Saturday, September 30, 2006

Car park rage

What irritated me this afternoon was driving into Secret Sainsburys at Holywood Exchange, carrying my wee daughter across to the waiting trolleys and lifting her into the seat.

While struggling to do the buckle up (and wondering if it was worth it) a flash-looking two-door car came to a halt beside the trolleys. The window on the driver’s side smoothly rolled down and a middle aged woman tipped a still-burning half finished cigarette out the window and onto the ground about a metre or so from my feet.

What possessed me to yell “Litter lout” at the fast closing window, I don’t know. It was instinctive, stupid, and did no good as it wasn’t heard. She’d put the car into gear and turned sharply into an empty parent and toddler parking space – the one closest to the store’s main door. She and her female companion got out, and sauntered into do their shopping.

While there was a car seat in the back of the car, there was no child in it. Maybe the seat was being used as an ashtray and was full up?! Maybe she was so used to having a child with her that she automatically pulled into the space without realising? But I doubt it.

When I got out of the shop about 20 minutes later, their sporty car was still there. Short of bringing fake Sainsburys-branded notices saying “Next time you park here inappropriately you’ll be clamped …” there’s not a lot anyone can do.

On a busy Saturday afternoon, she’d no thought for those around her. And no thought for the anger that she was stirring up inside those witnessing her loutish behaviour.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada ... for free on Monday night at Dublin Road Moviehouse

I thought twice before posting ... but a freebie's a freebie.

Got home to discover I'd got an email to the alaninbelfast gmail account.

Nissan are partnering with Breakthrough Breast Cancer for this October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As part of that they've organised a free advance screening of The Devil Wears Prada on Monday night (2nd Oct) at 7pm in the Dublin Road Moviehouse. In return for the free film, volunteers on the night will be collecting donations for the breast cancer charity.

Going on general release on Thursday 5th, the file is based on the best-selling novel by Lauren Weisberger, and stars Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway.

If you would like to see the film, all you have to do is email your name & how many tickets you want to michael.cooper at and [they] will confirm if you have a ticket.

I'm not around, but if you're interested, why not get in touch with Michael.

Sidenote: It's an interesting approach to being short of numbers on the Friday afternoon before Monday night's screening. Trawl through the local Belfast / Northern Ireland blogs, and email out to advertise! What do you think? Do drop a comment if you got the email too ... or if you enjoy the film. You could do a guest review!

Floodwatch + Pouring Money Down the Drain

Every few months, at the back of the Waterfront Hall, Mays Meadow floods underneath the railway bridge.

And so it was that yesterday morning wise drivers were doing a U-turn, and the more crazy souls took a bet on getting their expensive cars through to the far side with out stopping half way. The photos are new, honest - it just looks like the last time it flooded in June.

It needs rain - but not a lot. And it looks like a homage to the mightier River Lagan that flows only a couple of metres away. It could well be the River Lagan seeping through the bank and into the drains. I dread to think.

By last night the DOE had turned up, and by this morning they’d pumped about half of it away.

While not that exciting, it is indicative of the wider problems facing Belfast's drains. Pockets of streets across Belfast experience flooding in the same places year after year. Good news then that a £100m contract to replace the main sewers in Belfast has recently been awarded. The boringly-named Belfast Sewers (Tunnel) Project will construct a 13ft wide, six mile long tunnel underneath the city - subsidence better not be the next problem! It's a lot of money to pour down the drain.

Previous floodwatch back in June:

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ulster Bank Online Banking - asking for your password over the phone

Information must be the keyword of the week.

Paper, email, podcast, Tivo recording overload leaves little time to keep finances in order and keep on top of those pesky bank statements. So I decided to take action and sign up to get online access to my Ulster Bank account.

I opened a current account with the Ulster Bank as a student. Like thousands of other freshers in Belfast each year, I selected a bank in the university area and haven’t moved since. The Ulster have been pretty ok as far as local banks go. Other friends and colleagues have experienced much greater incompetency with the Northern Bank and the Allied Irish Bank (AIB, hence I abbreviate Alan in Belfast to AiB).

There have been a few weird moments in the last couple of years.

  • An increasing number of marketing calls in the early evening trying to sell extra financial services.
  • Going into the city centre Belfast headquarters branch to lodge a cheque in Euros only to be told that I could only lodge foreign currency in my own branch. Though they photocopied the cheque and posted it up the road for me.
  • And I couldn’t cancel my Ulster Bank Visa card from a branch - had to do it over the phone.

So I filled in the Anytime Banking application form, handed it in to the branch Monday week ago, and waited for the process to begin.

Now online banking is all about trusting that bank system is secure, and feeling that the service is reliable.

On Friday I got a letter welcoming me, stating my customer number, and telling me to read the enclosed registration guide for the next steps. Guess what? No enclosed guide. And the website is a prime example of security by obscurity. Nothing in the online help to explain about registration.

On Saturday I got another letter - identical except for the date - welcoming me, stating my customer number, and telling me to read the enclosed registration guide for the next steps. Guess what? No enclosed guide.

Failure in the reliability stakes. Duplicates and missing information.

Walking past a branch on Monday I wasted my time enquiring. Telephone helpline only. One of their identification questions is to ask you to state a recent direct debit from your account. Difficult unless you’ve got a statement from a hole in the wall machine recently. Precisely the reason I wanted online banking! So I asked asked a colleague what the monthly union subs were and phoned back - this time able to confirm my identity.

Call centre: What would you like your password to be?
Me: Pardon?
Call centre: What would you like your password to be?
Me: You’re not really asking me that over the phone. It’s standard advice never to tell anyone your password. Particularly not for something as important as an online banking service.
Call centre: It’s only for the first time, so we can set it. And your phone line’s very secure.
Me: No. There must be some other way. Can I set a temporary one and then change it?
Call centre: Well I need to set one before I can put you through to the automated system to get your shared secret. [It’s a one time code to log in the first time.] And you’ll be able to set your password after that.

So I made up a throwaway password, got the shared secret from the automated voice, logged in for the first time, and was prompted to set a password.

What a strange set up. An online bank that expects you to tell them a password over the phone. Lacking in the security stakes.

It’s tipped me over the edge - something that’s happening a lot recently. Must be a sign of the stress levels. I’ll be looking into and the Nationwide’s offering and switching my account. Time to desert the sinking ship. And write them one a parting letter to question their approach and commitment to security.

Information Loss

Last night after I got home from work I sat up working from 7pm until about midnight. Five extra hours of work. Writing up stuff on an internal wiki to circulate to folk this morning for their review comments.

Imagine my surprise to get into work this morning and discover that it was all gone. A night’s work - not far off a working day’s worth - vanished. Turned out that all of yesterday’s changes had vanished. Not just mine, but about forty or fifty people’s work had been lost to the great server in the sky.

It’s a really sick feeling to know that you’ve lost stuff that is so hard to replace. (Probably nothing compared to losing your laptop.) Compounded by the fact that I’d missed watching the last two episodes of Lost on Channel 4 last night because I’d sat hammering out words on this keyboard, and drawing up diagrams to go with the text.

It was a stern and rant-ridden email that I fired off to the wiki administrator - who unfortunately is based in the US and didn’t respond until this afternoon. A long time to sit angry and frustrated.

Only now can I sit back amused that I’d ranted on the blog this week about information overload, only to have my own information trashed!

All's well that ends well? There’s a backup of all the material on the wiki from midnight that contains all the lost material. We’ve restored it to a second instance of the wiki, and can now cut and paste the missing content across. It’s very manual - since people have already made changes on the one-day-missing version, but at least it beats having to rethink five hours of work.

Moral of story - back up your work, in case no one else does it for you.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Information overload ... leading to a clearout

I’m having an information clearout.

I’ve started to unsubscribe from lots of email circulars that arrive each week, and have set rules in Outlook to fire the remaining ones into folders to separate out the general interest (ie, ignorable and should have been deleted if I was a bit more ruthless) and the hot topics (ie, stuff I really should read but still won’t get around to). It’s a start.

Similarly, many of the paper trade magazines that weigh down our post man and pour through our letterbox will not get renewed. I’m struggling with one - which I actually pay for and don’t read. The ACM. It’s full name is a quaint: Association for Computing Machinery. Basically, the US equivalent of the British Computer Society (BCS).

Truth be told, I haven’t read a single magazine they’ve sent me for the last five years. On the other hand, if I have stopped enough of the other garbage arriving, I should have more time to read this one. And it’s good thought-provoking material, explaining all the latest developments that so intrigued John Self last week!

As I type, this feels like déjà vu. A familiar message that I’ve thought through and typed before. Oh dear. A quick search through the AiB archives shows up a similar thread back in the middle of August.

Back then I’d identified a digital content overload. Now I’ve come to the late conclusion that it’s not just digital. It’s not just periodical. It’s a recurring nightmare that perhaps requires drastic (and painful) action. A complete information overload - books, magazines, emails, the lot.

As the world finds more and more ways to bombard us with information, and more and more methods to tease into opening our screens and eyes to this stuff, can we train ourselves and each other to filter it before we drown. Will my toddling daughter naturally develop better methods to control the communication flood gates? Or will she cry “More data!” like Number 5 robot Short Circuit.

To finish on a lighter note, over the weekend I finally caught up with about three months of castaway island Lost action.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Purring USB Cat to stand guard over your PC?

Unusually, this hard-to-believe gadget comes straight out of the Argos catalogue, and not from the good folks at Shiny Shiny.

For a mere £14.95, you too can have a USB Nodding Cat sitting on your desk guarding your PC. From the cursory details provided in the catalogue (which is reproduced on the Argos website) the cat has a IR sensor to detect movement and will trigger your computer to meow at anyone approaching (including you).

Am I alone in suspecting that these cats will be gathering dust on the shelves rather than flying off them?

MFI sell their stores for £1

Madness I thought. MFI selling their loss-making stores for a nominal £1. What’s left of MFI if they don’t have stores to flog furniture?

(For non-UK readers it's probably best for me to pause for a minute to explain that MFI are a furniture store - selling more solid but less trendy gear than Ikea. Twenty years ago you carried the flat pack furniture boxes out of the store on your way home. These days, you can look around their store, choose from the catalogue, and it's all delivered for self-assembly within a week or two.)

So back to the question ... What’s left of MFI if they don’t have stores to flog furniture?

A surprising amount. To quote their corporate website: “MFI is the largest furniture manufacturer in the UK.” (They’ve a video to explain.) Smaller than they used to be since they sold the Hygena kitchen brand to a Swedish firm - Nobia - at the beginning of 2006. They also manage the delivery logistics and installation.

(I seem to remember ParcelFarce delivering MFI goods in NI. It took about four deliveries - and a visit to the local store to pick up some missing screws - to get enough unbroken/unscratched parts to build my first wardrobe. And a couple of years later, when I bought a second matching wardrobe, one of the side panels was split in two - so I had to wait a fortnight to get a new one posted out before I could start assembling it.)

Augmenting their unprofitable MFI retail shops, MFI Group started Howdens Joinery back in 1995 to sell kitchens and other joinery product to organisations that wouldn’t normally shop at MFI stores. Very cunning!

With over 300 branches across the UK and trading with builders, local authorities and housing associations, Howdens has sustained growth and is the most profitable part of the group (particularly in comparison to the MFI retail stores).

The shrinking MFI Group will change it’s name to Galiform later this year if shareholders approve the sale to the equity firm MEP Mayflower Limited. That’ll allow the new owner to keep the MFI brand on the retail stores. (No surprise that the domain was registered on 1 September 2006.)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Pseuds Corporate

John Self (rightly) took issue with the diatribe in Thursday’s posting about IT and Eduction.

"I work in an industry that is keen on standardising Business to Business (B2B) interfaces between suppliers, not to mention B2C for customers too. And I'm in a company that is internally tackling application integration issues and exploiting the opportunities that Service Orientated Architecture brings (as well as suffering the downsides)."

Now AiB’s banner does indicate a chance that there will be “comment on … technology”, so it should be no surprise that I occasionally jump into the geek-infested jungle.

But I’ll agree that the above obfuscation is unlikely to win an award from the Plain English Campaign.

But to respond to John’s challenge “can you translate the above extract from management-speak/New Labourese into English?”, here goes:

Modern firms often want their computer systems to talk electronically to other firms’ computer systems. For example, banks are linked up to credit rating agencies. It’s a business to business link, called B2B in shorthand.

Now in the example, each credit rating agency could set how the link works – they “publish the interface”. That way, if the banks talk to each credit agency in their preferred way, they can get hold of the different credit ratings for you.

If the different credit agencies could get together and agree on a common standard for banks to interrogate them, it would make life easier for the banks. They’d only have to build a single interface for credit checking, and then swing it round to point it at the different agencies as required.

So that’s “standardising Business to Business (B2B) interfaces between suppliers” in a poor nutshell.

Now linking up computer systems within an organisation is as fraught as hooking up different businesses. The process of getting different systems talking to each other is known as interfacing, and the science of doing it is integration.

But “exploiting the opportunities that Service Orientated Architecture” is a subject for another day.

Friday, September 22, 2006

East Belfast - what happened to the Co-op on the Upper Newtownards Road?

Walking down the road to get some milk on Tuesday night I discovered that the Co-op at Ballyhackamore is no more. Sign down and all boarded up.

Is it closed for renovation? Or has the advent of massive competition from Tesco Express and M&S Simply Food closed it down for good?

If you know, please leave a comment and let us know.

This Life ... again

About ten years ago, I sat down on Tuesday nights to watch This Life on BBC2. Two series and a total of 32 episodes plotted the ups and downs (as well as uppers and downers) of five law graduates sharing a house in London.

The characters were intriguing, drawing you into their mixed up lives, leaving you wanting to know more. Something we’re very familiar with in more contemporary shows like 24 or Spooks.

The original intention was to recast for a third series, and explore the lives of five new people living in the old house. However, plans were abandoned and the show was laid to rest.

Now to mark the show’s 10th anniversary the show’s creator Amy Jenkins has written a 90 minute special for the BBC to go back and see what has happened to Milly and Egg. Did Warren stick around and get a job, or did he go off travelling again? Could Anna ever calm down?

And Broadcast magazine reports that it’s all very media self-aware:

A decade on from following the turbulent lives of a group of twenty-something lawyers sharing a house in London, one of the group, who has become a commercial success after writing a book based on their friendship and a TV production company, is keen to film the group's reunion.
It’s also an excuse to repeat the two series on BBC2, with the special expected to air in “winter 2006”.


Just got home - the late flight home from Luton eventually touched down about a quarter to midnight. (By the time EZY173 was finally called for boarding - though as we all lined up in A, B, C and D queues, there wasn't yet a plane sitting outside the window on the tarmac - all the airside terminal shops etc had closed, with no way to get that final cup of tea.)

Though when the plane pulled up at its stand, it was shaking from side to side in the wind.

On the road back to Belfast, a fallen tree was blocking one side of the road in Templepatrick, and there were branches strewn every mile or so along the M2.

(Not to mention the Range Rover driver who drove like a maniac about the distance of a cardboard box behind my car as I came past the Odyssey, which had an unusual amount of folliage on the bridge - unusual given the lack of trees nearby.)

So take care if you're on the roads in the morning. Methinks I'll be tucked up in bed.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

IT & Education

Another day, another flight. [I wrote this yesterday - Wed - but it holds true for today too!] And so I find myself reading an old copy of the Guardian on this easyJet flight across to London Luton.

A surprising number of stories caught my eye as I flicked through the Educ@guardian insert.

I work in an industry that is keen on standardising Business to Business (B2B) interfaces between suppliers, not to mention B2C for customers too. And I'm in a company that is internally tackling application integration issues and exploiting the opportunities that Service Orientated Architecture brings (as well as suffering the downsides).

So it was with interest that I read that Becta, the government's education technology agency, is aiming to publish and enforce standards to "govern interoperability of all [educational] IT systems."

The transfer of a child's educational record between institutions (as they switch school or college) - vertical interoperability - as well as between applications within a school - horizontal interoperability - is problematic. Getting suppliers to adhere to a common standard will help move details of addresses, assessment data and attendance without loss or rekeying.

So Becta is amending the US Schools Interoperative Framework (Sif) for the UK educational model, and will trial some inplementations with a set of Birmingham schools.

Interoperability and common data schemas have long sat beside software reuse as part of the software engineering utopia. Great theories that are incredibly hard to realise.

Let's hope Becta can take some meaningful baby steps before trying to run.

Stephen Heppell's Back and Forth column caught my eye too. He argues that too often schools don't put enough emphasis on the C in ICT. Communications.

Pupils are adept at using SMS, MSN, podcasting and blogs. But they're also starting to collaborate using the emerging tools (like Bebo, YouTube etc), publishing final projects online and getting ideas from peers.

He points out that "collaboration and communication - whether with parents over coursework, or with peers sharing homework assignments - is all too often classed as "cheating" ... as a result of this obsession with the individual, out UK star performers are very rarely team players ... Our prime minister is nowadays criticised for being too "presidential" and not "collegiate" enough."

As our children learn to instinctively collaborate, schools and the educational curriculum shouldn't try and stamp it out.

(And Heppell didn't have to mention Web 2.0 once!)

The final snippet sat at the bottom of page 11, underneath a picture and a description of the futuristic Saltire Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, supplying 1800 seats, a 600 seat cafe, 600 PCs and laptops, 54 megabit wifi, some inflatable igloos, together with a lot of books for students to study in a productive environment.

David Hearnshaw asked and answered the question: will podcasting finally kill the lecture?

The answer was no. Audio is not enought. Audio linked to evolving diagrams and summary words is much better. Hearnshaw has delivered Computer Science lectures on enhanced CD for a number of years - carefully constructing explanations of new concepts to suit this one-way medium.

But he thankfully concludes that it takes two-way communication to complete the learning. If you can't stick your hand up and ask a question - in a lecture (or a tutorial after watching the CD) - then students will miss out.

If I'd more time I'd read the Guardian more often! (I'll update this post with links and pictures sometime soon - when I'm not in the back of a taxi heading along the (English) M1 to Luton airport. Done.)

How full is your USB drive?

Two USB drives to tickle you with, both tackling the problem of knowing how full a portable drive is.

Lexar have integrated a capacity meter into the front of their JumpDrive Mercury thumb drive. The neat trick is that the meter retains its display when you unplug the drive from the computer.

But the Russian Flashbag drive goes one step further. As the marketing explains, “the size of the device changes depending on the amount of data it holds … when switched off the Flashbag remains pumped up, so you can estimate with the naked eye how much more pics, books and music albums can be transferred into it.”

Thanks to Shiny Shiny for reporting.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Constant Gardener - John le Carré

I’m not quite sticking to the bookshelf (as published in the right hand side power), but I have at least finished another book on the flight back home this afternoon. And I was so engrossed that I didn’t realise that we’d taxied away from the stand, zoomed up the run way and were slowly climbing to cruising altitude … all the while sitting in the window seat!

As a teenager, I read through lots of classic John le Carré, and I got through The Tailor of Panama a few years ago. But I haven’t got around to any of his more recent stuff.

But back in December 2005, before the blog was born, I went to see The Constant Gardener. I found it a hard hitting movie that used its storyline and drug-trial scenario to powerfully questioned our attitudes to other countries (particularly Africa) as well as our sometimes misplaces patriotism to our own.

Beautifully filmed with gorgeous settings providing a backdrop to twisted and tragic circumstances and characters.

So I picked up the book in a 3 for 2 deal in Waterstones bookshop. And over the last week I’ve managed skip through the 500+ pages. This isn’t a review, just some thoughts.

Turns our that the film kept amazingly close to the book. Other than the extra Foreign Office memorial service scene that is used to visually confront many of the protagonists with their wrongdoing, there weren’t any major differences. And reading the book after the film felt like a retelling of the story, filled out with lots of extra details and back plot. But the characters from the film were in keeping with the book and didn’t detract.

Usually I read the book first—Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy—so the screenplay can clash with my original impression of how characters looked and behaved. It can be disappointing. But it worked the other way around with The Constant Gardner.

If you’ve time: read the book. If not, rent the DVD. (Even better, go and see it on the big screen.)

Starving at Aldergrove - Starbucks opening late

After a 4am start, driving up to Belfast International Airport, avoiding the check-in queue and going straight to security with my easyJet boarding pass printed out at home ... it was all going very smoothly.

Starting to get peckish though.

But yet again, Starbucks aren't opening until 6am - by then I'll be boarded on the 06:15 Stansted flight.

It takes two members of staff to arrive on time to get Starbucks open at 5.30am as scheduled. But ever since they first opened at the airport, they've been unreliable.

Do they not have a rota? Do they not need two staff every morning? Do they find it so hard to run their other non-airport outlets?

You'd think that TBI, the owners of Belfast International, would have been monitoring their performance and helped to raise their game.

As I've been typing, I've been standing in the queue for Cafe Rankin - the only other airside catering outlet with food available. (The bar around the corner has about 5 sandwiches and no muffins.) But I've only just reached the counter, since they've only one member of staff serving this morning.

Flight just been called - still in the queue!

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Scanner Darkly ... and a headache quickly

I settled into my favourite seat in Screen 2 of the Curzon Soho to watch A Scanner Darkly on Thursday night. My interest had been excited by the trailer before the lacklustre Little Fish about a month ago.

Until I read the Curzon’s programme, I wasn’t even aware that the film was based on a science fiction novel by Philip K Dick. Problem: the film wouldn’t make me want to read the book.

Ok, so I was tired and weary. But if the film hadn’t been rotoscoped, I’m not sure I would have stayed awake. The story would have appeared weak and uninteresting if I’d experienced the original high-resolution visuals. Instead, the cartoon-like story carried the plot with clever animations and smart use of the rotoscope form.

The Guardian review by Philip French explains:

"A Scanner Darkly was shot as a conventional movie in digital video then transformed into an animated movie through a process called “interpolated rotoscoping”. The actors retain their voices, but they're turned into cartoon figures clearly resembling themselves yet becoming somehow dreamlike and abstracted. The effect is highly unsettling, like flicking quickly through the pages of a graphic novel."

It’s a story about characters in a world addicted to drugs, set about seven years in the future. Substance D (D for Death) dominates society. “You're either on it or you've never tried it.” Bob Arctor, played by Keanu Reeves, walked out on his wife and children when it all got too tough. He now lives in a house full of addicts, all messed up and paranoid about the police state and the current crack down on drug use.

But Arctor leads a double life. He’s an undercover narcotics agent, who works in a scramble suit (which disguises his appearance and keeps animators in jobs) so he isn’t recognised on the streets. He ends up being commissioned to spy on his own household, his boss being unaware of which character he actually is since they all wear their scramble suits in work. And being cornered taking Substance D in the line of duty isn’t good for Arctor’s health or employment.

There’s a twist at the end, but you’ll see it coming.

A Scanner Darkly is art, but it’s a pulsing, psychedelic, disturbing vision that is easier to watch with your eyes closed than engage with the headache-inducing imagery. And while the story is a wake up call to our society that is increasingly liberal in our views of recreational drug use, it’s one I was only too glad to leave at Screen 2.

At the Curzon’s entrance (and plastered over the rest of the West End), there were lots of posters and leaflets to announce that Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is opening in cinemas on 29 September, presumably getting a much wider release die to his World Cup escapade that would otherwise have been possible.

Now just to get a babysitter so we can both go and see Little Miss Sunshine ...

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Speak for England - James Hawes

It doesn’t take much of a jump to move from today’s selection of TV reality shows to imagine one in a few years time where six volunteers are dropped into a tropical jungle. And so starts James Hawes’ Speak for England which I should have reviewed ages ago.

Armed only with diminishing supplies and a satellite-transmitting video camera, they must survive in the unfriendly environment until the host returns by helicopter at the end of the week. The first person, and only the first, to step towards the host can escape home to food and comfort. The rest must remain another week. (Note the assumption that conditions are so bad that at least one person will want to leave each week.)

The book’s hero Brian Marley filled the space of someone who pulled out of the programme only weeks before it went to air. He’s divorced, ridden with debt and feels like life isn’t going so well. As the weeks in the jungle progress, he survives, never quite wanting to leave enough to make a dash for freedom. And it’s no spoiler to reveal that he ends up as the last contestant, made to spend one last week in the jungle on his own to prove he’s a worthy winner of the £2 million prize.

Marley outplays his rivals, and outlives the TV crew coming to collect him at the end of his final week. The two helicopters collide, leaving Brian and his wonky video camera in hell.
And so he stumbles over (well climbs up a cliff and falls over the far side to see) a community living within the jungle. They are the survivors (and offspring) of the crew of Comet IV, which crashed in 1958 while carrying parts and personnel for an H-bomb test. And so a concussed and confused Marley joins very English civilisation, preserved in such a remote location.

The newbie survivor joins the professional survivors!

Assuming that their plane crashed as past of an opening salvo of World War III, his new friends, led by the Headmaster, are anxious to hear how England is doing. Did the Germans take over Europe? Is there still a parliament in London? What happened to the Queen?

Being abandoned in the jungle makes Marley ponder the way of life back home? Ponder his life, and that of the nation. Now answering these questions to the jolly cricket-playing community he’s fallen into, he further questions what life in Britain amounts to. How can he explain that the Labour Party in power doesn’t amount to the Reds taking over the country?

The satire concludes with the rescue of Marley and the forgotten colony. Live TV covers the Prime Minister receiving a warm welcome (with a good caning rather than a handshake). In a curious twist, the Headmaster enters politics once back home, and leads a revival of traditional values and strict no-nonsense policies.

It’s this last section of the book that works least well. The story becomes too fantastical for my liking, clashing with the pace and quality of the earlier chapters. But it’s doesn’t ruin the book. Just removes some of the sweetness that would otherwise be left in your mouth as you turn over the last page.

So 6½ out of 10 from me. I’ll probably try and read some more James Hawes when I get through some more of the backlog. Now if I could only remember why I bought up the book in the first place … still haven’t linked it back to anything or anyone.

Update 20 April 2007: Andrew Davies has been commissioned to write a 90 minute drama version of Speak for England, described by the BBC’s head of fiction Jane Trantor as “offbeat satire on the state of Britain today”.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Bugs and Minis

While Northern Ireland recently managed to clock up a record-breaking 250 Minis in a mosaic (there are links to find John Self’s car amongst the line-up in the comments in my previous posting), it looks like around 200 owners of nice pictures of the VW Bugs.

Belfast's newest arts gallery opened by Hugh Mulholland

For those following the Ormeau Arts Gallery debacle earlier this year, you may be interested to know that the ex-director Hugh Mulholland has now opened his own gallery called the third space (name intentionally in trendy lower case). The inaugural show featuring work by Mark McGreevy opened on Thursday night.

You’ll find it in Suite 11/12 of the Scottish Mutual Building, 16 Donegal Square South, behind Belfast City Hall. It's open Mon-Fri, 11am-1pm and 2-5pm, and has a bizarre website at

Hugh Mulholland has also been chosen to curate Northern Ireland’s contribution to the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Has the Loch Ness Monster retired south to East Anglia?

A story in the Weather Eye column of today's Times caught my eye. Plain bizarre. I include the full story ...

On August 26, at 4am, a teenage driver reported being chased in her car by floating lights as she drove across the Orwell Bridge on the outskirts of Ipswich.

According to a report in the Evening Star, Ipswich, two spinning lights appeared about 3.7m (12ft) above the windscreen, each about the size of an orange, and appeared to be a dull, diffuse sort of light, of no particular colour. The driver who wished to remain unnamed, said: "They definitely seemed to be staying with the car. I've never been so scared."

At about the same time that night, similar mysterious lights were seen by other eyewitnesses just over a mile away in Ipswich.

Perhaps the driver wanted to remain anonymous since they'd been sampling the local East Anglian barley-juice just before it happened! And the other witnesses had spilled out of the same party!

But I'll keep an eye out when I'm driving across the bridge on Tuesday!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

It's good to talk ... particularly to your colleagues

I checked in quite early for the flight on Monday morning. Boarded and buckled into my seat on the plane, a colleague rushed in just before the doors closed and sat down in the seat beside me. He'd arrived at check-in a lot later, and got held up in the lengthening security queues.

We briefly shared grumbles about air travel, before be fell asleep, and I read the papers.

Getting off the plane, we said cheerio, and I went to collect my bag from the luggage belt. Train into Paddington, Bakerloo tube up to Harrow, train to Apsley, and a short walk to the building the meeting was being held in.

Last to arrive, I squeezed into the only remaining chair ... beside guess who? My colleague from the flight. He'd driven up from Heathrow.

But since we hadn't discussed where we were going, or even what we were both working on these days, it came as a complete shock that we'd been unwittingly racing each other to Apsley.

Moral of story - it's good to talk. It could get you a free lift to where you're going.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Avenue Q - a musical with puppets (Noel Coward Theatre, London)

Nicky lodges with Rod the banker, Kate Monster is a kindergarten assistant and is looking for love, Princeton’s a new graduate and has just moved into the neighbourhood. They’re puppets, and they live on Avenue Q along with some grown ups: Brian, his finance Christmas Eve (who is Japanese but has ended up working in a Chinese restaurant) and Gary (a child prodigy whose career fizzled out and now settles for renting out some apartments on Avenue Q).

It’s a musical. Proper musical with song and dance. With a live band who are hidden behind the set until the end. Just with puppets as well as people. A bit like a particularly tuneful Sesame Street - though Avenue Q has no connection with the Jim Henson Company or Sesame Workshop. Though it’s done in a similar style: every now and again screens appear to bring a comical animated interlude to explain “purpose” or some other entertaining aside.

The basic premise of this musical is that Princeton is searching for his purpose. And most of the other characters are grappling with some life issues too. Kate Monster wants to open a school for monsters. Rod doesn’t want to come out of the closet. The big Trekkie Monster who lives upstairs reckons the internet’s only good for one thing. And Gary’s wondering if he should specialise in Schadefreunde (German for “happiness at the misfortune of others”).

Since there’s no interaction between any of the proper cast and the grey-clothed puppeteers, after a while your eyes start to pay less attention to the talented actors who move and voice the colourful puppets. But it’s fun to notice how they sway and mimic the facial expressions of their puppets. And there are occasions when two puppets (worked by two puppeteers) will sing together, but with both voices provided by one person switching between different accents for each line. It must be exhausting work.

With songs like “Everyone’s a little bit racist” the show pulls no punches in tackling issues that our politically correct society skirts around. The songs investigate the characters’ emotions and attitudes. The story is moderately simple, but keeps moving over the two and a bit hours. It’s also crude at times (vulgar might be a better word), but not overpoweringly.

The audience roared with laughter every minute or two the whole way through. And the George Bush isn’t here for ever line gets a huge cheer.

Having transferred to London’s West End from off-Broadway (where it has been playing for three years), Avenue Q is a great musical show. While it’s playing to enthusiastic and appreciative audiences, the unfortunately the theatre isn’t full. Last night I was able to walk past the Noel Coward Theatre (used to be the Albery), notice that the show was on, and get a cheap ticket just before it started. And there was a free upgrade from the balcony at the very top of the house down to a good seat in the stalls (worth over twice the price).

If you get a chance, go and see it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga is dead. Long live the King.

As normal, I flicked past the obituary pages in the papers, noticing that the King of Tonga was getting more column inches than I expected. Head of State - yes. Head of a big influential state - No.

But John Walsh's Tales of the City column in the Independent revealed why journalists were keen to properly mark King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV's death.

He was "one of the most charmingly eccentric figures from global monarchic circles." And as we all know, eccentrics are to be championed and enjoyed - well that's what I'm hoping.

Some highlights:

  • Despite weighing in at just under 32 stone (444lb), he joined in the Tongan government national slimming initiative and shed a third of his bodyweight.
  • The Tonga airport was closed one day a week to allow him to ride his custom-built bicycle up and down the runways. A big-framed bike for the big-framed gentleman?.
  • All foreign dignitaries wanting an audience had to wear a striped morning coat and carry a silk hat. I wonder if that applied to women too?
  • He often wore his favourite leather jacket to state events - even though the heat was unbearable.
  • Having told one visiting Soviet naval captain that he'd like a "titchy guitar from Hawaii". The information was recorded on his KGB file, and every visiting Russian has brought one since. About a hundred at last count.
  • He supported a 1970s plan to introduce stick on postal stamps (ahead of its time, but in keeping with the UK today) shaped like the fruit depicted on them (tacky).

Tonga is feudal rather than fully democratic, with the king appointing the Cabinet. The King is quoted as saying:

"The Tongan monarchy has a tradition of liberalism. I like to think of myself as the head of a monarchical democracy. And, in Tonga, the government does not go out of office if it suffers parliamentary defeat. It goes home to sleep and starts again just the same on the next day."

Much like the UK's Labour government!

Wildly eccentric, the King has also led Tonga through a modern revolution. The village criers who announced the news in the absence of public radio and newspapers have been replaced with TV, internet and international direct dialling. The banana boats are no longer the only visitors - but international aircraft touch down (when he wasn't out burning off the calories).

Although Tonga is technically in the Northern Hemisphere, Taufa'ahau "decreed that, geography notwithstanding, the 180th meridian would be stretched sufficiently eastwards to embrace his kingdom and thus enable Tongan time to be 13 hours ahead of Greenwich instead of 11 hours behind it. It was always a satisfaction to the King that his people were the first in the world to greet the new day."

He wasn't totally without controversary. To present a balanced picture, I should mention the allegations that he sold Tongan passports to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, and kept the money in a US bank account.

But in all, a colourful character I wish I'd heard about sooner than his death.

This morning's papers are in giveaway mode again.

While the Guardian offers an A1 poster about Trees of Britain (tomorrow it'll be Amphibians & Reptiles - spot the play to the education market - an even stranger double sided poster fell out of the Independent. It has the middle third of the human skeleton on one side, and the Solar System on the other. Looks like the text was quickly altered to deal with Pluto being declassified as a major planet.

And the Financial Times reports that the former Crumlin Road Courthouse - vacant since 1998 - is to be developed as a 161-bed luxury hotel.

Travel Rant

If I promise to post a review of Speak for England later on, am I allowed a quick travel rant? (And since when did bloggers feel the audience own the content!!!!)

St George's Belfast City Airport have huge queues at security this morning - delaying the red eye to Heathrow as a quarter of the passengers weren't boarded on time.

The bad sign was when they only had one security scanner working when I went through earlier.

And no food in the bmi lounge - there will be rumbles throughout the morning.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Update: Lost + Goats + Deer

Yeah – only seven episodes behind with the second series of Lost. I’m now one shy of the end of July! Though I’ve a few Murphy’s Law with James Nesbitt to enjoy after that.

Away last week, I’ve another couple of snaps of goats to share. They seem to follow me around. These ones live near Gloucester. And a shot (photo variety) of Bambi and family sunning themselves.

Spending over £2m to buy a house and rebuild it (in NI)

Imagine that you had found your dream location for a house. Uninterrupted views of a lough.

You’ve paid £700,000 over the £1.15 million guide price at an auction for the property.

And now you’re planning to knock it down to rebuild a new property!

A madcap scheme? (Thanks to BBC News for bring this story to a wider audience.)

I suppose if you’re rich enough to pay £1.85 million for the Warrenpoint site overlooking Carlinford Lough, and then a further £500,000 for a new build, then you’ll have the patience to wait at least a year (for planning and building) before you need to move in, and have somewhere else to live in the meantime.

More money than sense? Or a perfectly sane use of your resources? I’m not quite sure.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Travelling back through BHX

Good news - we managed to take a tippee of milk, one of water, a yoghurt and a fruit puree through Birmingham Airport's security check.

Bad news - I got to sample them all.

Good news - the security searcher was very apologetic and made the whole experience more fun than fraught.

Now just to get to the plane on the wee bus ...

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Youtube >> Northern Ireland >> Happy Slapping a Mouse

Northern Ireland has more than its fair share of shameful YouTube-centred news stories.

Back in the early summer we had clips of joy-riders skidding cars along the Ormeau Road.

And now today my eye caught the BBC News homepage's article about someone called Johnny biting the head of a mouse at a party. No doubt he'll be cursing his friend who filmed the incident and then uploading the clip to YouTube.

Sick. And showing signs of maybe being caught.

Speak for England

A slight feeling of pride has swollen up in me. You see, I started reading a book on Monday afternoon, and finished it yesterday. And I didn't get sidetracked onto another book half way through.

For me, avoiding the distraction of other books is pretty unusual. Which explains the number of half-read books that clutter my bedside table, bookshelves, boxes and my mind.

The book in question was "Speak for England" by James Hawes. (Full review now posted.) It was quite good - though I wish the ending (last 50 or so pages) was different. I'll post a review next week when I'm back home from holiday.

Now I just have to remember why I picked up the book in the first place! Did someone recommend it? I can't recall.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Goat says Cheese

A rather friendly goat lives over the fence from one of Newcastle's parks.

Willing to stick his (?) neck out on to be photographed.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Belfast International Airport - the parking's worse than the security!

Belfast International Airport ("Aldergrove") recently changed the traffic management of vehicles around the front of the terminal.

I can understand that allowing efficient passenger drop offs in front of the terminal is preferable to allowing people to sit in their cars waiting for friends and relatives off late flights. (And I would particularly understand if the airport police would help by moving on the waiting cars that are now blocking up the airport's outlying roads. The City Airport has similar problems with car park fare dodgers.)

But what is beyond me is the refusal to allow the airport parking firms like McCauslands to let their customers off in front of the terminal. They are regular services, that are constantly stopping and starting, helping the airport's increasing customer base get in and out.

Under the new system, you get dropped off in the open area before the terminal (where the taxis used to queue). But at 7am, there isn't a trolley in sight to put your bags on as no one is keeping the supply topped up. It's amazing what we piled on top of a pram this morning!

And on return we'll get to wait in the rain - no shelter - for the next bus to arrive.

I bet the Q-park customer bus from the "official" long stay car park will get better service ... despite them only "arriving at the party" a long time after McCauslands invested.

The airport depends on all the parking facilities to survive. The new process and policy may be necessary, but it doesn't go out of its way to be customer friendly - no free half hour parking in the short stay - so if you're picking up someone who lands more than 5 minutes late, you'll be paying. And the preferential treatment for their new car park partner is proving a bit too cosy.

The only other rants from this morning's trip would be the out-of-control easyJet check-in queues meandering across the entire check-in hall, and the lack of signs at the normal bmibaby check in desks to point passengers towards their new temporary desks.

The screens above bmibaby's empty desks at 1-4 were saying "All destinations" while they were actually checking folk in much further up beyond the sea of easyJet orange at 28-31. (I know that we're all meant to look at the departure board on the way in, but given the queue of 12 people waiting at the vacant desks, a better redirection notice would have been handy.)

Oh, and while the security folk seemed obsessed with the size of rucksacks - I squeezed one into the wooden box and got away with the other - they completely ignored the two Tippees of water and milk that went through the X-ray machine, and didn't get us to sample them. Though they did X-ray my 20 month old daughter's shoes, frisk her, and check her sock soles for dangerous weapons! She got away with her sharp toenails.

Rant over - for now.

Kilkeel Harbour

Kilkeel Harbour in a sunny moment on Monday 28th August.

One of the boats looks kinda out of place in the car park.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Gallery of Newcastle

Looking out the window last week, it was hard to ignore the Mourne Mountains.

As dusk approached, the sun and clouds painted pictures in the sky.

The River Shimna runs through Newcastle.

An angler’s float was stuck in a tree.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Panaromic view of Newcastle

Most digital cameras come with software that can stitch together a series of images into a panoramic view. (Or you can download something suitable.)

Canon's PhotoStitch pieced together this view from Friday morning.

I can't decide if I prefer the cropped image (above) or the uncropped one (below). There's something honest about leaving the ragged edges intact.