Monday, April 30, 2007


There’s a children’s chorus by May Butler that was popular about 30 years ago, but heard less often in churches these days. It starts off ...

Looking upwards every day,
Sunshine on our faces;
Pressing onward every day
Toward heavenly places.

Mixing a review of the film Sunshine and religion seems quite appropriate given elements of the storyline in Danny Boyle’s new work.

“Our sun is dying.Mankind faces extinction.”

The opening dialog feels like the start of an epic poem, and sets Sunshine up to be a more arty, contemplative piece than just a sci-fi action adventure disaster movie. It’s something of a cross between Deep Impact, Armageddon, 2001 Odyssey and Solaris. A strange mix.

The set up is that the previous ICARUS mission failed (seven years ago). We join the crew near the end of their journey. Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. ICARUS II. Their purpose: “to create a star within a star”, to restart the sun. If they’re successful, eight minutes after they set of the bomb, Earth will be flooded with new light. So it’s a last chance mission to save humanity from a cold, dark death.

Visually the film’s palette consists of bright white, black, orange, slate grey, and tiny optimistic shoots of green. The screen alternates between total darkness, blinding light, and slabs of white on dark backgrounds. Clever face-reflected-in-glass shots. Whenever the ship’s crew aren’t quite sure what’s going on, the action blurs ... and it probably saved a fortune on prosthetics and detailed CGI in the last fifteen minutes of the film! And the soundtrack is a test for your local cinema’s bass bins - it’s all very deeeeeep.

For a ship that was being constructed as the second last ditch attempt to preserve life on earth, ICARUS II has a remarkable build quality. I’d have expected a less than perfect finish. No point painting everything uniformly. Would the crew have minded if a few corners had been cut. Time was of the essence? Or do heroes deserve better?

And before I forget: why do spaceships need external flashing lights? The ICARUS II has floodlit sections all over. It’s a complete waste of energy. There’s no one out there to bump into them as they sail through space towards the sun. Maybe it’s just in case someone on a passing comet wants to film the ship.

There are a couple of sets that form focal points of the film. There are repeated visits to the observation room, where the crew(s) can watch the sun through a filtered window. The fascination with the sun, an encouragement, a depressant, its life-giving light, its all consuming fire. The crew are sun worshippers. From early on in the film, the religious imagery is painted thick.

Getting there and back means that the ICARUS II needs to produce its own oxygen for the crew. Hurtling towards the sun, with only a massive gold shield (fashioned from all the remaining gold on Earth), photosynthesis is the answer, with the leafy oxygen farm. (It looks like the Eden project, unsurprisingly since that’s where it was filmed!)

Deep down, Sunshine is a disaster movie. One questionable decision leads to another. A litany of mistakes, each making the consequences of the next mistake all the greater. Like one bad throw of the dice causing you to slide down a Snakes and Ladders board. So close to the goal, and then so far away from where you were headed.

Yet in the middle of the bitterness, there are some crew willing to lead, and willing to make sacrifices. And in the middle of the darkness, there are green shoots of hope. One of the crew succinctly sums up the mission’s success criteria in his last message sent to family at home before the ICARUS II enters the radio dead zone near the sun.

“So if you wake up one morning and it’s a particularly beautiful day, you’ll know we made it.”

Dilemmas are faced. Yet they know that getting the bomb to the sun is more important than curiosity or saving lives. The crew are torn.

The closer they get to the sun, the more obsessed they become with it. It dominates their waking and their sleeping. Fascinated by the viewing gallery. Disturbed by fiery nightmares. The religious metaphor continues with morbidity as well as hope as they perhaps approach the end of their lives.

The final stages of the film are where it branches out from traditional middle-of-the-road sci-fi, and joins the Solaris appreciation society. In some ways, it saves having to sit through a disappointing ending with victory snatched from the jaws of defeat (or vice versa). But it mars the integrity of the film, introducing new elements to the film at such a late stage. And then in the final seconds, the action switches from space to Earth for the first time in the closing scene: a snowy field, that lacks the normal bright blinding whiteness.

Some parts of Sunshine are really worth seeing. It's a tremendous achievement for a relatively small investment. But it's not going to be a classic sci-fi that's talked about in twenty years time.

And before I forget, the trailers for 28 Weeks Later, Zodiac and Next (more fully, “Next, from the author of Minority Report”!) all look promising. Though sometimes, as in the case of Sunshine, the trailers are better than the actual film.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Allo Allo

Real treat tonight stumbling across the Return of 'Allo 'Allo on BBC2. All the old jokes still bring a smirk to my face, along with the Englsih, French, German and Italian accents all portrayed in English.

Officer Crabtree and the British airmen are still complete fools. Brilliant.

A blogger’s inbox is full of sundry requests ... busking

Having run the Alan in Belfast blog for over a year now, I’m getting used to the emails that come through from strangers with requests for comment, help and information etc.

So far, two interview requests from the BBC, one from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a publicist looking coverage for the DVD release of The Last King of Scotland (in return for a free DVD) ...

But a recent email from Gemma deserves a post ... and an opportunity for you to leave your comments.

Hello, I was reading your blog and was wondering if you could help me with a project I’m doing for my Anthropology degree at Queens. Me and the girl I’m working with are doing a module where we had to pick a part of Belfast’s culture to research and make a website about using video, audio, photos and interviews and we’ve spent the last 2 months talking to buskers in Belfast to gather material.

We want to have a section on the website of opinions and reactions to buskers from local people and businesses so I’d be really interested to know what you think of buskers in Belfast, especially since you already share your views about local topics online.

Do you think buskers are a good addition to the street environment and what would make you give or not give to a busker? It’d be great to quote your response on the website ... Thanks for taking the time to read this and I look forward to your reply.

Buskers and street entertainers all add to the colour of our otherwise dull streets. They bring a bit of humanity in the midst of the rest of us automatons moving from one place to the next along our bust streets. And they’re legal too.

There’s a fine line though between busking a begging. A line drawn between being performed to and being performed at. Invading my private world as I walk down a street or trudge through a shopping centre is ok as long as you lift my spirit gently. But ram music down my throat and glare as I walk past tight-fisted, that’s a different matter.

I posted the other day about a woman sitting late at night on a stool under a tree beside the bank of the Thames in central London, playing beautiful melodies on her keyboard. Yes the keyboard case was open on the ground a few feet in front of her, inviting the appreciation of passers by.

But the music conveyed the feeling that she was enjoying playing. It wasn’t a chore, working to collect money. She was exercising her talent as much for her own enjoyment as that of others passing by. So much so, that thinking back, I feel guilty that I didn’t go down to the bottom of the steps to throw a few coins into her case. Instead, I leaned on the railings of the bridge, transfixed by the music, soaking in the experience and not feeling that I was being performed at. (And after a while I hurried off before I soaked in the rain that started to fall!)

Belfast’s had a number of prolific buskers. I haven’t heard or seen the one-armed trumpeter for many years now, but he was a really good musician. Well worth a handful of change.

But the kilted bagpiper always felt more like a menace. He switched location every half hour or so—I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a deal with the shopkeepers not to stay in the one place for too long—which meant if you went shopping at lunchtime, he’d keep popping up no matter where you turned. Complete with CDs to sell to tourists. Maybe as part of political agreement, solo bagpipers who don’t belong to a larger band will have to decommission their weapons instruments.

The acoustics in the tunnel on the way into Pottinger’s Entry are fantastic. But sometimes this pitch gets a second class guitarist with a lousy voice ... making you want the good guy to return.
Very few female buskers. Except at Christmas when brass and string groups made up of sixth formers and QUB music students appear at every turn. Some look like they’re really enjoying it. Others look like they’ll go away as soon as they raise their target.

Maybe Gemma's website will feature some of these characters. Gemma - you should post a link in a comment below.

London Underground have it about right. A few years back they banned all casual busking in the tube stations on grounds of safety. Instead they allowed people to apply, auditioned them to make sure they had some talent, and then licensed them to play at specific locations at specific times. They set up a rota. It really upped the quality and the enjoyment. A cello or an electric guitar echoing up the long escalators can sound superb.

All a far cry from France where buskers (often in groups of three) walk up and down the Metro carriages (you can get between the carriages unlike the London tubes) performing a few songs in a set before moving to the other end of the train.

Quite a ramble (as usual). You’ll want to add your thoughts.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Shooter - "better than an A Team episode"

Shooter starts with two marines on a black op, a sniper and his spotter, camouflaged on the top of a hill, protecting the exit of US forces from Ethiopia. But when the heat is unexpectedly turned up, the operation is abandoned, and the two marines on the hill are abandoned too.

Expendable. Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) is the long-range sniper. Unlike his partner, he survives, but he doesn’t return to the marines. Previously expendable, the FBI now desperately want him back. There’s a threat on the life of the president, a sniper who’ll fire from beyond the normal secret service security cordon. Swagger can help them analyse how and where the shot will be taken.

The first forty minutes or so of the film build up the tension. The same kind of chest-tightening feeling that accompanies reading any of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels.

But it’s a set up. And as the unknown sniper takes his shot, Swagger changes from being the hunter to the hunted. Car chase, shooting, river, DIY first aid, more shooting, flame … and more of the same. The film should come with a warning:

Many sets were destroyed in the making of this film.

Two thirds of the way through the film and it feels like the A-Team has been reformed. A not-so-crack squad of soldiers ... on the run from the military for a crime they didn't commit. An FBI newbie who has overpowered by Swagger while running from the scene of his set up, and the wife of his murdered spotter.

“I love it when a plan comes together” ... and what they lack in experience, they make up for with team spirit!

The moral of the story is never to be complacent. The bad guys are always more devious than you first expect. Expect a sequel.

It comes with plenty of anti-war in Iraq and anti-Bush rhetoric, and it’s better than an A Team episode, but I’d need some convincing to watch Shooter 2. And I wonder what Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post movie critic who wrote the novel Point of Impact that Shooter is loosely based on, would make of the transformation of his story onto the big screen.

If you’re into action movies (rather than thrillers) then go and see it. (Click for links to some of the local show times.) If not, then go and see The Lives of Others instead.

Blue trees, and the music of a piano wafting across a river

Tuesday night was warm and balmy, so I walked up the south bank of the Thames, past the Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern, past the strange shining blue trees by the OXO tower, past the Royal Festival Hall where New Labour celebrated their election win. Up as far as the Hungerford footbridges.

As I climbed the steps up onto the bridge, the sound of a piano came from the dark below. A woman was sitting at a keyboard, under a tree playing familiar, gentle pieces. A classical busker.
People stopped talking and stood quietly as they came up to the bridge, pausing to soak up the beautiful music.

In the middle of the day, it would have been out of place, jarring with the bustle and crowds, or maybe even completely lost under the noise of chat and traffic.

(If you squint, you can just make out where the pianist was sitting at the bottom of the steps somewhere in the middle of the left hand side of the muddy photo above!)

But in the late evening, it was like a free concert, with great acoustics, accompanying a picture postcard view down the Thames towards the blue-lit London Eye on one side and the Houses of Parliament on the other (lit up like electricity is free). Only the trains rattling over Hungerford bridge briefly disturbed the music.

As spits of rain started to fall, I reluctantly moved away. Yet half way across the bridge I could still hear the piano’s music as it carried across the flat Thames in the still night.
Culture and art wasn’t confined indoors last night. It was outside, for all to hear and engage with. An unprogrammed festival!

But back to Belfast. Would this ever happen? Does anyone walk along the Lagan at night - free from fear of being mugged? Past the Waterfront, past the Big Fish and the weir? The views are a little less iconic, but the pedestrians thinner on the ground. Not a hope for at least a year or two?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Putting a lifetime of mugs back in the cupboard ... public art

How many cups of tea (or coffee) will you drink in your lifetime? How many chickens will you eat? How many rolls of toilet paper will you flush away? How many baths will you take? I’ll come back to those questions in a minute.

Public Art is much in the news at the moment. There’s lots of it about in Belfast. (I missed the external cathedral spire going up on Monday, though the bottom part inside the cathedral is still to be finished.)

One of Banksy’s artworks (graffiti) was removed from a wall in London, causing consternation from many people who actually liked it.

And it’s been a busy week for Trafalgar Square. Monday’s night’s Coconut Orchestra world record attempt verged on being public art. Certainly a large scale performance piece.

(c) BBC 2007

But very early on Tuesday morning, it was the venue for another transitory installation. As part of the promotion for tonight’s The Human Footprint show (9pm), Channel 4 got up early and set out 74,802 mugs in Trafalgar Square, and filled them with tea. It’s a lot of cuppas.

Having got press photographers and news crews around to witness the scene, they needed to clear up. So starting at 3pm, with a team of 20, how long do you think it took them?

Giving away thousands of mugs might have been possible—we all like a freebie—but they’d only borrowed the mugs from the manufacturer, so they had to empty the tea out, give the mugs a quick rinse, put them back onto wooden palettes, load them onto the back of a lorry and pay for the breakages.

Now dripping wet mugs sitting on cardboard trays, with the trays stacked up on top of each other are a disaster waiting to happen. The cardboard sags, and the stack of mugs leans precariously, and has to wrapped in cling film to give it some stability when the fork lift puts it onto the lorry!

The heritage staff who look after Trafalgar Square (and blow a whistle if you try and climb up onto the monuments) commented that it had taken a lot, lot longer to clear up than they’d promised.

Sometime between 10pm and 11pm they finally left the site! The show airs tonight at 9pm on Channel 4. Looks interesting. (Oh, and the answers: approximately 74,802 cups of tea, 12,000 chickens, 4,000 loo rolls, 7,163 baths.)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Coconut Orchestra World Record Broken!

Pictures to follow from this most English of events. But I can confirm that the editor-in-chief of the Guiness Book of Records has handed over the world record certificate to Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones.

New York set a target of 1789 to beat.

And London trounced them with at least 4382 coconut bashers (some registration forms still to be counted) following the conductor's baton and the example of the West End Spamalot cast during a singalong version of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". (News reports the next morning have updated the size of the orchestra to 5567.)

Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, popped on stage to offer some words of encouragement, commenting that London beat New York to host the 2012 Olympic Games, and we'd beaten them to the congestion charge (New York have just announced they are introducing one).

After the practice session, Terry Jones thanked the assembled musicians:

"On behalf of all the members of the Python team, I'd like to congratulate you on your grasp of coconuts."

It was a very English pursuit, with thousands of people gathered, not all students dressed up as knights - many were dressed like they'd come straight from the office.

I asked the guy beside me why he was there. His reply? Simple.

"Why not, I suppose? It's the only way I'll ever get into the Guiness Book of Records, even if my name isn't listed."

I'd agree. Happy St George's Day.

Ethics of blogging

There’s been a lot of talk recently about a code of conduct for bloggers.

While television remained predominantly on four terrestrial analogue channels, the BBC Governors together with the IBA (later the ITC and BSC) and the regulation was quite lightweight.

Then Ofcom came along with a massive organisation, more heavy-weight regulation to cope with an expanding and increasingly complicated industry. (It’s always struck me as amusing that the Ofcom HQ, Riverside House in Southwark on the bank of the Thames bulges out, signifying the vast workforce stuffed inside?)

The internet managed to regulate itself for the first few years through DARPA and the IETF. A single man, Jon Postel, oversaw the allocation of IP address ranges throughout the world, assuming the authority, rather than anyone specifically appointing him. (Benign dictators are often the most efficient rulers!)

Now that ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is up and running, and the UN is involved, internet governance continues to be debated and grow.

So back to blogging. Brandon from M80 (who specialise in “online grassroots marketing”, creating “brand loyalists that become micromarketing armies for your brands, products and services”, with “campaigns that from from organic to manic”) sent me an email out of the blue. Some of you may have got something similar if you carry film reviews on your blog.

I was just browsing the web and saw that you mentioned The Last King of Scotland in your blog and I was wondering if you would be willing to help and post some information about the film. We are work closely with FOX to help spread the word about the DVD release. If you are interested in posting any resources or writing a review of the film, please let me know. For your help or review, I would be happy to offer you a copy of The Last King of Scotland DVD.

Fair enough. A bit of harmless promotion for a DVD release, recreating the buzz that was there a few months ago when the film was released in UK cinemas? Sponsorship of posts? Or a bribe to get bloggers to promote something they didn’t normally want to talk about?

My take is that it’s somewhere between an attempt to sponsor posts and a bribe. But if bloggers were to take the bait but didn’t acknowledge that they were being externally prompted to post about the film, then that would be a (low level) deception of their readers. On the other hand, if bloggers don’t have a contract (actual, implied or moral) with their readers, does it matter?

Wondering what the commitment was, I emailed back asking ...

So what's the deal? What kind of a plug are you looking for? Something specifically mentioning the DVD release, as opposed to a film review?

And the reply from M80

Basically anything you feel comfortable relaying to your audience. Either a review, banner placement, or a post talking about the film (anything you want). Send me your address and I will send you a copy of the film. In the meantime please check out The Last King of Scotland resource page for additional information (see below).

I didn’t send my address. For as much as I’d love a free copy of The Last King of Scotland on DVD, I’d no intention of mentioning the film on this blog again (having reviewed the cinematic release before Christmas) ...

M80 obviously have a fair amount of success. Their webmaster assets website isn’t terribly well configured, so you can browse up and down the file structure and see the other films that have received their blogtastic attention, and there’s evidence of quite a good take up for their approach.

So Alan in Belfast remains sponsor-free. Go and see The Last King of Scotland at the cinema. In fact, if your circumstances allow, go and see nearly any good film at a local cinema.

Big screen, big sound, immersive experience. Enjoy the event. Don’t sit in front of the box in the corner of your living room, or your computer screen. See it the way the film producers intended. But marketeers: don’t stop sending me interesting emails and offers.

An ordination, a wedding, and breakfast with the Police Ombudsman!

Not quite three weddings and a funeral - more like three women and a busy weekend. The more unusual activities included attending an ordination, a wedding, finished off with breakfast with Nuala O'Loan (and about thirty other men).

The ordination was encouraging, seeing the calling of a woman with a passionate faith and a compelling personality recognised as she finishes her training and starts out working in a new parish. A reminder too that it takes more than just a minister/pastor/priest to create a congregation that is vibrant and makes a difference in its community.

The wedding was good too. Relaxed, fun, with a beautiful bride and a natty groom. Good food (a BBQ), interesting guests and short speeches. And enough of a breeze to blow the biodegradable confetti around the happy couple's faces for the photos.

Finally, Saturday morning started earlier than felt natural. A "mens breakfast". I'm not entirely sure why single sex organisations like this continue to exist.

Maybe its a throw-back to professional working environments in years gone by, which had mostly male groups working together, and then continuing to socialise together outside of work. And in response to the plethora of women's organisations, men fought back to have their own clubs?

But in today's world, I'm not as convinced it's necessary to divide genders. I'm sure we'd have learnt as much, maybe more, if there had women in the room asking questions too.

Nuala O'Loan is the Police Ombudsman, heading up the organisation for the last six and a half years, with her appointment coming to a close on 5 November this year. Having given up the early part of hew Saturday morning, and after a hearty breakfast of scrambled egg, bacon and sausages, she spoke very personally on the subject of her "faith journey", filling out some of the story of the woman behind the public persona.

She came across as someone very serious about her job, working incredibly hard in difficult circumstances. Someone who had made significant sacrifices (along with her family) to keep serving Northern Ireland in the way she's been called to do.

Someone whose faith was real, and whose faith positively impacted her work and her relationships. Someone too very proud of her staff, and the work they do, and very mindful of the citizens who come through the door of the Police Ombudsman's offices just across the road from St Anne's Cathedral looking for explanation, closure and justice.

Much of the media attention around her work is bound up in a series of major reports - the Omagh Investigation and more recently the McCord Report. Lots of mud slinging, political recriminations, personal attacks and sometimes less analysis of the report contents than of the messenger.

It certainly altered my perception of the Police Ombudsman's office, what they're about, and their way of working. After her opening remarks, Nuala answered questions for about half an hour, talking about everything from Ballymena ("it's got the best shopping centre") to the Chinese Walls that operate within families where details about work can't be discussed.

She also talked about how she dealt with the near-fatal attack on her son last year (and there have been other attacks on her family in the past more directly related to her job) and about her sadness (rather than relief) that her role as Ombudsman is coming to an end.

Having heard and seen Nuala O'Loan, I'd stick my neck out and say she's the right woman for the job. That's my Blink! reaction. And despite being kicked around like a football in the middle of a particularly rough match, if she wasn't unpopular with so many stakeholders, she wouldn't be doing her job thoroughly enough. (Though the stats on their website show a healthy regard by the public, but less so within the PSNI itself.)

A varied weekend with three very different women. Wonder how it'll compare to a coconut orchestra?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Could anyone actually use the wifi that’s now available on the Heathrow Express trains?

Fifteen minutes every fifteen minutes is my memory of the tag line for Heathrow Express.

Now my laptop takes about 3 minutes to boot (it’s never very stable when it comes out of hibernation) and takes another couple of minutes to find a wifi hot spot like, log into it, and then VPN through to work.

So for a journey time of 15 minutes (maximum 30 assuming you’ve just missed the previous train and spend 15 minutes waiting in the station) there’s not much time to get any work done.

Besides, with a Bite discount card you get 20% off at most of the food outlets in Paddington station, so the journey back can be spent consuming a Chicken Royale meal from Burger King!

And if you’ve a BAA Visa card, then your normal Heathrow Express ticket (cheapest bought through their website in twelves to pick up both the carnet and online discounts) allows you to sit in first class and stretch out with a table to eat your junk food and then dart out the door nearest the Terminal 1 escalators and lifts (for those nights you’re running late).

Could be quite some time before I take advantage of their wifi service!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Coconut Orchestra – world record attempt

Update - two posts with photos from the successful world record beating event now posted.

Last week it was a record breaking attempt for the number of simultaneous bouncing spacehoppers, ambitiously on top of London’s Millennium Bridge (which initially had wobbly problems).

This week sees an equally bizarre St George’s Day attempt to form the world’s largest coconut orchestra!

Sounds a bit Monty Python? Well, the current record stands at 1789 people, set in March 2006 outside the Shubert Theatre hosting Broadway’s Spamalot run. Now the London cast want to break that record as part of the Mayor of London’s St George’s Day celebrations.

So if you’re in central London on Monday evening (23rd), pop down to Trafalgar Square (Nelson’s Column and the National Portrait Gallery) and register between 5pm and 6.30pm, collect your free coconut shells, rehearse at 6.45pm, and then take part in the record attempt at 7pm.

Immediately after the record attempt, there will be an outdoor showing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail on the large screen that has been erected in Trafalgar Square. Hopefully the weather will hold up for them. It’s showing comedy all day ...

  • 12.30pm – Classic television comedy clips representing the best of English humour, selected by the BFI.
  • 1pm – Futtock’s End (1969), written by and starring Ronnie Barker.
  • 2pm – Historic silent films from BFI National Archive revealing London across the 20th century.
  • 5pm – More comedy clips from the BFI.
  • 6.45pm – Coconut Orchestra
  • 7.30pm – Monty Python and the Holy Grail (15 certificate will be enforced).

Coincidentally I’ll be in London on Monday night. Even more coincidentally, my hotel is less than a hundred yards from the record attempt, so I might even get to take part and take some snaps!

Photo below from the successful New York attempt last year.

Marathon viewing

As I mentioned a few weeks ago on the afternoon of the Boat Race, I’m not a big sporting fan. It’s the unusual, one-off events that grab my attention rather than the competitions with big build-ups and knock-out stages.

And so the video will be set tomorrow morning to preserve the five and a half hour epic that is the televised London Marathon. Pictures of wheelchairs going across the cobbles near Cutty Sark (even over a mat over the cobbles) inspire year after year.

The determination shown in professional athletes faces as they grit their teeth and keep fighting towards the finish line. The bravery if someone runs into the lead and has to circumnavigate the course with only a motorbike camera crew for company.

And the army of thousands of normal (?) people who are running for the satisfaction of finishing the 26 mile course, and many of whom will raise a lot of money for causes they care deeply about.

Maybe not the greatest show on earth, but certainly a show of human determination and a view of some of London’s most picturesque buildings and roads.

And it’ll not be too long before the Belfast Marathon on May Day—Monday 7th May.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Petrol @ £1 - same story, two years in a row

In a petrol station tonight, I noticed that the headline in the Final edition of tonight’s Belfast Telegraph proclaimed that this summer would see petrol prices rise to £1/litre.

Which reminded me that the Bellylaugh ran a similar headline last summer. It appeared in the early edition on the morning of 10 August, and boldly proclaimed that £1/litre petrol was about to hit the wallets of NI drivers. However, two things then happened. The news of the UK airport terror plot broke, pushing the petrol story off the front page in later editions, and the petrol price rises slowed and started to decline, never reaching £1 in a majority of petrol stations.

So they dusted off the headline and brought it back today!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

AiB - reflections, self-censorship and changes

Starting the AiB blog back in March 2006 was a bit of an experiment. It wasn’t that I had a particular voice that I wanted to be heard, a burning ambition to see people reading my scribblings.

“In a world where a blog is created every second does the world really need another blog? Well, it's got one.”

But knowing that I was helping to run a technology camp for a group of teenagers that summer, it seemed wise to experiment with the media and get some practical experience, rather than being a complete bluffer.

The experimental bit was to see how visits and page views would take off. I deliberately didn’t go around telling people that the blog existed. I registered it on a few local blog directories, and blog feed aggregators, and made sure that when I commented on other people’s blogs, my name would link back to the blog.

From fewer than 20 hits a day, traffic has steadily increased, with an acceleration in the first few months of 2007. People Google for the strangest topics, and some of the time they click on a like to AiB. Though last April, I remember posting a cautionary cartoon on the subject of stat checking.

CartoonSometimes you post early about a topic and the Google PageRank algorithm decides it likes your post and promotes it up the rankings. If you Google for David Ervine, AiB today still appears as the fifth item, pointing to a post I wrote at the time of his death, referring to Henry Sinnerton’s biography that had been posted a few year’s earlier. Yet, it’s hardly the most qualitative or quantitative analysis available.

Maybe the more you post, the luckier you get! If the Letter to America, Slugger O’Toole or even the BBC decide to link to you, traffic doubles for a day before subsiding to normal levels. And it’s fun to watch your Technorati ranking swing up and down on a daily basis. Breaking through to the top 100,000 remains elusive.

The remit of AiB hasn’t really changed from the first day ...

“An irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology, and the occasional rant about life.”

AiB is of course self-censoring.

I deliberately don’t refer to work or family. But rest assured, I really am called Alan, and I do live in Belfast! And it doesn’t take a forensic investigator to search through Google to work out a bit more about me.

Having not promoted the blog, it’s been fun to bump into friends and even colleagues who have been reading AiB, and slowly put two and two together and guessed that it’s me.

Anyway, this wasn’t meant to be a cathartic post. It’s an announcement of sorts.

From now on, there will be a few changes. I’ll be even busier, so not posting as much. And in particular, I’ll be extending the self-censorship to cover the BBC, and that’ll have a knock-on effect on some other media posting too (particularly comparisons).

The reason? Well I’m not changing jobs or anything too radical like that! But in the coming months I’ll have a much closer relationship with the Beeb locally, and I don’t feel it’s appropriate to make public postings at the same time as having private discussions. (Really just the same principle that means I don’t post about work-related stuff ... other than ranting about the inadequacy of the UK transport infrastructure!)

Self censorship = Better staying safe now than being sorry later.

BBC Shop half price closing down sale

If you want a bargain DVD or book, head down the BBC Shop in Arthur Street which is in the final stages of its closing sale. Most of the stock is half price (no refunds), and there are a lot of titles left.

Closure of most of the UK’s BBC Shops was originally announced as the end of March, but they are now trading until end-April.

Worth a browse some lunchtime.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

London Mayor - from one cheeky chappie to another

Tonight's Evening Standard proudly announces that Greg Dyke fancies running for London Mayor.

While I can see Dyke creaming off the populist vote, I'm less convinced he's demonstrated the necessary political gumption. Being DG at the Beeb must certainly qualify as a political atmosphere, but taking on London would be a bigger challenge. He's certainly not a traditional political heavyweight.

Not that AiB should be too concerned - unless he raises Tube fares specifically yo target Northern Ireland commuters!

It could be a headline writer's dream. If work needed done to improve London's flood defenses:

"Dyke replaces Thames Barrier"

But I'd best leave the creative copy writing to Wayne Ordinary American ...

Update: Turns out the Evening Standard had got a little ahead of itself!

Spacehoppers invade the Millennium Bridge - to set a record and test if it still wobbles

(c) Ananova 2007

It’s summed up nicely in Monday’s Guardian’s article. (Though I will try and source some good flickr photos to accompany the post!)

Six hundred people mounted on gold spacehoppers tested whether London’s Millennium Bridge still deserves its “Wobbly Bridge” nickname [on Sunday]. Organisers said they broke the world record - previously 551 - for the most simultaneously bouncing spacehoppers.

The stunt was organised by UKTV Gold to mark the channel’s new promotional clips featuring the sat-upon bouncing balls.

They bounced for 60 seconds, and a Guinness Book of Records adjudicator confirmed that they had beaten the previous record set in 2003 in Bath.

An event spokesman commented:

“The bridge was pretty bouncy under all those people ... I think we thoroughly tested it.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Public Art ... and Cathedral Spires

Public art is becoming a big thing in Belfast. October 2007 update: there's more public art on the way in Cornmarket (Author Square).

There’s so much of it about.

We could start with the John Kindness’ Big Fish in Donegal Quay: a 10m long, ceramic tile-covered salmon that landed in 1999.

It has its own flickr group and there’s a browsable 3D version online too!

Just downstream a little is the Ring of Thanksgiving (sometimes known locally as “the doll with the ball”) that stands at the city centre side of Queen’s Bridge, welcoming visitors into Belfast. Andy Scott’s 15m high statue sits at one end of Thanksgiving Square, which in a somewhat stereotypical Irish way isn’t square.

Inspired by Myrtle Smyth’s visit to the Thanksgiving World Assembly in Dallas, Mo Mowlam (then Secretary of State) announced Belfast’s Thanksgiving Square saying:

“Northern Ireland has known much pain and suffering. Now we are at the beginning of a new era of peace and prosperity. The creation of this place of thanksgiving is symbolic of a better tomorrow for us all.”

It’s a place where people “can spend time to contemplate and thank whoever for whatever—embracing the spiritual idea of thanksgiving.” And it’s a place with a photogenic yet overly tall basketball hoop.

Moving on down the river bank, there are Deborah Brown’s Sheep on the Road in front of the Waterfront.

No longer able to graze at Arts Council NI's HQ, they moved to the free range Lagan Side Waterfront patio.

Now the Broadway roundabout at the top of the M1 used to be the site of an ugly electricity pylon surrounded by overgrown trees and bushes.

But this piece of NIE art has been pulled down, and as I went past the Westlink roadworks recently, they looked to be working in the foundations and putting in the first support for Trillian, Ed Carpenter’s 45m tall wild flower (representing a post-Troubles city) which won a Belfast City Council-led commissioning competition. Ed’s website comments:

“Trillian rises over Broadway Roundabout, marking the southern entrance to Belfast, offering a symbol of transformation. Its gesture is bold and delicate, engineered and organic, familiar and extraordinary. The delicacy of nature and the strength of human resolve are suggested in graceful lines and robust steel. Trillian reaches upward toward the light.

Perched and leaning, it suggests life in the balance. This sense of precariousness is only symbolic, however, as myriad armored cables insure great structural integrity and redundancy. At night Trillian forms a luminous beacon in the sky, visible for miles. Rainy skies are penetrated by beams of light extending up into the mists, further heightening the presence of the sculpture.”

This short post is no longer short. But it was inspired by the news that Stan’s St Anne’s Cathedral is to finally get it’s spire. An elegant grey stone spire with gothic carving and gargoyles, stretching up into the clouds and towards heaven ...

Ahem, no. A 100m high stainless steel needle that will illuminated at night, and will have to be quickly pencilled in as a new aviation hazard for flight charts of Belfast!

William Crawley’s a fan, you can read his opinion over at Will and Testament. (Incidentally, he calls the Ring of Thanksgiving “Nuala with the Hula”.)

I think I’ll reserve judgement until I see it. The last pieces of the spire are en route from Switzerland, and arrived yesterday, and it should be erected in place by Monday 23rd. In the meantime, the cathedral’s Spireblog is worth a read.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut’s take on zoos

(c) Jurt Vonnegut

Combining two recent sets of posts, the death of the author Kurt Vonnegut and the ethics of zoos.

A drawing by Vonnegut, titled Trout’s Tomb.

- - -

On the same theme was Terence Blacker’s Zoos are the last place to keep wild animals column in Friday’s Independent.

Humanity's attitude to animals is becoming distinctly odd. The greater the anxiety for the planet, the more people seem to want to look to the natural world for a nobility and innocence which we have lost ...

“Zoos have an incredible power to inspire people,” David Field of the Zoological Society of London said at the recent launch of the £5.3m Gorilla Kingdom in Regent's Park ...

The idea that children are inspired by the sight of a captive animal seems highly dubious. To any sensible young spectator, a zoo would represent not nature or wildness but the capacity of man to control other living creatures.

Of course, money from zoos goes into conservation, and there are breeding programmes to help the survival of species in danger of extinction in the wild. But perhaps it is time to look at ways of fund-raising that do not require the suffering of animals, and of conservation that does not involve marketing rare species to gawping humans.

With all the new talk about respect for the planet, it might be an idea to start respecting the wildness of its animal inhabitants.

It’s making me think.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Happy Birthday: Leonhard Euler

Today is Leonard Euler’s 300th birthday. Or it would be, if he was still alive!

Born on 15 April 1707, Euler was a Swiss mathematician. He was prolific and made lots of contributions to geometry, trigonometry and calculus that abacus-wielding blog readers might be familiar with.

  • He invented the idea of using i to denote .
  • He popularised using π to denote the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.
  • He introduced e to represent the base of the natural logarithm, sometimes known as Euler’s number (or Napier’s constant).

But maybe he’s best remembered (by me at least) for Euler’s identity which is an incredible formula. It has a feeling of completeness: beautiful and perfectly formed.

Richard Feynman called it “the most remarkable formula in mathematics” for “its single uses of the notions of addition, multiplication, exponentiation, and equality, and the single uses of the important constants 0, 1, e, i, and π”.

It’s also the only piece of mathematics that I’ve had to prove from first principles since graduating from university. During an afternoon coffee break ten years or so ago, a summer student in work (who did engineering rather than applied maths), wondered how it could be proved. One paper napkin later, happy student. But my maths has faded, so don’t ask for a repeat performance.

In the days of yore, PCs in work had fixed IP addresses, and if you got in quickly enough, you could choose the hostname for the machine. (If you weren’t quick, someone in the central team looking after the PCs would have assigned it the next name off their list of epidemics, which included influenza, cholera, typhus, smallpox, but stopped short of necrotizing fasciitis.)

So in order to pay homage to my mathematics heritage, I named my first PC (a Zenith 50MHz Intel 486, pre-Pentium!) euler. We also had an einstein and a faraday on the floor. For the next ten years, I transferred the name euler to each new PC, until hostnames became a thing of the past.

But Leonard Euler … many happy returns. (And thanks to Paul Robinson over at the Novice Philosopher for the timely reminder.)