Road school are unhappy with her leadership."

"Like any new chief executive or head of an organisation who is overseeing change, there are bound to be differences in style from the way it was done before ... My style is open and transparent, with fairly modern management methods, including power-sharing and collegiality ... Berating staff? That's not my style either ... I am very keen on the more democratic style of working where people have a say in the decisions that are made ... There will be some people who will take to me like a duck to water and there are others who won't - it's the same in any organisation."

Dear God ... children's letters via the Daily Mail

I feel the need to confess that I've read the Daily Mail today. The paper normally irritates me and I avoid it at all costs.

However, tonight's bmi flight back to Belfast has been delayed, and I ran out of papers to read in their Heathrow Terminal 1 lounge.

Buried inside the depressing tabloid-sized daily rag is a double-page spread of quotes from a soon-to-be published book: Children's Letters to God compiled by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall.

I reproduce some of the best below:

* Dear God, If you watch in church on Sunday I will show you my new shoes. Mickey D

* Dear God, Is Reverend Coe a friend of yours, or do you just know him through business? Donny

* Dear God, Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother. Larry

* Dear God, In Bible times did they really talk that fancy? Jennifer

* Dear God, did you mean for giraffe to look like that or was it an accident? Norma

* Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother but what I prayed for was a puppy. Joyce

Thursday, August 24, 2006

If NI appointed ambassadors ... who would we send abroad?

Bolivia, and its appointment of ambassadors, has been in the news this week.

Rather than following the normal tradition of appointing public school-educated, double barrel-named men to these important posts, President Evo Morales has asked the public to nominate people they'd like to represent their country abroad.

Perhaps as an encouragement, Gustavo Guzman has been sent to their US embassy. Guzman was an outspoken left-wing campaigning journalist, critical of the previous president.

If Northern Ireland had embassies abroad, who would we send to serve as our ambassadors and diplomats?

Answers on a postcard - well, just leave a comment below!

  • Judging by the pink Metro service bus that picks up a crowd at the gates of Stormont just before St Patrick's Day each year and terminates in Washington DC, the local politicians would want to be US ambassador in rotation. A tour of duty lasting three days each would allow all the MLAs to be in post once a year - something they fail to manage back home.
  • Paul Rankin (local "celebrity" chef) might be sent to Paris.
  • Archbishop Robin Eames might be able to put his political negotiating skills to good use if sent to some of the world's trouble spots like Israel or Lebabon.
  • Eddie Irvine could represent us in Monaco.

But where should we send Frank Mitchell (UTV Weather and School Around the Corner) or Belfast's bagpipe-playing busker?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Segway scooter in Belfast

A Microsoft employee stanfing on a Segway - not someone in BelfastIn a case of, a Segway scooter was spotted in Belfast yesterday. Unfortunately, no photos from Belfast—just an eye-witness report.

A man was riding a Segway scooter into Belfast Central Station yesterday. If ever we needed proof that Belfast was becoming a cosmopolitan hot spot!

Of course, there's always a problem with any innovation. In this case, the legality of being spotted riding a "human transporter" on the UK streets is doubtful. The BBC news website's Magazine coincidentally reports today that Segways are banned from both UK pavements and roads. They say: "The Department for Transport (DfT) has invoked the Highway Act of 1835 to ban it from pavements, and EU vehicle certification rules it off roads."

EU vehicle certification would require a registration plate and headlights, neither of which affix easily to the front or back of a Segway. Oh, and proper insurance.

So the only self-balancing scooters we'll see in Belfast will be in the QFT if it agrees to screen

Monday, August 21, 2006

The day an uninterruptible NHS data centre went down

A month ago on 24th July, I pondered a series of internet outages – Yahoo’s email was down, and MySpace had been offline for over 12 hours. I concluded that
"You get what you pay for … Yet you also come to rely on what you can get."

Modern life is increasingly vulnerable to computer failures. However, loosing email or blogs isn’t really life or death. But the NHS is.

I’ve been catching up on the stack of IT trade magazines that have been piling up in the corner of the study at home. A week after I posted, CSC suffered a massive failure in their Tunbridge Wells data centre, leaving 72 primary health care trusts and 8 acute care trusts in the North West and West Midlands of England without access to patient administration systems for up to five days.

What?! No backup site? No automatic failover? On NHS systems?

This incident—one of the worst ever IT problems to affect the UK’s NHS—can be understood by looking at the question: When can an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) be interrupted? Answer: when it’s deliberately switched off.
“A number of the multiple UPS systems in use at the data centre were down for essential maintenance and during that scheduled downtime the incident occurred” a CSC spokesman said.

A power failure affected the SAN (Storage Area Network) equipment, and back up systems failed to kick in at the primary data centre. Without mains power and without UPSs to tide things over, the automated failover to the secondary site couldn’t be triggered.

A major IT disaster and the subject of a thorough investigation into the root causes, this incident provides many lessons for the IT industry to learn. In particular, disaster recovery and automatic failover processes aren’t enough. The potential impact of emergency and planned works on those processes must be understood before taking steps that will weaken the resilience of important applications and data.

This time, I conclude:
"You get what you pay for … and you’re only as strong as your weakest link."

The death of Narrative may be premature

Mark Kermode sometimes describes films on his Friday afternoon review slot on Five Live’s Mayo show as “the death of narrative cinema”. He even encourages listeners to proclaim the comment loudly as they leave screenings of certain films (particularly Ice Age II).

Sometimes I wonder if the world is experiencing not just the death of narrative cinema, but the death of narrative. Period.

In a world of PowerPoint bullets, live journals and sound bites, we value small collections of facts over well constructed and coherent arguments. At work, wikis are taking over the intranet. Short interconnected pages of information, snapshots, replacing the old 40+ page documents that could be read on the plane/train and told a story of the product change or system developments.

John Ware, a reporter on BBC’s Panorama, comments that undercover secret filming may make current affairs programming more entertaining, but it can be gimmicky and overwhelm the journalistic content.

But on reflection it’s maybe not all bad news.

Reality shows like Big Brother (which thankfully crashed to a halt on Friday night) recount several long-running threads of an overall story arc on the nightly highlights show—admittedly through the eyes of the producers rather than the cast. But there is a development of storylines, building up a picture of character traits … much like a soap. (And much like a soap, the storylines aren’t always compulsive or worth watching.)

In work last week, a product manager stood up to tell us about a new product. He carried his Mac to the front of the room and set it on the table. Someone reached for the VGA cable to connect up the projector. He held out his hand to stop them. “It’s just my notes. No slides.” And for the next 20 minutes, he talked us through his vision for the new product, building up a picture of the different aspects and telling a story of how customers would engage with and use the product. Rather than diluting his carefully crafted oral argument with visual competition, he held our attention with a performance consisting only of words and hand waving.

Similarly, on Easter Tuesday I went over to London to hear Martin Fowler talk about agile delivery. Rather proudly Martin and his colleague Dan only had one slide: a graph they briefly used to illustrate some findings before they switched off the projector. They deliberately talked through a bunch of agile failures, projects they had been involved with that had gone off the rails, believing that as an audience we’d learn more from hearing how it had gone wrong, and applying that to our own situations. It made us think more deeply and analytically than if they had just mantra-like repeated the Agile Manifesto.

PowerPoint jockeys also increasingly seem to occupy the pulpits of our churches! The worst of them hang everything they say off the bullet points on their slides; following the on-screen statements religiously. But the best of them use visual imagery to reinforce their oral message, putting up quotes, but not getting hung up on always revealing the structure of what they’re going to say on the screen. They tell a story, allowing people to dip in and out of what they say, grabbing different people’s imaginations in different ways.

Maybe I’m not typical, but I’m much more likely to mentally engage with someone speaking when they paint a picture of their subject. Jesus did this with the parables. First he told a story featuring everyday examples of people and situations. Then sometimes—but not always—he interpreted the picture to remind his audience of the point. The Bible also has other content that could easily be classed as allegorical—Jonah and parts of Esther being good examples. (I think I can hear the heresy police at the door!)

So the use of narrative may not be entirely dying—though we should make sure we encourage its continued use and power.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Big Brother, Big Deal?

After 93 days, Big Brother crashed to an end. About time too! Most people will agree with that sentiment, even those who watched most of the coverage. Looking back, I haven’t commented about it on the blog for nearly three months, so you’ll maybe forgive me a couple of comments.

May 24 seems to be the last mention in AiB, when I said:
“This year, Channel 4 have received some criticism for allowing someone with Tourette’s syndrome into the house. Rather than looking exploited, Pete seems to be coping quite well. Either that, or the editing is intentionally sympathetic to build up audience empathy. In many ways, Pete is one of the more balanced characters – attempting to deal with ever present conflict, and providing insightful analysis of the house when he’s in the diary room.”
While Pete was the obvious winner, I couldn’t be sure how much the stress of waiting and winning was overshadowed with him just playing up his character for the cameras in the final. Not surprising that Davina’s interview didn’t achieve much.

Much more worrying was Nikki’s reaction on being evicted for the second time. A quivering wreck who shouldn’t have been witnessed live on national TV – Endemol’s duty of care to their contestants (house mates) seemed to dip below the line at that point.

While producing live TV on the scale of the BB final can’t be easy (and impossible to fully script), there were too many moments where nothing happened. House mates walking out of the camera shot and it taking more that a couple of seconds to cut to a camera that had them in vision. Davina running out of things to say, and listening for the director’s shout in her ear as they changed the running order. Sloppy.

While no where near as riveting as some previous years (rose-tinted spectacles making the early series seem more classic than they were?), there were some nice quirks in this year's production that made me smile:
  • Automated Big Brother – waking up to find a “glad you’re not here” postcard from Big Brother who had gone on holiday leaving behind a large telephone keypad in the diary room and a series of voice prompts (press 1 to leave a request, 9 to open the door, etc). Housemates reacted differently to this simple situation. Some couldn’t cope with the loss of a personified BB and wanted the character back. Others enjoyed playing with the keypad and making music. Others just found it a humorous ruse.
  • Welsh Big Brother – reminding the housemates (and the rest of the country) that English isn’t everyone’s first or chosen language in the UK. Finally Glyn was being spoken to by the state (well, BB) in his primary tongue, putting everyone else at a disadvantage. And talking of languages, did we ever get a chance to see Jennie’s skills – fluent French and Turkish?
  • I didn’t get the whole prison thing – though it felt good that the inmates were having a leisurely time while the guards were constantly having their sleep interrupted to work short shifts in the middle of the night. The smug ones were tired and narked.
  • Letters from home, however cringey and supportive, always make for strong and emotional television.
  • The narrator’s line “Richard and Aisleyne are sitting no where” made be smile every time, along with the "Bridge to no where" – neatly summing up the totally enclosed, restricted space that is the BB exercise yard.

Other thoughts:

  • One Friday night, Nikki was voted out because she was annoying and deserved to leave. Yet when given the choice to put her back into the house again, the voting public reckoned that she either made good television, or that the remaining housemates deserved her company. Voting her out into fifth place on the final night proved that she didn't really deserve a place back in the house as a full contestant. It wasn’t a pleasant last week—mainly due to her reintroduction.
  • Thirteen weeks was too long, and the cast list was too large.
If there is a Big Brother 8, it’ll need to properly reinvent itself to keep the viewing figures. As ITV have discovered with the unwatchable Love Island, reality TV and titillation doesn’t guarantee an audience. Creativity, intrigue and entertainment does.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Jury Service Expenses - Hope they track defendants more closely than jurors!

Talking of tying up loose ends … A couple of weeks ago, the cheque for travel expenses finally arrived for my May/June Jury Service.

Disappointing that the Courts Service sent it to my old address (that I moved out of 13 months ago). Particularly since I’d written to them notifying them of the address change before by Jury Service started—using Downpatrick Court’s email address as requested on their jury summons.
I suspect that no one reads the email account – as they haven’t acknowledged or replied to be emailed complaint!

Information Overload – PVR, iTunes, RSS ...

People used to say that they set their video so that it would watch television for them while they were out—releasing them from the bondage of having to sit through hours and hours of television.

The age of the PVR continues this paradigm, but with unfortunate extensions. It was quite easy to ignore an entire tape of recorded shows. (In fact I’ve about six video tapes from four years ago that have never been watched. Some day when I’m brave I may throw them out.)

But the index of named shows on my Tivo scream out for my attention, reminded me of the trash (and goodies) that I’ve missed.

The last episode of the second season of Desperate Housewives was about to automatically drop of the end of the 40 hours of material that our Tivo stores. Looks like a few prior episodes disappeared into the bit bucket while I wasn’t paying attention, as the story has moved on considerably from my last memory of Susan Mayer’s house burning down in a revenge attack.

It’s probably the mark of good drama—even as dodgy as Desperate Housewives—that it still holds together and makes sense as a standalone episode. So many loose ends tied up, and yet so many new frayed strands added to the story arc.

Now to catch up Lost … I haven’t made much progress since the last time I posted back at the end of June.

And iTunes seems to be downloading interesting podcasts faster than I can wade through them (even with fairly harsh pruning). Thanks goodness I haven’t got a decent RSS reader sorted out yet!

Time to deal with the information overload in my life.

Swiss return

Today our Swiss guest flew home via easyJet to Geneva. Her legacy includes a fondue set, quite a lot of Swiss chocolate, and a lot of fun memories.

Thankfully easyJet's check-in staff were in a good mood and didn't charge for the slight excess of luggage. Though their website notes that flights booked after 1 September will be restricted to one item of hold baggage, with a £5 online charge to book each extra bag (£10 if you do it at the airport).

Friday, August 18, 2006

And the next public building to close will be ... drum roll ... Belfast City Hall

First the Waterfront Hall announced that it would have to close for refurbishment (annoying the Ulster Orchestra who had been assured the venue would be available for their season's opening concert). Then the Ulster Museum reported that it would close its doors for 2½ years to undergo a facelift.

Now Belfast City Council is considering closing their own headquarters in the centre of Belfast for up to 12 months to fix the roof, remove asbestos, replumb, rewire and repair the stonework of the Edwardian building that recently celebrated its 100th birthday.

If the decision to move out is ratified, will the 300 or so staff be transferred to a portakabin village on the lawn? Or perhaps they could all become homeworkers, kitted out with a laptop, VoIP and a broadband connection? Or more likely, they’ll occupy some of the many floors of vacant (and expensive) office space in the city centre.

Maybe the council will be able to get some free opinion and ideas from the architects attending the one day Urban Alchemy conference on 26 September in the Waterfront Hall.

Trevor Leaker (President of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects) said:

“Too often, we accept mediocre architectural design here. Belfast and Northern Ireland are changing rapidly and we need to match the pace of that transformation with some really innovative architecture and public art. It will take boldness and creativity to ensure that we have cities in which people can really enjoy living, working and visiting.”

I wonder if Durban City Hall needs a makeover yet? (It was built using a copy of the Belfast City Hall's plans, and is largely identical - except for the palm trees in front.)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Little Fish - Lacklustre Film

Got to the cinema last night. Decided to see Little Fish since it would be closing the soonest. Big mistake.

The film is set against a backdrop of drug abuse and the mess that it brings to people’s lives and families. Having kicked the drug habit given to her by her father, Tracy (Cate Blanchett) has been working in a video store in the Little Saigon area of Sydney. Yet her debts and history are preventing her from getting a loan from any bank to finance an extension to the business.

Her junkie father Lionel is struggling to go cold turkey after his dealer (who was also his gay boyfriend) retires. Her old boyfriend Jonny has returned to town from Vancouver (now claiming to be a stockbroker). Her brother Ray (whose amputation after a drug-related car crash) still deals - selling drugs in the shape of fish (giving the film its title).

Desperate for money, security and love, Tracy’s life starts to spiral down the plughole. She steals $8000 from the shop to fund a drug deal to quickly raise cash for the business extension.

There’s a lot of clever stuff going on the film. Tracy’s warmest memories are of being on the beach as a child. She swims in the local pool everyday - finding the water a soothing balm in her troubled world. The film’s final scenes return to the beach - yet fail to properly execute or explain the supposedly redemptive moment.

If it was a book, this film wouldn’t be a page turner. It’s also a film lacking laughs. Cate Blanchett pulling a funny face in a restaurant is about the only humorous moment in two hours.

One word summary: disappointing.

It’s a lacklustre story, with lacklustre acting from most of the cast except Cate. The best moment was the trailer for A Scanner Darkly which looks like a novel film, using rotoscoping to give the live action an animated feel. Only gravity and the ticket price kept me in my seat to the end.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Airport queues, lack of

Arrived 15 minutes earlier than usual this morning at the Belfast City St George Airport for the red eye across to Heathrow. Only a tiny queue of sock-soled passengers waiting in line at security.

The main difference to previous trips was that metal watches, belts, wallets and shoes were being X-rayed as well as bags, coats and laptops.

My rucksack had enough cables in it to qualify for a manual search ... though the guy didn't bother to open all the pockets to look inside them. In the end, only the camera and laptop were swabbed for explosives, and my spare battery, power supply, and network lead slept undisturbed in their front pouch.

Now just to get boarded and remember to buy some toothpaste at the far end. A smart teenager could make a fortune selling little white tubes to passengers at Terminal 1 and Paddington!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - 50 Coolest Websites have published their annual list of coolest websites. A lot of them I have never heard of, and some that I probably should try out.

Mini adventure at an airstrip in September

Having been away for a week, I was trawling through the post this evening to find the credit card bills and get them paid before the interest kicks in. (Is it my imagination, or do HSBC really have a much shorter time to pay than other card providers?)

One of the white envelopes that wasn’t seeking money was from BMW, looking for Mini owners to join them at Newtownards Airfield on Sunday 10 September 2006 at 1pm to attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest car mosaic.

It’s a follow-up to the successful MINI Italian Job in 2003 when Minis lined up the hill up to Stormont and Parliament Buildings. (I was going to link to an image of the Stormont event, but I can't find one online!)

Monday, August 14, 2006

London - any film recommendations?

I’m likely to brave the airport chaos and be in London for a couple of days this week. Looks like I can still get across and back with hand luggage as long as toothpaste and deodorant become disposable items. And if the workshop doesn’t run into the evening, there’s a chance I’ll get to the cinema.

So I’m soliciting opinions on which film to consider seeing at the newly expanded Curzon chain of cinemas. (They're now running the Renoir up in Bloomsbury, as well as Chelsea Cinema and Richmond Filmhouse.)
I’m tending towards Tideland, but I’m interested in your ideas. Maybe I should look at something more mainstream?

(And according to the programme, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait will be screened from the end of September.)

Tech Camp over – and I’ve caught up on sleep

It’s probably been the longest break in postings since Alan in Belfast started earlier this year. But, despite being hooked up to the internet all week, Tech Camp was too frantic to get many moments to post anything meaningful.

It feels like I’ve edited enough audio and video to do for a while. The art of voxpopping and creatively ordering the hard-won clips has been practiced, as has the ability to make Pinnacle Studio and Windows Media Player crash.

Over the week, we went on a journey with nine teenagers. A journey that took us onto the streets of Belfast, into the QFT, all around UTV, and back stage at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle. But also on a journey looking at identity—the identity that we can have as Christians, and as part of a community of Christians.

It was a tiring week—breakfast at eight thirty tempered with a late movie and bed by one—but so encouraging to spend it with young people with growing faith. Teens with growing confidence that they are not alone in a secluded corner of a geeky world.

As the campers talked their parents through the events of the week in a half hour presentation on Saturday morning there were tears in some parents’ eyes. Lives, attitudes and confidence changed. New skills that are useful. New friendships that are real, though will be able to continue in a virtual world. New understanding of God’s love, promises and gifts. Not to mention a circuit board key ring to remind them of all they have learnt over the week.

Friday, August 11, 2006


In the interests of diversity, equal opportunity, and not repeating the same visits as last year, took the Tech Campers to UTV this morning (instead of the BBC). And it was good.

Tea/coffee and scones! A guided tour through the news studio (which is about to be gutted), a play with a studio camera and into the gallery.

Interesting to discover that as we play around with non-linear editing (Avid, Pinnacle, etc), most news and sports reports are still edited in a linear fashion - splicing the footage together by playing off one tape machine and recording onto another.

A quick stop at the green room before going up to the newsroom - which looked fairly hectic due to the airport security troubles - though Paul Clark came across to us (unplanned and unasked) and took the time to talk to us and explain what was going on.

Having waved in the window of the U105 radio studio at Lynda Bryans, we sufficiently distracted her that she popped out the door and invited us inside, even changing the running order to play another record back to back (auto-crossfaded) to give us five minutes to all chat with her inside the shiny new studio.

And the campers were all given very nice UTV goody bags ... while Pamela Ballantine managed to avoid running over any of us as she zoomed out of the staff car park and up the Ormeau Road. Not quite sure how logo-emblazoned pedometers help the UTV brand, but the campers loved them.

Compared with out trip to the BBC last year, UTV is obviously a smaller operation, but one that has a much tighter family feel. The UTV kit may be a little more dated (U105 radio being the exception) - but the staff loyalty seemed stronger.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Do gadgets in your bedroom affect your sleep?

According to the National Sleep Foundation US teens who have a lot of electronic gear in their bedrooms are twice as likely to fall asleep in school. The study found that 97% of adolescents (grades 6–12) had at least one electronic gadget (computer, mobile, television, music device etc) in their bedrooms.

The survey reported that adolescents with four or more devices in their bedrooms were much more likely than their peers to get an insufficient amount of sleep at night and almost twice as likely to fall asleep in school and while doing homework.

The NSF’s Dr. Carskadon noted:

“Many teens have a technological playground in their bedrooms that offers a variety of ways to stay stimulated and delay sleep. Ramping down from the day’s activities with a warm bath and a good book are much better ways to transition to bedtime. The brain learns when it’s time to sleep from the lessons it receives. Teens need to give the brain better signals about when night-time starts … turning off the lights—computer screens and TV, too—is the very best signal.”

Three devices (if alarm clocks count) and an electric blanket that doesn’t get much use between the two of us in our bedroom. So I can’t use that as the excuse for being tired. (And I'm no teenager.) More likely to be going to bed late and getting up early!

Becoming an Avid fan

More voxpops today. Tech Camp is turning into a small production company! This time one group got thrown out of Great Victoria Street Station: despite getting verbal permission to film in the bus concourse, the railway inspector turfed them out citing the lack of written permission!

The real joy was getting to edit the material on Avid.

There was one Pinnacle moments when we had to force restart the software. Other than that it was a joy to use a proper editor – admittedly on the most simple of edits. And having a labelled keyboard was a nice touch after using Pinnacle blind on a normal one.

Voxpopping outside Tesco ... move along please!

I’ve posted before about my love/hate relationship with Pinnacle Studio video editing software.

We quickly filmed some voxpops on the Malone Road (we cleared it of all traffic and pedestrians within a few minutes) and on the pavement outside Tesco on the Lisburn Road.

After 10 minutes the manager of Tesco came out with a security guard to ask us what we were doing – he sounded nervous that we might be asking customers about Tesco. But when he found out our questioning was about makeover shows and what people would change about themselves, he became happier and invited us in under their porch and out of the rain.

Editing the footage down to a two minute clip should have been easy peasy. Except for Studio running slow, crashing and placing captions in the wrong position on the screen.

Someone at camp was recommending software yesterday afternoon. It’s simplest to say that Pinnacle received an anti-recommendation. Ulead Video Studio got the budget vote, and Adobe Premiere Elements for those with flusher wallets.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Digital Camera Scavenger Hunt bumps into Just for Laughs

This afternoon we went out in three teams on a digital photo scavenger hunt around Belfast. Driving around trying to snap the 25 required shots. (If you ever need an idea to keep a group of young people brimming with enthusiasm for an afternoon - or summer evening - then this is a really fun and simple idea. Could work for us oldies too - along as you have some safe drivers.)

Any idea how hard it is to get a photograph with a police man or woman. It involves first finding one out on the beat, and then chasing them down the street until they agree that it’s appropriate to pose for a photo. (One group called in at Police Headquarters – and eventually got a shot after a hunt for someone in uniform).

A picture of a red Renault Clio proves that Clios aren't as plentiful as they used to be. And woolly scarves are in short supply this summer!

A photo of Kelvin should have been straightforward. Botanic Gardens, front gate. And there he stands on a plinth in front of the Ulster Museum. Except that Just for Laughs were filming at the entrance today. Kirtsteen O’Sullivan in a wedding dress, a camera hidden in a bin, and a small army packed into a white transit van.

Some of the other regulars were there too.

(Jett wasn’t at the shoot … otherwise LTA, JFL and AiB could have collided.)

Technology Camp

Postings will be fairly sporadic this week. Off helping run a Technology Camp for PCI in South Belfast where nine teenagers are getting a chance to learn about audio and video editing, blogs and podcasts etc. And they’ll also be thinking about our identity in God.

Last night should have been uneventful as the campers were only arriving this morning. Just a lot of kit to lug about, rig up a network, and film/edit a quick intro video.

However, the night’s “highlight” was the fire alarm which went off at 5.30am. We’re based in a hall of residence, and every bedroom has its own alarm klaxon. The noise was so loud that it was paralysing. I found my brain spending all its time trying to screen out the noise that there was no compulsion to actually getting out of bed and evacuating. Maybe alarms can be too loud.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The different sides of Newcastle, Co. Down

Given the weather forecast predicting hot temperatures in Northern Ireland, we headed to the coast and the seaside town of Newscastle this morning. Although the clouds kept the weather overcast, it was hot and humid, and my red arms tonight suggest that the sun got through the mist to warm up my skin.

Newscastle was buzzig today. There was a Pipe band competition in the fields behind the Donard Park car park. The sea front has been tarted up since last I was there. Children and adults were enjoying the amusements. Slieve Donard and the Mournes still dominated the landscape.

A colourful day.

A sunny disposition to go along with Saturday's weather forecast

How could a blog entitled Alan in Belfast not pass comment on the National Lottery research that finds people living in Belfast are optimistic about their future than city-dwellers elsewhere in 30 other locations across the UK.

94% of people surveyed were hopeful about their future, and 79% were satisfied with their life at the present.

It makes me stop and wonder why.
  • Maybe with all that has happened in our past, the future has got to be better? From the bottom of the abyss, everyone looks up?
  • Maybe everyone interviewed had just poured off a cruise ship that had anchored in Belfast Port for a day's Shillelagh shopping? (I'm surprised to find there's no separate Wikipedia article for Shillelagh - yet!)
  • Maybe it's really bad everywhere else?
  • Maybe there really is a peace dividend, and the local economic condition has turned people's spirits up?
  • Maybe they caught us on a dry day!
(Via BBC News NI)

Friday, August 04, 2006

Channel 4’s answer to iPlayer … at what price?

As the BBC gear up with iPlayer as their (broadband) video on demand solution, Channel 4 are working on something similar.

Currently conducting market research to see how much us poor suckers will pay for downloading programmes, Channel 4 are expected to opt for a pricing model that differentiates between shows that date quickly (eg, daytime), premium drama (eg, Shameless) and films, rather than Apple’s one price fits all approach. It is unlikely that a free model, supported by advertising, will be adopted.

They may match or undercut the iTunes 79p per song download fee for non-premium material, while films could be priced between £1.50 and £3.50. This will only apply to UK programming covered under the recent Channel 4 PACT deal (which I didn’t post about, but was different to the BBC agreement with PACT). Other material, including much of the Film4 download service, will continue to be priced differently.

And in separate news, Channel 4 have halted their planned breakfast slot relaunch due to a shortfall in its programming budget. So the new series with puppets talking about current events due to be voiced by Danny Baker and Emma Kennedy will not go ahead until 2007 at the earliest. Instead you’ll have to tune in to Sky News or News 24 if you want to see puppets talking about the news ... boom boom ... a little cruel perhaps!

(VoD story from Broadcast)

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Belfast City Hall at 100 - tears or was that just rain?

Despite the showers of rain, lots of young families turned out to see what the centenarian Belfast City Hall had to offer on Tuesday 1 August. I’m sure the organisers were disappointed that the inclement weather discouraged the expected huge crowds from attending.

(And I bet they'd be disappointed that I only knew it was on because I keep an eye on the website ... and hadn't seen or heard any billboard/radio/TV/newspaper advertising.)

The climbing wall looked fun …

… though the birthday cake was terribly naff. (I think that's the coner of a De Lorian car peeking out of the corner of the photo below.)

But walking through the city centre, there were lots of young happy painted faces carrying twisted balloon animals.

As people milled around inside the City Hall—some of the events moved indoors to keep dry—the comment was made that it was a very changed Belfast when you could actually go inside the City Hall (unsearched) and go into the council chamber etc. Ten years ago, the security risk would have been too high and these areas would have been largely out of bounds.

To reuse the organisers’ branding: Celebrate Belfast.

It’s changing, it’s improving … and the rain is warmer in the summer!

What's in the parcel?

From the 21st, the Royal Mail are changing how UK post is priced - turns out that size matters as well as weight. So the shape and size of letters and packaging is in my mind.

I went down to sign for a package in work. I was expecting an A5 Jiffy Bag or smaller. So imagine my surprise when I was handed this. A huge parcel that weighed practically nothing.

(And before anyone asks, the mug wasn’t attached - I just thought you’d be able to work out the relative sizes since there wasn’t a ruler to hand.)

Was someone posting me fresh air?

Inside the package was a box.

Inside that box was another box and an envelope - containing a single sheet of paper - did the envelope prevent the invoice getting lost in the huge expanse of cardboard box?

And finally, inside the little box was my replacement Crackberry belt clip - ensconced in a plastic wrapper - in case the elements would seep through the other three layers of packaging and damage the plastic!

And it only cost £6 - most of which must have been spent on the manual effort wrapping the handy device. It's soooo small and light - why didn't they just send in a Jiffy Bag? Bet the answer is something to do with efficiency - and the economy of scale by only using two sizes of packing boxes - large and massive - on site. The world's gone mad.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Bennetts, Storm Cinemas, and Superman at the Odyssey

A fortnight ago we went for an evening's entertainment at the Odyssey in Belfast. Update: I emailed the post into Blogger that night, but it took 10 days to appear! Arghh.

The 15% off voucher being handed out at the Odyssey entrance by Bennetts' staff should have warned us that there's a reason they're not busy.

While the staff were friendly, and the cheesy nachos made a more-than-ample starter, the main course was indigestible. The chicken burger had been pan-fried to the point of leather - a steak knife would have been a useful tool to cut it.

The banks of monitors showing distracting videos that bear no relation to the songs blaring over the tannoy don't help the atmosphere either. Not half as good as Bennetts at Belmont. Back to the Red Panda next time.

The Warner Village cinema has recently been sold onto Storm Cinemas - a growing chain across the island of Ireland.

Think back to the last time you paid for something in person by credit card and didn't get a receipt. Can you remember? Storm Cinemas can't give you a receipt if you pay by plastic - the software at the ticket desk doesn't allow them.

On principle, I whinged and eventually a manager was tracked down. With no receipt, how could I dispute an incorrect charge on my next card statement? They're upgrading to something new (and better) in September. Looks like Warner didn't leave them their system as part of the handover, so they've gone lo-tech in the meantime. "Do you want me to write you something out?" was the suggestion.

I guess if there's no VAT on cinema tickets then a receipt isn't essential - just good practice?

And Superman Returns ... it was a fine addition to the existing collection of tales. Well made, plenty of action, not to distressing. An action hero who craves the appreciation and attention.

Does the world only need a saviour when we're crying out for help? Are we alright as long as we're not in a crisis? Do we really need to be saved from criminals and power-hungry maniacs?

Away from Earth five years, Clark Kent gets his old job back, but life has moved on. Lois Lane has a partner and child. While there's a certain amount of posturing between the two males in Lois' life, Superman ends up dealing with the complicated situation very gracefully and maturely.

And he has one of those near-death experiences that makes you doubt if heart rate monitors actually work!

I'm sure it's not the best film on release at the moment, but its not a bad way to spend a couple of hours at the end of a long week.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Swiss Fondue Fun

We went all out to get a Swiss theme going tonight. Two fondue burners and a lot of long-handled forks. After some healthy vegetables dipped in melted cheese, we moved onto fruit and melted chocolate.


One tip: keep drinking hot liquids (cinnamon tea is ideal) as cold liquids will help congeal the cheese and chocolate in your stomach.

Happy Swiss National Day

As promised, in planet Alan in Belfast we're celebrating Swiss National Day along with out Swiss house guest. So it'll be out with the Fondue set tonight (no joking) to get into the cheesy spirit of the occasion.

Back in 2002, we did it properly in the mountainside village of Mürren.

The entire village's population swarmed across to a large field and listened to a stirring talk (in German) and to a very talented man playing the alphorn, before looking skywards to take in the fireworks.

The hotel we were staying in even had special napkin rings just for the day!

Please step on the (City Hall) lawn

(c) Phil O'Kane ( City Hall's not particularly noted for "do not walk on the grass signs" - only when they've returfed an area. (Photo by Phil O'Kane -

And in the hot weather, Belfast workers tend to congregate on the benches and grass to munch their sandwiches and soak in a little sunshine before heading back to the afternoon grindstone.

But today, Belfast City Hall is opening its gates between 11am and 7pm to citizens and visitors for a grand Picnic on the Lawn. There'll be bluegrass, Irish trad, Chinese dancing, circus acts, and the Really Rubbish Orchestra (recycled instruments) will be playing too. (See the full programme for details.)

To quote the Lord Mayor Pat McCarthy:
"The City Hall belongs to the people of Belfast - all the people of Belfast - and the centenary events have been designed to show the building off to the people who own it."
And if you can't make it along - or the rain puts you off - you can monitor the floods (sic) of people pouring through the gates on the City Hall webcam.