Thursday, March 30, 2006

Offshoring Bollywood to NI

Towards the end of an article in tonight's Belfast Telegraph about the potential for Bollywood films to be shot in Northern Ireland, there's a startling sentence:
"Surveys also suggest that as many as one in five visitors to the UK come as a result of seeing the country on screen."
So, I wonder what the average viewer around the world has seen of Northern Ireland on their screens? Even post-ceasefire(s), and post-Good Friday, there's still plenty of shameful pictures broadcast around the world each summer.

One Indian colleague has worked in Northern Ireland a couple of times over the last few years. Each time she arrives, there is a major incident that makes it onto the front pages of Indian newspapers and onto their evening news - causing her family great worry, and generating calls home to calm stressed nerves. Coincidence, but telling.

My memory of a balmy Sunday afternoon spent at a hill station outside Pune (100 miles east of Mumbai) was that it looked very like County Antrim. Green fields stretching up the hills. A big lake - that we motored across. A large damn generating power for the city of Pune. The only thing missing were sheep.

So if Bollywood film producers are happy to chase the sheep out of their shoots, and the actors can put up with our all-year round monsoon season, then they'll have a lot of success making Bollywood classics here.

And it'll be a bit of competition for Richard Attenborough who is filming Closing the Ring in Belfast, through the new Titanic Studios - based in the defunct Maysfield leisure centre.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Oops ... I didn't mean to come this way

We've all done it. Even with a map, we all get lost, take a wrong turning, find ourselves driving up an English motorwayin the wrong direction. Even bus drivers make wrong turns.

A couple of years ago, the official follow-me car in the Belfast Marathon led the runner in front up the wrong street.

By now you've guessed that I'm leading up to some comment on the Ryanair flight FR9884 (operated by Eirjet) which landed at Ballykelly Army Base's airstrip instead of City of Derry airport. The two runways are only five miles apart, face the same way.

Many of us in Northern Ireland still smirk at the memory of the DanAir flight which landed at Nutt's Corner airstrip instead of Aldgergrove (Belfast International Airport). Nutt's Corner hadn't been used as a runway, never mind an airport, for years - the tarmac was overgrown with weeds. At least Ballykelly was in use - though not normally for medium-sized Dash 200 passenger jets.

I find myself sitting on a domestic flight at least twice a week. So what are my priorities for the pilot and first officer?
  • Number 1 - Keep me safe as they take off from the ground, fly through the air, and land again at the far end.
  • Number infinity+1 - Land at the right airfield. Basically, as long as we get down in one piece that counts as success. A bit like taking a wrong turn on the motorway - as long as you don't find yourself upside down in the central reservation, you're still ok.
So I do hope the pilot keeps his job. He'll never make that particular mistake again.
Spoof Ryanair advert

Monday, March 27, 2006

Blink ... not to be missed

Ever had a gut instinct about something that you can't quite justify with logic? That instant reaction that tells you whether or not you like someone or something? Do you realise that you have in-built prejudices that affect your decision making?

Blink is the latest book from Malcolm Gladwell - author of The Tipping Point.

It explains why bodyguards are deliberately "shot" in training - not with live rounds - so they will be able to continue functioning when under fire in real life, able to override what would inhibit and freeze most people's reactions.

The book deals with those instant judgements and instinctive prejudices that pepper your existence. Thin slicing, as Gladwell refers to it, can be a useful tool. But when it leads to wrong or incomplete conclusions, we'd do well to be aware of its influence and plan to compensate.

There's also the problem of having too much data to process - slowing us down and impairing our decision malking.

Amongst the case studies, Blink includes the story of Chicago's Cook County Hospital Emergency Department endlessly faced with the decision of keeping patients with chest pains in for observation and/or treatment, deciding on the level of risk and supervision required. The department slashed the number of factors taken into account in potential cardiac cases down to just three. Countless other measures which had previously influenced the decision were eliminated - deemed to cloud the decision making process.

My first reaction was to be disturbed - you don't mess with people's health - it's not a statistical game of chance. But reading on, the results were excellent: it both improved the rate of successful diagnosis, and sped up the process.

And then there was the US military Millennium Challenge war game in 2000 that went wrong - if you call the enemy team overpowering the data-rich, over-analytical US team anything other than an object lesson in how not to go to war. Instinct, combined with liberating the military management chain to act freely in support of the overall objectives, made the enemy a difficult opponent to beat. They played by different rules. (Worryingly, the answer to this defeat was to tie the enemy's hands behind their backs, and rerun the war game to ensure US victory. Ahem. Lesson not learnt.)

"Every moment - every blink - is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction."

Reading the book during a couple of domestic flights convinces me to be more aware of my gut reactions, and to be better prepared for how people will unwittingly treat and judge me in situations.

Strongly recommended.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Belfast has a local community TV station!

Unbelievable. I've lived in the city of Belfast for the last 4 years, and no one has ever mentioned that Belfast has it's very own community TV station.

Now everyone knows that Belfast has a number of local radio stations: Citybeat 96.7 and Downtown/CoolFM etc. But a TV station?

Well, believe it or not, if you live in Belfast, tune your analogue TV to channel 62 (799.276MHz), have a decent aerial (or even a powered set top one), you'll pick up the transmission from NvTv - Northern Visions Media Centre. (Northern Visions are only licensed to broadcast using a single 500 Watt transmitter - so there are patches of the city that won't receive a strong enough signal.)

Started up in February 2004, NvTv's local awareness advertising is obviously as appealing as their website :( as no one I've spoken to over the last few days has ever heard of it. Sitting under our noses, all this time, a sixth free-to-air analogue TV channel. And what a schedule ...

The shows for each day are on a rolling loop - changing at roughly 5pm each night. And the week's omnibus of shows is pumped out back-to-back starting 5pm each Saturday. You'll catch the schedule on the NvTv website - but no where else. The local papers don't run the schedule; my TiVo knows about the channel, but has no programme details; DigiGuide are not NvTv-awar either.

It's mostly community-based programming - talking about the arts scene, building programmes and topical vox pops. But they run some locally-produced short films - and there's no advertising!

Check it out - channel 62.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Today we made a corporate video

Lights, camera, action. It's been a long day.

Today we filmed a corporate video, complete with a freelance crew - director, camera, sound - a few lights and a cast of amateurs.

It all happened on an open plan floor in London - so nothing was terribly private, and the background noise was constantly getting in the way. I've never normally been so conscious of the level of noise in the office. Colleagues with tuneful mobile ring tones, printers churning out 50 page reports, fire engines and ambulances racing past outside, raised voices at coffee breaks, ...

I'd forgotten how long it takes to film: every 15 seconds of the finished piece takes 15 minutes. And by keeping the cost down by only having one camera, everything had to be reshot from at least two angles.

But it was fun too. We had software designers pretending to be external customers and account managers. I mocked up many of the computer screen shots in Paint Shop Pro since the software we're demonstrating doesn't yet exist. We spent a lot of time lugging pot plants around the floor to create the pretend customer's office, disguiising our own company's branding on the walls. And the actors' colleagues spent the day heckling between shots.

The director had even organised a bike to get the tape off to the edit suite so that it could be loaded up ready for the rough cut tonight. Such effort for an internal video.

Well, now that it's a wrap and the film is in the can, the fun starts with two days of editing before it's launch next week.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

How disturbed should I be?

My fifteen month-old daughter can now recognisably recite the names of the Teletubbies:

Tenk Tenk, Dip, (and as clear as anything) Laa-Laa , Po
Thing is, she's only ever watched one Teletubbie video - admittedly about 30 times so far.

And she can predict what's coming next on the video - starts to raise her hands "up high" just before that section starts, etc. Amazing what get's into their developing minds.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Subtitled films: love or loathe them?

Do you love or loathe subtitled films? Most people I know are very against them, complaining that the words are a distraction, and that they spend so long reading the words they miss the action on the rest of the screen!

Yet, some of the best films I’ve seen in the last six months have been subtitled.

I’d be surprised if you’d heard of more than one of them. Why? The local multiplex cinemas in Belfast (Vue, Moviehouse) are very safe in their viewing options and rarely show anything that hasn’t been made in or dubbed into English.

The Queen's Film Theatre is probably the only screen in Northern Ireland that dares show more “arty” or limited distribution stuff.

I spend a few days working in London most weeks, regular enough to make it worth while joining the Curzon cinema club to get around the exorbitant London film prices. It’s also a great excuse not to work all night as well as all day.

Now the Curzon’s schedule is full of surprises – it’s like a bigger version of the QFT. All of the above played there for a run of at least three weeks. Even some of the English films in their programme – films like Primer – would have been hard to find elsewhere in the London multiplexes.

Your eye gets used to reading the words and taking in the picture fairly quickly – if you stick at it. And you get an insight into different cultures and genres. French films are often very abstract: completely lacking the Hollywood necessity of tidying up the loose ends and doing all the thinking for the audience.

You know a French film is good if everybody walks out of the screening quietly looking puzzled, and then start asking strangers “What happened at the end?” as they go up the stairs and spill out on the street!

All these films ask questions - that's what makes them good. They ponder friendship, ambition, and what makes people tick. So don't expect easy viewing and Jennifer Aniston!

So my advice - take any opportunities you have to watch any of the films above if you find them on DVD. And don’t be afraid if the cinema listing says “(subtitled)” after the name of film.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Stallman Experience

Richard StallmanIt's not often that members of technocrati converge in Belfast for a conference on Free and Open Source Software. Even less common for the event to be free, include free refreshments and lunch, and operate a self-registration scheme - based on a wiki!

Attendees at the FOSS Means Business event fell into two categories:

  1. Those with long beards, long hair and techie-sloganed T-shirts, hard core programmers who are paid-up members and evangelists of the free/open source movement. (Women in this camp - and there were a good number in attendance - had the long hair, but lacked the long beards!) They were all eager and positively excited to listen to their bearded and Rapunzel-like hero - Stallman.
  2. The other half of the audience were more sober and less worshipful. They came from universities and IT departments/companies across Ireland. Suits & ties, smart casual, but no T-shirts.
Outside view of SpiresInside main hall of SpiresThe main hall at Spires Conference Centre is resplendent with its stone columns, organ pipes and stained glass windows. It's better known to some as the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and site of the annual General Assembly week in June, bringing together 1,300 ministers and delegates from across Ireland for their annual conference.

A suitable venue to sit at the feet of visionaries and listen to their tales and wisdom.

So what did we learn from Richard Stallman?
  • He went through his four software freedoms, numbered 0 to 3 - oh, and the "free" in free software refers to freedom rather than cost.
  • He'd some interesting points about sharing being at the heart of community.
  • He reminded us that he started the GNU project back in 1984 - unbelievably over 20 years ago - though he missed out some of the interesting history about the early rivalries in his MIT lab.
  • He dealt with the issue of why it should be called GNU/Linux or GNU+Linux, but certainly not just Linux on its own.
  • And he reaffirmed why he doesn't warm to Linus Torvalds' relaxed opinions on free/open source software - sounded like he feels Linus is too liberal and leading us down a slippery slope!
  • And he ended by donning his gown and disc-hat to become St IGNUcius, a Saint in the Church of Emacs - which whipped one half of the audience up to a frenzy, and left the rest looking bemused.

Stallman celebrated his 53rd birthday at Friday's conference - pity no one was enthusiastic enough to start a rendition of Happy Birthday.

Disappointingly, I heard little that wouldn't have jumped off pages of the GNU or Free Software Foundation (FSF) websites. Stallman's ego is a little too large on stage, and his insight doesn't quite line up with today's business realities and direction - perhaps he's spent too long directing GNU and FSF to keep up with the industry? He half-told a story of how on arriving at the airport in Belfast he picked a fight with airport security over something trivial - hardly surprising given his extremist views of software! Even more disappointing, I missed most of the rest of the other speakers.

Google were there giving out colourful pens and light-up badges. Pity that Google didn't send Vint Cerf up instead - he spoke recently at Google's European HQ in Dublin. As one of the "fathers of the internet" (he defined the IP protocol), his ideas and experiences would be well worth a listen.

- - - - -

UPDATE 30 March 2006 - a review of the full conference has been published in the Linux Journal by Paul Barry of the Institute of Technology in Carlow, Ireland.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pavee Lackeen: The Traveller Girl

Pavee Lackeen means “The Traveller Girl”. It’s a documentary-style film released in 2005 that depicts the life of a young Irish Traveller girl (Winnie Maughan) and her family. The Maughan family are all played by themselves, with only a small number of professional actors, living in a caravan cited near the docks by a noisy roundabout in the outskirts of Dublin.

Unlike most films you’ll see this year, there’s no strong plot driving the storyline. Instead, it’s observational. You witness Winnie’s desire for education frustrated by the playground fights and her expulsion from the Traveller’s school she attends. Every bureaucrat that comes to the caravan is a disappointment.

The social workers can’t get Winnie into a better school. The housing officer can only offer a house in a known rough area. Even someone in the Maughan’s extended family who campaigns for Travellers’ justice is less than satisfactory in sorting out their housing problems.

And then there’s the council who want to evict the camp off their land and away from their legal obligations—so they promise a better,safer site further on down the road “away from the busy roundabout” with running water, but instead move the caravans onto land owned privately by the docks, with rats and no running water.

It’s a low budget film, shot entirely on video. Yet it’s a startlingly real film, showing squalor, prejudice and oppression in a non-sentimental way. But the images are compelling, and the challenge uncompromising.

Now Winnie and her family probably aren’t the most hungry or thirsty people in Dublin. But they were asking for help, and were offered some, but it never delivered.

Our oh-so-modern and politically correct society still fails to treat everyone equally and with justice? And don't we, as individuals, struggle to reject our own prejudices? Why the lack of wholeheartedness when faced with discrimination and injustice?

Pavee Lackeen has gone down well at Irish and European festivals. Its director and co-writer, Perry Ogden, won an IFTA Award in the category of Breakthrough Talent in 2005. Winnie was nominated for Best Actress in a Feature Film in the same awards.

Although Pavee Lackeen was given a PG certificate by the Irish Film Censor’s Office, it was given a 15 certificate in the UK, so some of you might see it sooner than others! Oh, and it’s subtitled … though I think you’ll catch the sometimes colourful nature of what everyone’s saying.

Given that the QFT has already shown it, finding a screening might be tough. But if you do see it, or read about it, hopefully it’ll make you think too.

Official Pavee Lackeen website.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Take a peek at Belfast

live scene from Belfast City Hall webcam

In case you wonder what Belfast is like, here's the view from the webcam perched on the front of Belfast City Hall. (Sometimes it stops updating for a day or two ... and they keep changing the URL of the image!)


In a world where a blog is created every second (and that was the Aug 2005 Technorati figure), does the world really need another blog?

Well, it's got one. An irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. I imagine there'll be comment on cinema, books, technology, and the occasional rant about life.

If it's interesting, leave me a comment. If it's not, leave a comment too.

Alan ... in Belfast