Saturday, March 31, 2007

April Fool ... or not?

#1 Last May, Apple and Nike got together to embed sensors in Nike shoes that transmitted data up to Apple Nanos kitted out with a slim receiver plugged into the bottom. Nike have now announced that by the end of 2007 all their running shoes will be able to be kitted out with the Nike+ sensors. Will it help the Apple treadmill to keep spinning, or is it a step too far? Update - it's true.

#2 This Easter, someone chocolate eggs won’t have sweets in the middle.

Instead, they’ll come with an MP3 player inside.

An eggsaggeration? Or the eggsact truth?

Update: it's true.

#3 And to keep to the theme of portable devices, what about a gold-plated USB stick to hang on an elegant necklace around your neck? Comes in silver too, 1GB or 2GB. Bling or fool? Update: it's true too!

I’ll update with fool or true in a day or so. Thanks to the good people at ShinyShiny for their year-round gadgetry and goodies.

Mailman (J. Robert Lennon)

As a teenager, I used to love the book sale in Lisburn’s Easons each summer. For a couple of weeks, a huge number of unwanted, dented and dusty books were piled into the centre of the store, and I’d spend a while ploughing through the boxes for gems worth reading. It probably contributed to my wide taste in books—though a tighter taste would make for a less expensive reading habit.

Charring Cross Road Borders was flogging old stock off before Christmas. The problem with bargain books is that some of them should have sold better, and others sold exactly as well as they deserved.

And J. Robert Lennon’s Mailman falls into the latter category.

It’s the story of Albert Lippincott, a US mailman (postman), whose interest in letters goes beyond his normal duties. Fascinated by the people he delivers mail to, he starts to hold some of their mail back for a day to read their letters and delve into their lives. Over the years, he builds up a pretty good profile of his patch.

The book delves into his back-story. Biting his Physics tutor at college wasn’t a great idea. His mental illness. Falling in love with his nurse, and his subsequent failed marriage. The relationship with his sister Gillian isn’t totally normal, His problem with a cat. His mail scam being found out. And the tumour. It’s a dark comic novel, that follows Albert’s depression and paranoia until his death, and then a few pages beyond!

The review comments on the book’s first page are generous. But one from the Independent’s Matt Thorne sums it up well.

“Although I felt depressed when I finished reading Mailman, I recognised this was because Lennon had done his job well, revealing the endless sadness of everyday life.”

It’s a interesting tale, worth the £1.50, but not the original £7.99 cover price. And it could make an interesting film. But it doesn’t inspire me to read more J. Robert Lennon.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Lost and found: silver metal Oakley sunglasses around the Belmont Road?

A strange request for help popped into Alan in Belfast’s mailbox this week. But if the blogosphere can’t lend a helping hand. Ryan emailed …

“Last July I visited Belfast for a wedding. I stayed in the Park Avenue hotel for one night. I am 90% certain that a pair of prescription Oakley sunglasses which were a 30th birthday present from my wife were stolen from the room when we attended the wedding and afters. There is a 10% chance they were taken/left at the Gourmet Burger Bar on Belmont Road.

I made enquiries at the time but they did not show up. They are very expensive and before I have to replace them I would like to make one final attempt to locate them. The only glimmer of hope is that because they contain my prescription (which is different in each eye!) they are useless to anyone else and may just be sitting on a shelve or in a drawer gathering dust.

I would be eternally grateful if you could place a little note in your very entertaining blog. I will happily pay a £50 reward for their safe return.

They are silver metal Oakleys, with prescription lenses. Thank you very much for any help you can provide.”

So if you’ve any information, or better still you’ve found some Oakley shades, get in touch with me at the email at the top of the right hand side column and I’ll pass your details onto Ryan.

What's furry, tubby and in New York?

As mentioned earlier, the Teletubbies were indeed in New York this week - looking a bit like the Beatles. It's been remarkably difficult to track down a picture to prove it!Picture (c) 2007 BBC of the Teletubbies crossing the road in New YorkPicture (c) 2007 BBC

Methody appoint new head - Scott Naismith (from Regent House)

Just to tidy up a loose end from a thread that ran over a couple of postings last year, Methodist College Belfast (MCB) has appointed a new principal.

Last Monday, the Board of Governors announced that Scott Naismith would take up the post of Principal from September 2007. Since 2003, he’s been head of Regent House School, Newtownards. Between 1992 and 2003, he was deputy head at George Heriot’s independent school in Scotland.

Hopefully Methody can now move on and start a new era - though it’s worth noting that after a long serving headmaster/minister/CEO, it’s quite common for whoever immediately takes over not to stay very long, but for their successor to be more permanent. Scott Naismith may benefit from Cecilia Galloway's less settled period at the school, and find his (inevitable) reforms will receive a warmer welcome.

And a quick Google shows that his namesake is a pretty good artist.

Click through for a look at the other Scott Naismith’s paintings.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Positive reports on future of Ballyhackamore shops

It’s been about six weeks since I heard anything about the future of the seven shops on the Newtownards Road owned by the Eames family. Back in the middle of February, one of the shopkeepers gloomily acknowledged that no talks had yet taken place.

This Monday’s Newsletter ran a story suggesting that this East Belfast dispute may now be heading towards a positive conclusion.

The unconfirmed reports say that

“Lord Eames is considering extending the lease of his seven tenants by another 10 years – a move that could cost him around £2m.”

This would be instead of selling the buildings to the current tenants or to a property developer (who would almost certainly not extend the lease of the seven family-run businesses).

“Reports now suggest an agreement has been reached, with Lord Eames apparently prepared to extend the leases instead of selling up. Proprietor of chip shop the Hot Spot John McBlain said he was unable to confirm the claim, but he did say meetings with Lord Eames had been ‘positive’.

‘I am hopeful this will be resolved within the next two weeks,’ he added.”

Update: And since then it seems like some of the leases have now been extended, giving long-term security to the shop owners, and resolving the issue for a long time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Primeval & Castaway - disappointing damp squibs

Recently I’ve been disappointed with a couple of TV shows that haven’t lived up to their expectation.

ITV’s Primeval was created in a bid to tap into the audience who in their millions had tuned in on Saturday nights to the BBC’s resurrection of Doctor Who. (What a terribly worded sentence—no Clear English awards here!)

But could ITV deliver a distinct sci-fi series, with an emphasis on time anomalies and strange creatures, to compete with the BBC’s time lord?

One the one hand ... it’s been commercially successful, with sales to international broadcasters in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Spain. The UK viewing figures have been sliding a little since the 6.7 million who watched the opening episode. But they’re still way ahead of the combined BBC3 and BBC2 viewing figures for Torchwood (the Doctor Who spin off).

But on the other hand ... it’s boring and tedious. It’s hard to work up any pathos for the characters, something which Russell Davies has licked over on the other side. And story-wise, it feels less catchy that Crime Traveller. Spiders and centipedes, monsters in lakes and swimming pools. Torchwood was a whole lot more enjoyable to watch. Primeval turns out to be an uncomfortable mix of science fiction and natural history, and I only like the first.

BBC’s Castaway 2007, which I trailed on AiB a few weeks ago, has turned out to be a damp squib too.

They’re a nice bunch of people, though the deliberate absence of the very young and very old is unfortunate. (The participant’s ages are 19, 22, 22, 22, 24, 24, 27, 27, 33, 37, 41, 42, 56, 65.)

Overall, nice people, with fewer squabbles than we’re used to with reality shows set in Australia.
The tasks haven’t been too enthralling: killing chickens and sending people to live in a hut and be battered by the overnight rain didn’t make compulsive viewing. And I don’t seem to be alone.

Viewers have been turning off in their millions, so much so that the weekly hour-long show has been pulled off the Sunday night BBC1 schedule, and will now go out as three half hour shows at 7pm on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings.

And the nightly BBC3 catch up shows have failed to excite the multi-channel audience, with just 58,000 tuning in.

The public poll currently running the BBC’s Castaway website is fairly damning. Think I’d vote for a surf board to allow them to escape (though in truth, they’re in a nature reserve and there’s a big road leading out to nearly civilisation).

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

An old couple get married in the Stormont dining room, with some good speeches afterwards

An old couple finally tied the knot in a Stormont dining room yesterday. Though they’ve delayed the honeymoon for a couple until May until the pre-nup gets signed off.

In today’s Belfast Telegraph, Colin Brown makes an interesting prediction. The historic re-launch of the Northern Ireland Assembly will be aligned with Tony Blair’s historic departure as UK Prime Minister. One institution starts up as another stops. Massive leaving party on the steps of Stormont. Might need a rock band (or Brian Kennedy) to croon a tune to send him on his way.

“Tony Blair is planning to use the moment of history in Northern Ireland on 8 May as the backdrop for his own departure from Downing Street.

Mr Blair’s aides said that he saw yesterday’s historic agreement between the old enemies, the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and the DUP leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, as the crowning achievement for the Prime Minister’s 10 years in office and the fulfilment of a crucial objective for his legacy.”

Though Colin noted:

“Mr Blair was clearly keen to avoid the date slipping into the period when Gordon Brown may have taken over, but there is no suggestion that the DUP colluded in the timing.”

But I bet the DUP, Sinn Féin and Downing Street all thought about it.

(c) Steve Bell 2007, Guardian News and Media Limited

While both Sinn Féin and the DUP have been wounded by yesterday’s agreement, and some disgruntled members are still leaving over the move, both parties and their leaders are making some encouraging and mature statements about the new way forward.

During yesterday’s round diamond table talks Ian Paisley’s talked positively about the cross-community responsibilities:

“After a long and difficult time in the province I believe that enormous opportunities lie ahead for Northern Ireland. Devolution has never been an end in itself but is about making a positive difference to people’s lives. I want to make it clear that I am committed to delivering not only for those who voted for the DUP but for all the people of Northern Ireland ...

With hard work and a commitment to succeed I believe we can lay the foundation for a better, peaceful and prosperous future for all our people.”

Gerry Adams also reflected:

“Sinn Féin is about building a new relationship between orange and green and all the other colours, where every citizen can share and have equality of ownership of a peaceful, prosperous and just future ...

I am pleased to say that collectively we have created the potential to build a new, harmonious and equitable relationship between nationalists and republicans and unionists, as well as the rest of the people of the island of Ireland.”

Let’s hope any executive formed on 8 May will live out those words.

Jim Allister … going, going, gone (for the second time)

Word on the street (well, online news services) is that the DUP MEP Jim Allister will resign from the party at a press conference this morning afternoon. 2pm update - he's gone. Allister succeeded Ian Paisley in the 2004 European elections.

On Saturday, as a member of the DUP executive, he voted against the power-sharing resolution.

Back in the early 1980s Allister was a European Parliament personal assistant to his boss, valuable experience for his present role. Having failed to win a Westminster seat, he was declined the chance to stand in the 1987 election when the DUP’s voting pact with the UUP meant they didn’t contest the East Antrim seat.

At this point he seems to have abandoned the DUP (resigned?) and gone back into the political wilderness. Or more accurately he left the political wilderness and settled back into real life. Absent from politics until he ran for MEP in 2004.

Today, it sounds like he’ll be quitting the party for the second time.

Teletubbies to be given the keys to New York today

In a world were truth is stranger than fiction, New York’s mayor will this week be handing over the keys to New York to Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa and Po. Let’s hope Tinky Winky has his handbag with him to put the keys in!

The amazingly successful Teletubbies show is 10 years old, shown in 120 countries in 45 languages. The Guardian reports that

“after a decade in strict media purdah, the four actors who play the Teletubbies ... will reveal themselves ... the portly quartet will make personal appearances at the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station and the Statue of Liberty, before the performers inside the colourful suits are publicly revealed and interviewed for the first time on NBC’s Today show.”

“The unveiling will take place on Wednesday, a day that has been officially designated Teletubbies Day in Manhattan.”

And in a bizarre twist, designer Isaac Mizrahi has designed five limited-edition “it” bags inspired by the Teletubbies, to be auctioned in aid of Cure Autism Now (CAN) and Autism Speaks charities (see for details later this week).

Anne Wood and Andrew Davenport are credited as the creators of Teletubbies, working for the Ragdoll production company and have recently turned their hands to a new CBeebies show In the Night Garden that introduces 1–4 year olds to the new characters Igglepiggle, Upsy Daisy, Makka Pakka, the Tombliboos, the Pontipines, the Haahoos and the Ninky Nonk.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Recommended reading: Stephen & Tara's blog

It’ll be an interesting race to see whether the Northern Ireland Assembly gets up and running before Stephen and Tara Barnes finish their renovations in Newtownabbey.

You can follow the Barnes’ progress on their blog as they battle through their very own version of Grand Designs. Recommended reading. (And Mark Devenport’s take on the local political situation is a fine read too.)

Corporate eccentricities: Orange, goldfish and elephants

If you’ve ever been into an Orange mobile phone shop, you’ll be familiar with the gold fish that swim around a tank in every store.

But did you realise that there are always a precise number of fish in the tank, one of them is always a different colour than the others, and there are spares out the back in a second tank in the store room!

Orange subscribe to feng shui. At a corporate level. Their shops and buildings are all audited by feng shui consultants (any volunteers for that job?!) to ensure they’re suitable for staff to work in. So lots of fish, plants (but not too many sharp-leaved ferns), energising coloured walls and no stairwells in energy-zapping locations.

It might sounds like corporate bunkum, but when France Telecom took over Orange, they looked at the feng shui policy, and decided that it was doing to harm and let it remain in place.

The former Orange CEO and founder Hans Snook was described in a Scotland on Sunday article as a “dotty, feng shui and colonic irrigation enthusiast” who “never fitted in at France Telecom”.

Anecdotally when a FS consultant audited one new large building in England, he commented that the particularly tall RAC building opposite was a “striking python” and the only way to counteract it was with elephants. So the foyer of the Orange building now includes two large stone elephants!

While I’m inclined to mock Orange’s policy, I do applaud their attempt to set themselves apart from the competition with a little eccentricity. It probably doesn’t cost them a lot in consultant’s fees, and yet it gives a je ne sais quoi to their buildings.

Following the complete withdrawal of Carphone Warehouse from the sponsorship of Channel 4’s Big Brother, Orange were approached. Before committing, they polled the Orange UK workforce, who rejected the tie-up with a resounding 80% (though I can’t cite a reference) of them voting against the plan.

Orange dropped the plan, and it’s since been announced that Virgin Media (the company formerly known as ntl) are BB’s new sponsor.

For Orange, feng shui is mostly harmless, whereas Big Brother’s a considerable risk.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Gatwick chaos, and the Mo Mowlam Stormont playpark closing early

I’ll return to the why and what of travel later in the week—responding to some of the recent chain of comments left against last week’s Eurostar posting—but in the meantime, we should pause and be grateful that we weren’t travelling through Gatwick Airport’s South Terminal today.

There were significant delays, with the police even stopping passengers entering the terminal building at one point this morning, due to a power failure in the area. Check-in areas and baggage belts were affected, causing delays.

Meanwhile, there was chaos in the newly wood-chipped Mo Mowlam Children’s Playpark at Stormont this afternoon when the park rangers arrived to close it at 5pm. Between the clocks going forward last night, and the sunny weather this afternoon, families were still flooding into the park as the men tried to close up at five. (And it normally locks up at 4pm, so 5pm was a bit of a bonus.)

Maybe next year they need to vary the opening times and move to Easter/summer opening on the weekend the clock changes!

Going the extra mile for outsiders

Naomi, her husband and sons moved away from their country to Moab when their own land was experiencing famine. Her sons married local Moabite women. When the men of the family die, Naomi decides to return to her homeland.

One daughter-in-law stays with her people in Moab, but the other, Ruth, accompanies Naomi, moving away from her people and into a foreign land.

But with no job and no income, Ruth needs to provide for herself and her mother-in-law Naomi. They’re staying near the farm of Boaz, a rich land-owning relative of Naomi.

Ruth doesn’t sit and beg. But instead gleans grain from Boaz’s fields, picking up the bits missed by his workers who are harvesting the fields. Now the farm workers could have picked on Ruth, a foreign national skulking around their fields, taking their harvest.

But Boaz tells them to protect her, to eat with her when they take a break, to let her work in the most fertile sections of the land, and even to purposely drop the odd bit of grain to make sure she has something to glean.

It’s the beginning of the story of Ruth, a four chapter novella early on in the Old Testament. Boaz was instinctively inclusive to the outsider, looking out for them. Like us, he knew that those who don’t fit in—with different nationality, culture, language, colour, or different interests and education, or different sexuality—are easily picked on. He positively discriminated, because it was the right thing to do. As a wealthy landowner, Boaz could afford to be generous and go the extra mile.

As the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of slavery is marked, and the film Amazing Grace (see the earlier post) celebrating the life of John Newton hits our cinema screens. As racism continues race to catch up with sectarianism in our society. What can we do to be like Boaz, and go the extra mile for the outsiders we come across in our community?

May be it’s someone in work who doesn’t fit in with the crowd, someone who no one talks to at the bus stop or on the train, someone in a shop who looks like they need help but everyone is ignoring.

So go on, go the extra mile this week. Surprise yourself and pleasantly surprise someone else by putting their interests ahead of your own.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Don’t sit on my window sill!

I'll get back to you about the recent flurry of comments about travel, but in the meantime check out the window sill! Pigeons not welcome.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Good old M&S will help us save the planet

Sainsburys was once the leading supermarket chain in the UK. Then Tesco rose up with their vision statement of “putting Sainsburys out of business”. No longer content to be number two, Tesco summed up their ambition in a single, simple statement.

As well as being a vision statement (until they overtook Sainsburys and reverted to something more customer-centric), it could have been described as their BHAG. Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Something that wasn’t obviously achievable, but drove the culture and behaviour of the organisation to succeed.

Sainsburys are trying to make a comeback. Recent announcements suggest they’re betting that in the long run consumers will demand eco-friendly stores, produce, and fair trade credentials. So they’re investing in greening-up Sainsburys’ supply chains, something that will take a year or two to put in place, but something they feel will help them become the number one choice again for the UK public.

M&S have joined in the race too. They’re not in the same volume market as Sainsburys and Tesco, but they’ve been strengthening their brand image with moves into fair trade cotton clothes, switching to only selling fair trade tea, and now with today’s Plan A announcement. It’s their new BHAG.

Plan A

Because there is no Plan B.

  • Climate Change (going carbon neutral, using renewable energy, and only using offsetting as a last resort)
  • Waste (reducing landfill, packaging and carrier bags)
  • Sustainable Raw Materials (protecting the environment and world’s natural resources for future generations)
  • Fair Partner (improving the lives of people in our worldwide supply chain and local communities)
  • Health (healthy eating ranges, healthier lifestyles for employees and customers)

Admirable. And as well as being suitable for big business, these five commitments sound pretty reasonable personal goals for responsible individuals to take on.

Only problem with the M&S BHAG is that the double spread adverts they ran in yesterday Monday morning’s papers are printed on a background of black, meaning that there will now be a world shortage of black ink! I wonder if anyone can work out a way of recycling the stuff that rubbed off onto my fingers ...

EuroStar - a civilised way of getting from London to Brussels

Getting on board on Monday was a bit fraught. The travel company hadn’t bothered to pass on my credit card details to Eurostar, so the booking had expired and I didn’t have a seat. Ten minutes on hold to the call centre, a five minute wait for a new booking to be processed, disappointment and another call to the agent when they didn’t pay for the new booking, and eventually I collected my ticket from the Waterloo ticket office.

After a few false starts with 30-second-long tunnels and popping ears, there was an announcement asking us to put our watches forward to Brussels time (an hour ahead) and then we plunged into the side of a hill and into darkness.

Nineteen and a half minutes later, we surfaced to green grass and a slightly different style of electricity pylon - a sure sign we had popped up in France and hadn’t doubled back under the channel and returned to the UK.

It’s all very civilised. A bit more comfortable than the Belfast Dublin Enterprise, but nothing special. No power outlets in cattle class! And the journey from London to Brussels Midi took only twenty minutes longer than the time it takes to commute the 100 miles down to Dublin. But at 8 times the price for a flexible return to Dublin.

If only EuroStar could announce to passengers which carriage sells cups of tea! There are way too many carriages to expore.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Trust, Channel 4 and Swizz Call

There’s been a lot about trust in the news recently. Can voters trust the politicians they elect? Can the intelligence that led “the West” into Iraq be trusted. And can the results of TV and radio phone-ins be trusted?

Like most other channels, Channel 4 (Richard and Judy) have been muddied by the revelations about voting inaccuracies and pre-recorded shows encouraging the public to phone in to influence the content that have been the talk of the industry over the last couple of weeks.

Interestingly, Channel 4 have now commissioned a show called Swizz Call as part of their late night Comedy Lab strand Media Guardian report that it’s

“... a satirical comedy based at a spoof quiz TV channel ... Swizz Call - a play on the name of Quiz Call, the TV station Channel 4 owned before it was offloaded to iTouch in November, and which is not involved in the current phone scandal.”

Channel 4 add that

“four up and coming comedians play host to a spoof quiz channel in a sketch show that offers the chance to contestants to win bizarre prizes if they can answer their ridiculous questions.”

Maybe with a touch of irony they’ll run a premium rate phone-in during the show to influence which ending will be broadcast!!!

After the Wedding (Efter brylluppet)

The film opens in Mumbai. But it avoids the standard Kodak images of Mumbai. No Gateway of India, no Hanging Gardens, etc - the kind of scenes I saw eight and a half years ago from the back of a taxi. Instead it pictures children playing football in an orphanage, and the mission’s manage Jacob handing out food from the back of a truck.

The mission is running out of money. There’s a promise of a cash injection from a wealthy Danish business man. But Jacob has to go to Copenhagen to negotiate the deal. He makes a deal with little Pramod, a boy he’s help bring up since birth, that he’ll return in time for his eighth birthday in ten day’s time.

Contrast the After the Wedding’s opening scenes with the opulence of Jacob’s luxury penthouse suite, plasma screen TV, bar, personal sauna. It’s a different world, and one that he isn’t comfortable with.

Before going on, I need to look back to the only other Danish film I’ve seen - King’s Game back in September 2005. A political thriller (well, thriller’s a bit too strong a term). Lots of complicated relationships. A lack of straight-forward behaviour. And so too with the family relationships on show in After the Wedding.

Visiting the offices of Jorgen, it feels like doors should be opening. Yet, the film paints a picture of doors closing (both physically and metaphorically) and of obfuscation and delay.

At a loose end over the weekend, Jacob is invited to Jorgen’s daughter Anna’s wedding. Why? Well, why not? He’s being treated like a family friend, rather than a charity looking for a donor. Jacob recognises Jorgen’s wife Helene as an old flame from college days, and there’s a revelation at the wedding reception. I’ll not spoil the surprise, but it’s not so obscure that you’ll have difficulty figuring it out.

And so the film moves into its second phase - after the wedding - playing out the consequences for the rest of the film.

The film asks a lot of questions about what people’s drive and motivation. What drives Jacob’s missionary zeal? Are his Indian ties stronger than his Danish ones? What motivates Jorgen to make a charitable donation? Blood money? Revenge? Why does he drink so much! And how does Anna deal with the pressure of marriage, family, unfaithfulness and death all crammed together.

Delay after delay forces Jacob to change his return travel plans. The legal red tape of a trust fund is untangled. But a precondition stating that Jacob must remain in Denmark to administer the trust seems a step too far.

“Why do I have to live on the other side of the world to get your help?”

Is it worth it to help 65,000 children in India by helping two or three people in Denmark? Who needs him the most? Pramod?

It’s no blockbuster of a film, but it’s well shot, and a fine example of Danish cinema, directed by Susanne Bier. A tale of tangled emotions and personal ethical conundrums. And a some nice shots of decaying plants.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Guardian Average, not so meaningful

4 3 4 2 4 4

Before reading on, what’s the average of those six numbers? Roughly. Just by looking at it. Hold it in your head for a minute while you read on.

The Guardian used to be nicknamed the Grauniad due to its propensity to misspell words, particularly in headlines and bold text. But having tightened up on the use of the spell checker and raised their game in the English department, their maths skills are now lacking. (To avoid hypocrisy, I’ve spell checked this post to death!)

This morning’s G2 magazine features a handy review of reviews table on page 29, summarising the views of various daily and Sunday newspapers on recent films, plays, and TV programmes.

It’s a simple matrix, with the newspapers across the top, and the shows down the left hand side. They even translate the different papers’ marking schemes (stars out of five, must-see to avoid-like-the-plague ratings) into a simple marks-out-of-ten to make them comparable.

The crunch comes with the averaging.

  • Factory Girl (which premiered in London last week) gets 3 3 4 6 7 3 4 and an overall average of 4. Seems ok.
  • Premonition (starring Sandra Bullock, and universally rubbished) gets 1 1 1 2 1 6 2 and an average of 2. Looks about right.
  • Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus gets 4 3 4 2 4 4, which according to my abacus averages out at 3½, but I’d forgive someone rounding it up to 4. And the overall mark published in the Guardian? 6! Turns out that a “Guardian average” isn’t very meaningful. A bit too above average.

Time to send the review of reviews compiler over to the Grauniad’s Tuesday education supplement for some remedial maths lessons. And expect a correction from the readers’ editor real soon.

Meet an “Ulsternaut” … promoted in a Donaghadee chip shop!

If the local thespian's performances of An Ideal Husband isn't enough, here's another opportunity for a night out with some stars.

Pinned to a notice board in David’s Chip Shop in Donaghadee.

Meet Northern Ireland’s First Astronaut!!!

And observe the night sky with the Irish Astronomical Association at Castle
Espie Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust
near Comber.

Saturday 24 March at 7.30pm

Derek Heatly will speak about his planned suborbital space flight and sign and sell space photos, DVDs, posters, books (for all ages) and badges.

All proceeds to Northern Ireland Leukaemia Research.

Bring a camera for your photo with this historic person!!

Some folk refer to David as an Ulsternaut, or a semi-spaceman, but he did command the airwaves in an interview on Downtown Radio a few years back.

PS: They forgot to put the burgers on, so we waited over twenty minutes in an otherwise empty carryout for two Hawaiian Burgers! But thanks for offering the free bottle of water ...

Monday, March 19, 2007

Baggage delays ... and a possible Olympic sport

Sitting waiting for the slightly delayed bmi flight to Heathrow, I watched as the ground staff struggled to get the luggage bins off the incoming flight and onto the wee trailers.

Done properly, it could be argued in as an Olympic sport played by a team of yellow-jacketed players. Lining up the ramp with the plan, lining up the trailers with the ramp. Spinning the bins around. Rolling them smoothly over the bearings from ramp to trailer. A team acting as one. Poetry in motion.

You should watch it sometime. It could be a real art form.

This morning in Belfast, it was more brute force and ignorance than art. Aggressively kicking unruly bags back into the unsecured bins. Getting bins stuck half way between the ramp and the trailer. A snaked queue of trailers awaiting the incoming bins to clear away to allow our luggage to be loaded up into the plane's hold.

Now, I've been standing at Heathrow's luggage belt for forty minutes. No bags dropped onto either conveyor belt for twenty five minutes. Then a trickle for a Tyne Tees flight appeared. But no sign of our bags.

Maybe if we could peer out of a window we'd see someone in a yellow jacket kicking and pulling to get the luggage out of our plane.

A bit wacky, but maybe bmi's ground crew need a performance coach, video playback to analyse weaknesses in their approach. Maybe they need a league table and a bit of competition between flights and airports to inspire a bit more accurate handling and faster times!

Our Belfast bags have finally started to spill out. It's taken over half as long as the flight itself to reclaim our bags. Taken longer that it will now take me to get from Heathrow to Paddington and onto Waterloo station.

Makes be feel good about getting the train to Brussels - no delays checking in your luggage and reclaiming it. And it saves having to bring an extra holdall just to carry the carbon footprint of a second short haul flight!


Posting has been a bit light recently ... too many morning's where I've been witnessing sunrise from an up-in-the-air vantage point, rather than from a traffic jam on the Upper Newtownards Road.

So there's a review of a couple of film - Orchestra Seats and After the Wedding - to come when I get around to finishing them.

Off to Brussels this week ... if the EuroStar is back working!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Want to see An Ideal Husband?

It didn’t make it to Unpaid Intern Erin’s Guide of Things To Do in Belfast This Week over at Letter to America, but here’s one for the East Belfast culture vultures.

The Belmont Drama Group are putting on An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde.

Tuesday 20 and Wednesday 21 March at 7.45pm over the MacDermott Hall of Belmont Presbyterian Church (on Sydenham Avenue at the junction of Belmont Church Road).

Pop along and check it out.

Saturday, March 17, 2007 dead?

Anyone know what happened to It dropped of the ether(net) in the middle of the NI Assembly election count, and hasn’t returned? Maybe it’s a holding out for an MLA salary before resuming business.

Anyway, sorely missed for tracking the musings and mutterings of local bloggers.

Happy St Patrick’s Day – and the story of a non-fan “watching” the rugby online

I’m not a big fan of sport. But this afternoon’s rugby was thrilling. I’ve haven’t seen a fame of it on TV, or heard a snippet of radio commentary. But the ball by ball coverage (well minute-by minute) on BBC Sport Online was riveting.

Needing a big margin of victory, Ireland seemed to be holding Italy to twelve points as the score went from 13-12 to 20-12 to 32-12 to 46-12 before Italy staged a minor comeback and the match finished 51-24. Hitting “r” to reload the page every ten minutes or so.

Confident, I didn’t track the France Scotland match so closely. 10-7 seemed an encouraging lead for France. They’d get a win, but no great margin. 20-14 at half time seemed a manageable difference. Then 32-14. 39-14. Arghh. They’re ahead of Ireland. 39-19. Hurrah for Scotland. Will the morning headlines lead with

“Scotland score winning try for Ireland!”

Looked hopeful.

1708: They are five metres out with time running down on the clock. Half-a-minute.

Surely it’s all over. And it was. A late push forward by France, and a decision by an Irish video referee, settled the Six Nations in France’s favour.

Happy St Patrick’s Day anyway. It’ll not convert me to attending games, or watching rugby on the box, but it was a thrilling finale. And thank you to the BBC for the online commentary. You’re forgiven for having a sport budget, just this once.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Views of Parliament ... and a mobile base station

Back in London again this week, and back in a hotel that will be nice when it’s finished! The builders are still in, working their way through the snag list, finishing off the restaurant, and tuning the air conditioning and TV system. (One doesn’t cool, the other freezes and pixelates.)

Out the window, you can just make out the illuminated top of the Houses of Parliament and the Clock Tower housing Big Ben. Makes a change from the illuminated view of Stormont that used to be able to see from home.

And if you’ve ever wanted to see a mobile base station, there’s one on top of the adjacent building.

It may explain why the air con doesn’t make much impact (though I suspect it may be to do with the stone walls facing the sun, and the way they act as big storage heaters). Maybe it also explains why unlike some of the other rooms in the hotel, this one didn’t have a microwave!

Oh, and an update on the mouse that I saw last week. Apparently it had at least a couple of friends, and as a consequence the crisps and nuts have been removed from the hotel bar, and traps have been set.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

How do they do that? Film premieres

Walking through Leicester Square on the way to dinner last night, I caught the tail end of the Factory Girl UK premiere.

Running a London film premiere is a slick, well-oiled process, repeated once or twice a week in Leicester Square and the cinemas around. It’s as if someone pulls their clipboard off their desk, works down the checklist, and ten minutes later another premiere has been organised.

Security fencing, security and a few extra police arrive, scaffolding and lights are erected, and between 6 and 7pm the beautiful people walk down the red carpet on the way into the film.

But once everyone is inside, the red carpet is rolled up

and packed into a van, and the outside glitz is dismantled.

Multiview lenticular technology - or 3D TV to you and me

I stood in front of a normal-looking plasma screen yesterday, and the image jumped out of the screen.

It looked 3D. But I didn’t have cardboard red/green glasses on.

How come? Too many cups of tea?

Turns out that it was a Philips 3D display ... using WoWvx and multiview lenticular technology! I kid you not.

A photograph doesn’t really do it justice. It was pretty subtle. Not as in your face as the films that are shown in the IMAX, but it gave a depth to the vision.

Doubt I’ll see it in people’s living rooms for at least another five years.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Would you fancy a day at the races?

While I sat waiting for this morning's Air Berlin flight to Stansted, there was a noisy buzz in departures.

The cream of local society was waiting to board flyBE's flight to Birmingham on their way to a day at the Cheltenham races.

A party of twenty. Dressed in sharp blazers and striped suits, handkerchief hanging out of top pocket, high heels and carrying bulging brown envelopes. No joke. Thick A5 envelopes of cash inside their folded copies of The Racing Post.

It wouldn't be unfair to call them the "chattering classes" ... the departure's area is a lot quieter now they've gone through the gate.

Though one or two were less than enthusiastic about the day ahead at the gee gees. One woman commented dolefully, "Nothing much to do ..."

I've a tip for them - keep your hands and your brown envelopes in your pockets and you'll come home having only lost your plane fare! Better still, stay at home, watch it on Channel 4, and if you really have to have a flutter, help your local bookies make up for their alleged election losses.

But maybe I lack an appreciation for horse racing. Maybe I'm prejudiced through my ignorance? Not much different to the fear we sometimes feel when confronted with people unlike ourselves. With localities unlike our own. With language and culture unlike our own.

Maybe I'm horsist? Or equinophobic?

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Hot Spot

Back in December, I mentioned Ballyhackamore’s The Hot Spot chippie in a post about the possible sale of a row of Upper Newtownards Road shop units to developers.

I’d mentioned the shop’s recent makeover, and John Self followed up with a question about the height of the counter.

> “the chippie that’s just invested in a new counter”

And a wonderfully idiosyncratic piece of signage above the name - the leaping fish with the words Cod Almighty below it - and, most entertainingly for my money, the tiny words “Ohh yess” coming out of its mouth. And does the counter need to be seven feet high??

Well, Sharon from The Hot Spot emailed AiB recently.

Turns out that she and her husband (who I think may even have run as an independent candidate in East Belfast in the 2003 Assembly elections) took over the chip shop in July, have given it a quick makeover and got rid of the grill that used to cook/heat the burgers. She challenged me to go back.

And on Saturday night I did.

Lovely Hawaiian Burger. Good chips. Fast. Tasted better than the normal fare from Arnolds up the road. Using grated cheese rather than a plastic slice was a nice touch.

And Sharon was right. The high counter does protect customers from splattered with hot oil. Guess it looks higher than some other chippies since there’s no see-through section at the top to watch the onion rings and battered sausages.

“So instead of comments about the counter why don’t you come in and try the food, as the counter does not effect the taste ...”
I did, and I’d recommend it. Sits nicely alongside the excellent Orient Chinese takeaway up the street.

Happy Birthday

One year old today.

The first post bears repeating ...

In a world where a blog is created every second [more frequent than that now], 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

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Anthony Blair, Captain of School by an Old Boy (John Morrison)

By day, John Morrison is Reuter’s Westminster correspondent, a man who follows the daily machinations of the new Labour government. And maybe in his idle moments, when speeches were dragging on too long, or obscure topics were being discussed, his mind wandered into a distant fictional world, one where Blair and Brown were school boys, overseen by the headmaster Dr Bush.

A world where a boy named Prescott writes poetry, Campbell works for the school rag, the Rocket, paid for by Murdoch, and an unpopular boy called Mandelson who volunteers to be the toast fag for both Blair and Brown until he has to chose between them.

And he wrote it all down. And so I recently finished reading Anthony Blair Captain of School by an Old Boy. It’s an old-fashioned hardback, with a colour face plate stuck to the front, and it follows a chap called Anthony Blair from his first encounter with Archer on the way up to first term by train, through his scraps and scrapes, to his sudden rise to be house Captain, and later thrust into the position of Captain of School (the head boy).

We follow his hunt for the weapons of mass destruction missing rifles that he says are hidden in a pub cellar in town, his encouragement for Hoon (in charge of the school Rifle Corps) to take action in the town, and the tragic consequences.

It’s a fun satire, with a real story and well-developed characters, along with a sense of darkness and futility that clouds over Blair and his actions as the story progresses. Well worth a read, particularly at the discounted price Amazon are flogging it for at the moment.

Pauline Reynolds in the Sunday Life sums up the book from a local context:

“Take a few blokes called Blair, Adams and McGuinness, a handful of missing rifles and a toast to the ‘Republican Brotherhood’. Combine this with a rendition of the Wearing of the Green and a visit to Ma Mowlam’s dodgy boathouse, and you begin to feel the sense of a new book about to be published.”

Categorising Sunday morning listeners

If your bum was sitting on a wooden pew (or even a more trendy cushioned chair) this morning, did you fall into any of these categories?! (I thought I'd used this cartoon in AiB before, but I can't find it.)

Some weeks, I think you also could substiture "Sermon" with "Sunday Sequence". But given that AiB has appeared on the Will & Testament blogroll, I shouldn't be so cheeky!

And I'd hope that the experience was a lot more positive that this humorous cartoon portrays. After all, meeting up with God's people should make up for any inadequacy in the sermon.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

9/11 & Five Live’s Mayo show

(c) BBC

(Like many posts, this one was drafted, but took a while to be published in the blog.)

I remember sitting in the car park of the big Tesco store in Lisburn listening to the radio and waiting for someone to come back out with their shopping.

The radio was tuned into Five Live, the Simon Mayo show.

I can’t recall what they’d been talking about, but I remember Mayo cutting in to say they were getting reports of a plane crash in New York.

Trapped waiting in the car, I listened on for the next ten minutes as he started describing the pictures that were now coming into the small TV screen in his studio. He spoke of smoke billowing from the North Tower, of the hole in its side.

It was just after we got home and switched on the rolling news that saturated all the terrestrial channels that afternoon that the second plane hit, the South Tower this time, bringing talk of a terrorist attack to the fore.

And then with millions around the world I stood in front of the kitchen TV watching incredulously as the towers collapsed, and later as reports of the Pentagon explosion (later called as another plane) came through.

When asked in years to come where I was when I heard about 9/11, I’ll say that I was listening to Mayo on Five Live. I saw it on the radio.

Catching up on the daily Mayo podcasts from a couple of weeks ago, I caught his interview with William Rodriguez, a janitor at the Twin Towers. He was responsible for cleaning the stair wells in the south tower, a job that he normally started each morning at the top floor restaurant - where he got a free breakfast before starting his descent.

Arriving late to work, he was in the basement when the first plane hit. Rodriguez helped many people to safety, evacuating fellow staff, wheelchair-bound folk abandoned in the refuge areas, and using his master key to unlock doors and guide a fire crew upstairs.

He is quite possibly the last person to run out of his tower before it collapsed. On that day he lost hundreds of friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

Rodriguez questions the enquiries that followed 9/11. Why were so few people who escaped the towers interviewed by the enquiry teams?

While disagreeing with most of the wackier conspiracy theories, he questions the official version of the attack. The thuds he heard in the basement felt to him like an explosion going off to weaken the foundations. What caused the injuries to a colleague in the basement - someone who had been around the basement area when the first plane hit?

“I was a magician for thirty years ... It is very easy to do misdirection, to make you look into one place while you’re doing the magic with the other hand.” Inferring that in plain sight, the planes struck; out of sight, bombs exploded, “It’s just a big magic trick,” Rodriguez concludes. “It’s an illusion.”

Whatever his questions, and whatever the answers, it made chilling listening as I pieced his story together with my recollections from the car park in Lisburn.

Unfortunately I’ve posted too late for you to catch the interview at the Mayo programme’s website, or from the Daily Mayo podcast feed.

Election wrap-up

With an average of around an election a year in NI over the last 20 years or so, there’ll be another one just around the corner. So no need to make this one draw out any longer than necessary.

But it deserves a few closing comments as AiB puts a lid on its election coverage.
I started off intrigued by Hilary Clinton’s mantra of “Let the conversation begin” ... and while our election campaign is over, hers is barely starting! While the conversations that our local parties began were often continuations of well worn arguments, their websites did transform over the last month.

The DUP introduced a daily video blog on the days they could be bothered to post a clip, together with some speeches on YouTube!

And both the SDLP and PUP re-launched their websites. The PUP really came back online to make much difference in Dawn Purvis’ successful campaign, and the SDLP one only works if you put the “www.” in front of the “”.

The NI Election 2007 blog was launched in early February. It posted thoughtful pieces during the campaign, including David Porter’s strongly worded contribution on polling day itself which started by reminding us ...

“Election Day. Nothing too remarkable – the population has not been queuing since before dawn and we don’t expect the hundreds still waiting outside at closing time to pose major problems for those in charge of the polling stations. No one has been required to walk miles from their village to the nearest polling station.”

... before going on to suggest that “we have a God given and God answerable responsibility to exercise power”, though I’m not sure that in all circumstances will this equate to filling out a ballot paper with a pencil stub.

And AiB covered the hassle of getting signed up in time for a postal vote.

Brian Rowan tried to do something new in the crazy constituency of North Down. Crazy since it was nearly home to a Conservative victory in my school days, voted in Bob McCartney, returned Lady Sylvia Herman, and now has given the Green Party their first seat in the NI Assembly with the election of Brian Wilson. Remember him: he had the first YouTube campaign video of the election.

And we wasted a lot of brain power wondering what would happen if Bob McCartney won more than one seat and finding out the Eastwood’s odds, when we should have been thinking about him not winning any seats at all!

My prediction for East Belfast was partly right, but quite wrong in places too. I guessed that Dawn Purvis (PUP) would get in. But Michael Copeland (UUP) was trounced by the DUP who brought home all three candidates, adding Wallace Browne to their ranks. And I was wrong about the Alliance vote: it increased, mostly at the expense of the UUP.

But the big question remains: will Rainbow George beat his record 65 first preference votes he picked up in 2003?!

He failed. Only 47 this time!

Even the Conservative living around the corner polled better with 427 first preference votes for Glyn Chambers.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Election afternoon tea-break thoughts

While Brian Rowan may have high profile and created a bit of a buzz in Holywood, his profile during the election campaign was surprisingly low outside North Down.

An ex-BBC reporter, and frequent contributor to the Belfast Telegraph, didn't he have a distinctive voice to be heard?

Given the broadcasters' rules of fairness, he was too small a fry to get significant TV coverage. But there didn't even seem to be any human interest stories in the NI press?

Some key ponderings:

* Will Alliance be able to hold Seamus Close's old seat in Lagan Valley? Or will Trevor Lunn lose out to the more polarised voting behaviour now that Close's personal impact has gone?

* Will Dawn Purvis recapture David Ervine's seat for the PUP in East Belfast? And what will be the split between the DUP and UUP in this a typical constsituency? (Will it be one of the few places were UUP > DUP?)

Squeak squeak ... rodent alert

My aversion to natural history finally caught up with me last night when I couldn't tell whether it was a mouse or a rat trying to jump into a litter bin in the hotel.

Hearing the rustle of plastic behind me in an otherwise quiet "members' room" (soft seats, TV, tea/coffee, a few internet terminals and a network hub in each corner you can plug into to avoid the dodgy wifi) I turned around .to see ...

A grey creature with a long tail trying to jump into the bin, and was bouncing off the plastic liner.
A little grey creature too small to spring all the way up into the bin.

A clever little grey creature that scampered away before I could trap it under another nearby bin!

One nil to the rodent. Home lose to the hotel. And this time, my camera was upstairs in my room, so there's no documentary evidence!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

News for remote election result anoraks ...

I’m a bit of an election anorak. I enjoy the buzz of the TV coverage of the counts, the endless speculation about “early indications”, “piles of votes”, “the ___ camp look depressed”.

If like me you’re not off work and able to park your eyeballs in front of a TV (or able to take advantage of online streaming), then BBC NI offer a solution.

For the price of a single text message of “election” to 82222 they’ll keep you in touch with the developments at the counts. (And if it all gets too much, text “quit” to the same number and they’ll quit bothering you.)

Wayback in May, AiB was talking about another election

I put into the Wayback Machine. Surprisingly, it had an archive of the site from May 4 2006.

And the main topic being discussed?

Elections. Of the English local council variety.

Looking back, I’ve just noticed that I made a comment at the end of Monday 1 May’s post ...

“Roll on the day that Northern Ireland politics can match the example of Gloucester, allowing local councillors to campaign on local issues - and be forced to participate in local issues in local areas in order to prove their worth and garner support at the ballot box.”

While we’ve come a little closer during this election to local parties having real policies on real issues, we’ve still a long way to go.

Happy polling. Early, but not too often. The lampposts need a better break between elections.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A guilty pleasure ... but there's no such thing as a free breakfast

There's a feeling of unease when you get on board a bmi flight at St George's Belfast City Airport and realise that the business class curtain is behind you.

Four rows behind.

Is it a mistake? Did I book the wrong fare? For fairly sensible cost reasons we're not allowed to book business class for short trips - never mind the convenience of getting a free snack on the way across.

There would be a witch hunt if you booked outside the travel policy.

But by virtue of choosing a seat near the front have some us been shown grace? Being freely given something we don't deserve? Allowed to sneak into the world of free breakfast instead of the pay trolley?

Looks like cock up rather than conspiracy!

People in each of the rows behind have been trying to squeeze into the small B seats ... business class only use A and C on the left hand aisle, and compress the B seat to give more room.

Only the slimest of hips would fit!

They've now moved the curtains up to just in front of my nose. So no complimentary breakfast. Cattle class after all.

There's no such thing as a free breakfast ... though in a recent bmi press release it looks like they're bringing it back.

Monday, March 05, 2007

West of the Bann

Roughly half a million people live in Greater Belfast. By the time you take in everyone living within a twenty mile radius of Belfast City Hall, it must include two thirds of NI’s population.

Next Thursday, when UTV and BBC “go over to the count in Omagh”, the reporter will say “Here, west of the Bann, it’s a different story”. West of the Bann. Where?

I grew up in County Antrim, walked through forests in County Down, occasionally took a trip to outer space in County Armagh, and occasionally snuck out of Co. Antrim to grab an ice cream in Morellis which counted as County Londonderry. I now live in East Belfast. East of the Bann.

Before this weekend, the last time I was in Country Fermanagh was on Saturday 15 August 1998. We’d gone down to Marble Arch Caves with a group of teenagers and some US students who were getting ready to run a Holiday Club at a Lisburn church. It was their day off. We’d made the long drive down, walked through the cave structure, marvelling at the stalagmites and stalactites.

We stopped off in Enniskillen at the Erneside Shopping Centre for half an hour on the way home. The group had split up: some went off to grab a cup of coffee, others to do some souvenir shopping.

There was a bomb scare. Someone said that they’d heard there were others in the area. We were lucky that no one had gone too far and within five minutes we’d accounted for everyone and were able to get to our cars and continue the trip home. But it was a scare. We hadn’t factored in the possibility. And the five minutes we were out of control and out of communications (1998 was before everyone had a mobile phone) felt very sick.

We continued on home. Lots of chatter in the cars. No one had the radio on. So we didn’t hear the news until we got back home.

A bomb at Omagh that afternoon had exploded at 15:10, killing 29 people, and injuring two hundred. That was why there were bomb scares in Enniskillen at 4pm.

The sick feeling from earlier that afternoon paled in comparison with what we felt on hearing the news.

I was back West of the Bann in Enniskillen this weekend. The weather on Saturday morning was glorious.

I wish I could tell you about the rowing regatta, but we left the play park before the racing started.

And I wish I could tell why this guy was sitting at the top of the canoe trailer!

The castle was very picturesque.

Though the weather turned nasty on Sunday. Can't blame the weather for remembering at 8 o'clock on Saturday night there would be a lunar eclipse, but then forgetting to go outside an hour or two later to watch it. D'oh!

West of the Bann. Difficult to believe that you can drive for nearly two hours in NI in order to reach somewhere. From the centre of my universe, I can get to Portstewart in 70 minutes, down to Armagh in about an hour. But it’s a good 90 minutes to drive down the M1 and along the A4 to reach beautiful Enniskillen.

Next time the local news runs a story about closing a hospital in Counties Fermanagh or Tyrone, I’ll understand what they’re about. Lots of people choose to live there. It’s a great choice. Green fields. Loughs. Rivers. Forests. A friendly atmosphere in the town. Pottery and painting in the Buttermarket. But it’s isolated by distance … and the Bann. A river that so many of us on the east feel scared to cross.

Go visit Enniskillen. Go visit Omagh. Take your time to enjoy the atmosphere. And promise to go back.

West of the Bann. Far away, but worth the trip.