Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Belfast’s BBC Shop closing at end of March

Despite a recent facelift and the smell of fresh paint still wafting from its doors, the BBC Shop in Belfast’s Arthur Street will be closing at the end of March. Update: now closing end of April.

In total, seven shops run by BBC Worldwide are closing across the UK, with 23 redundancies. The shops were facing increasing competition from online and high-street retailers, and a projected loss of a quarter of a million pounds this financial year finally tipped the balance for the organisation whose
  • Profits more than doubled within two years and up 62% on last year to £89m
  • Sales up 11% to £784m
Time to call in and say thanks to the ever-friendly staff ... and pick up any bargains if they have a stock clearance sale.

Postal Ballots - complicated and not as popular as before

Having overcome the hurdles to submit a successful application ...

... it takes two envelopes, two stickers, a declaration of identity and finally a voting paper. The number of postal votes is down on 2005 General Election.

Pity that the postal ballots were sent out (and in my case, returned) before all the parties had sent around their election material.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Nothing in life is free any longer - not even 10 minutes parking up at Aldergrove

While you welcome Alan in Belfast to the real world, I’ll have a little rant in the background.

It used to be that you could loiter around the front of airport terminals to drop off and pick up passengers. Then there was a realisation that planes are sometimes late arriving, and a couple of delays really blocks up the front of an airport terminal. So wanting families were encouraged to avail of the free short term parking. And only a couple of years ago, the first half hour up at Aldergrove (Belfast International Airport) was still free.

When Q-Park took over the parking contract last year, they implemented a much stricter regime, presumably as part of their contract and at the insistence of TBI, the airport owners, who had real and valid concerns about health and safety. They still allow drop off, but won’t allow anyone to stay stopped longer than half a minute in front of the terminal. I might have mentioned before that even the car park buses (from McCauslands etc) have been moved away from the covered canopy, and drop passengers off in the rain in an area bereft of trolleys.

Back in June, the free parking was reduced to 10 minutes ... pretty much impossible to use. The roads in and out of the airport were getting clogged with loitering cars, ready to pounce on arriving passengers.

Eight months later, rather than going back to incentivising cars off the kerbs and into the car park by bringing back 30 minutes free parking, they’ve joined St Georges Belfast City Airport and will do away with free parking altogether from Thursday this week. Your first half hour in the short stay will cost £1.

Update: Tonight's Belfast Telegraph points out how some drivers cunningly avoided picking up charges ...

"... officials claim the system was being abused with some motorists leaving and re-entering the airport several times ..."

In a world where businesses are striving to create excellent customer experience (and as a result, rake in the dough to support the experience), airports seem to have been playing truant when that lesson was in the classroom. The end-to-end journey starts with getting left off at the airport (assuming you’re not going to get the bus or drive yourself) and finishes with getting picked up. Feels like the airports assume that the journey finishes when you collect your bags off the carousel.

Rant over for now.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Long time to carry a flame for Torchwood

It'll soon be sci-fi season again. Primeval started a couple of weeks ago on ITV. I haven't got around to watching any of the first few episodes. They're stacked up, gathering dust on the full-to-bulging Tivo. But many of the original reviews suggest it's closer to the team-based Torchwood rather than Doctor Who.

David Tennant's Doctor Who's is due back on the small screen sometime in March, just after Primeval ends.

But back to Torchwood.

According to Podshock episode #67, John Barrowman (Torchwood's Captain Jack)was interviewed a week or so ago on BBC Radio 2, and explained that there will be a twelve month gap between the end of series one (whose finale went out on New Year’s Day) and the next series - which will not now be broadcast until 2008.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

You’ll want to know the score in the big match ... you will, you will, you will

This was the weekend of that match.

No, not the rugby.

The five-a-side football match, captained by two former Irish Internationals, between Inis Mor vs Inis Oirr in order to settle the dispute over which island can claim to be Craggy Island for the next twelve months.

In a manner fitting of Father Ted, I can announce the results in reverse order.

Inis Oirr came second with no goals (who have the strongest claim to the title) and claim the booby prize of being associated with Rugged Island for the next year.

Leaving Inis Mor the winners with a magnificent tally of two goals and the slightly dingy Craggy Island Cup!

The victorious team were last seen heading for the parochial house for a nice cup of tea.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ryanair will be putting their money where their mouth was ... and giving away 1 million flights (excluding taxes and charges) on Monday

Earlier this week, Ryanair issued a press release:


Ryanair ... will give away 1,000,000 free* flights when Ireland beat England in the 6 Nations rugby clash in Croke Park this Saturday ...

“This is the first time that the English have been invited to Croke Park and we’ve no doubt that it will be an occasion to savour. To help the Irish team on to their 4th consecutive victory against England, we will give away 1,000,000 free* flights when they win. That way, the Irish fans can fly to England to boast about the win, while the English fans can avoid the television replays with free* escape flights!”

“The 1,000,000 victory seats will be made available from Monday morning, when we hope the whole of Ireland will have something to gloat about”.

*One way, excludes taxes and charges

So, the result ...

Ireland 43–15 England

No doubt it replaces an existing 1 million flights giveaway that was already planned into their promotional plan, but it’ll be good publicity. Oops. I’ve added to it!

Spuds … but no chips at the fayre

Today was day one of two at Crawfordsburn’s Potato Fayre.

The event’s a little smaller than the apple-ridden Autumn Festival back in October. It was overcast, but at least they got dry weather this afternoon, and people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

There were lots of different varieties of potato, available to buy whole and as seeds.


Rides in a horse-and-cart were available, a donkey could be fed with straw, along with a couple of stilt-walkers, one of whom juggled potatoes.

There was champ, potato salad with leek and bacon … but the only disappointment was the lack of chips.

Northern Ireland + Potato = Chips

But the only ones I could track down were part of an exhibit explaining what different varieties of spud were used for.

If you’ve an hour on your hands and are around North Down tomorrow, be a good spud and call in at Crawfordsburn.

And these of course are butternutsquash, not potatoes - but I liked the reflection of the daffodills on the apple logo!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

"Police officers were not specifically deployed to direct [Tuesday night's] traffic [in Belfast]"

(c) John BaucherOn Tuesday night, I was caught up in the traffic chaos as I was headed to St George's Belfast City Airport for an evening flight across to Heathrow.

Due to that afternoon's fatal accident on the M2, my normal 5 minute / 2 mile journey across East Belfast took over an hour and twenty minutes! And that was taking side streets to get down to Dee Street to cross over the drive back up the near-empty Holywood side of the Sydenham bypass. I reached the airport car park with 10 minutes to spare before check-in closed.

Tonight's Belfast Telegraph publishes the PSNI's responses to some questions posed by the Bellylaugh's reporter. One, in particular, stands out. It officially describes the hopelessness that was felt by many of the drivers stuck in the gridlocked traffic across Belfast and its suberbs.

Question: How many police officers were deployed to direct traffic?

Answer: "Police officers were not specifically deployed to direct traffic.

The situation was such that there was no feasible alternative route with the capacity to take the volume of traffic affected by this event."

No contingency exists to cope with closing such a strategic route out of the city in the build-up to rush hour. There is no alternative to turning the streets into a car park. Helpless. Hopeless.

The photo comes (c) John Baucher, the only decent picture of the traffic chaos that I can find. Check out his excellent Flickr stream and website - I love the photo of the swarming birds over the bridge just up the road from Central Station.

Auntie’s watching AiB!

The BBC has as many lunchtime surfers as any other organisation, and the odd person regularly reads AiB or links to a post via a related Google search.

But today I’ve been flooded with hits coming from the domain, all hitting the one page.

And on closer inspection, they haven’t been alone ... that one particular page has been getting more hits than normal from all domains.

A quick trawl through the Site Meter logs pointed me to the BBC Two homepage, which today includes a quote from Dave Gorman about the show he helped scriptwrite. Although the quote’s correctly attributed to him, the link is to my AiB posting about Kombat Opera Presents.

The first episode of the new comedy opera series goes out on BBC Two on Friday night. 10.50pm in Northern Ireland, 10pm in the rest of the UK.

(And it doesn’t beat Slugger O’Toole getting a name check in the House of Lords on Tuesday night!)

The Science of Sleep (La Science des rêves)

Pythonesque. Random. Surreal. Wonderful. Puzzling. Imaginative. Dreamy.

In Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, Gael García Bernal plays Stéphane Miroux, a young man who has trouble distinguishing between reality and dreams. His life and job is so grey and boring when compared to his imagination.

Stéphane has returned to France from Mexico, and his mother has arranged for him to take a job in a small calendar-making firm. But he is disappointed when he isn’t allowed to have any part in the creative side of the process. His “Disastrology” portfolio of twelve images of well-known crashes and catastrophes is not well-received, and he’s reduced to typesetting.

In his dreams, Stéphane presents a TV show, exploring a fantasy world with his guests—family, friends, colleagues. Oversized hands, jumping out of windows, toys coming to life, a one second time machine.

He slowly falls for Stéphanie who’s just moved into the flat next door. Her name is no accident ... she’s somewhat of a kindred spirit, but a little more rooted in reality. Together they embark on arts and crafts projects in her flat. But Stéphane’s dreams start to invade his day time “normality”.

The film is strangle bilingual, flicking between English and French (Stéphane’s a bit shy about speaking French all the time in France) with the snatches of Spanish and the odd pun embedded in the subtitles for good measure.

There is lots of humour, verbal and visual, scattered throughout the film. I love the moment in which he wakes up with his feet in the freezer, and the cardboard car chase (vehicles made of corrugated cardboard and toilet roll tubes) was a favourite moment.

“The brain is the most complex thing in the world ... and it’s behind the nose!”

Some of the dream sequences are superb, and the model making and stop-go animation must have taken months of labour. Other than the one obvious use of the “blue-screen” chroma key effect, all the other interaction of actors in animated landscapes were filmed by placing the actors in front of a large screen showing the pre-recorded backdrop animation. So the actors were able to engage with what they saw, and didn’t have to imagine anything.

A weird film - don’t expect it to change your life or your outlook. But it’s still an enjoyable insight into the magical world of Stéphane. It’s in the QFT until Thursday 1st March if you want to catch it locally.

To finish ... I’m a bit confused why Philip French’s mini review in the Guardian refers to the two main characters as Gabriel and Gabrielle (instead of Stéphane and Stéphanie … maybe his scribbled in a darkened cinema theatre let him down?

West Coast Shenanigans over Craggy Island

Only in Ireland!

It’s a story that nearly made it into a pervious AiB post, only that I never quite got around to writing it.

Given that Father Ted wasn’t filmed in County Galway, it seems ludicrous that any of the Aran Islands would seek to identify themselves with the fictional Craggy Island. But nevertheless there’s been a standoff between Inis Mor (hosting the Friends of Ted event this weekend) and neighbouring Inis Oirr as to which can rightly claim to be Craggy Island.

(Inis Oirr have a reasonable claim given that they appear in the opening title sequence of the series.)

Both islands have a lot to gain from the association with the Channel 4 TV series featuring three eccentric, lovable priests. There’s the tourist euros to be gained from visitors to Ireland’s west coast, along with the opportunity to heckle the other island which will have to assume the mantle of Rugged Island, home to Father Dick Byrne. Father Ted neatly summed up his opposite number: “As priests go ... he’s a really bad priest”.

“And it came to pass that the four Friends travelled hither and fro in their search for Craggy Island. But when their eyes did light upon the rocky shores of Inis Mor, they knew that their search was at an end. And it was there that Father Delaney proclaimed that the last weekend of February would forever be called Friends of Ted. And the friends saw that it was good.”

It’ll be like a Star Trek convention, only smaller. The festival website notes that:

“due to the size of the island and its venues, tickets are strictly limited to 100 for the weekend.”

But what’ll they get up to?

“For the pilgrims there will be celebration and there will be drink (and tea). As Brethren we will break bread (and cake) together, play Ludo and Buckaroo; quiz each other, steal whistles and write Inis Mor's Song for Europe. We will consume Toilet Duck, laugh, cry and play five-a-side football. And when it is over we will return to our parishes somewhat lighter of pocket, but all the wealthier in heart.”

Not to forget the most important part of the weekend. Inis Mor and Inis Oirr need to decide which can best represent Craggy Island. In a typically random way, the matter will be decided by a five-a-side football match between the two islands that echoes the All-Priests Five-a-Side Over-75s Indoor Challenge Football Match from one of the show’s episodes. Kick off at 3pm on Sunday 25 February.

Paddy Power Bookmakers are even taking bets on the outcome of the match. Where there’s money to be thrown away, you’ll always find a willing bookmaker. Maybe Eastwoods' will join in too!

The odds may soon change with the news that two of Ireland’s World Cup stars (John Aldridge and Tony Cascarino, last played internationally in the 1990s, but don’t expect AiB to win Best Sports Blog at the Irish Blog Awards any year soon!) have signed up for the weekend and will be playing in the match.

“Friends of Ted is a not-for-profit body established to organise an annual celebration of the TV series, on the weekend closest to the anniversary of Dermot Morgan's passing. As well as allowing followers to play hide and seek, the event aims to raise money for good and appropriate causes, while demonstrating that there is no finer place in all the world to be at the end of February than off the west coast of Ireland.”

Lunacy. But harmless and fun!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

10,000 Volts at the policing conference!

While looking up the URL for the policing conference for the last post, my eye caught an item in the latest news section of the conference website ...

“We will be using the latest in interactive technology, ‘10,000 volts’, to give you a say at the outset of the Conference about the issues that you would like to see discussed during the event.”

10,000 volts?

The longer the Tazer stun you can take before falling over, the longer you’re allowed to speak from the platform?

Voting buttons under the seats, but if you choose the wrong answer ... bzzzzzz. (Sounds more like Doctor Who, The Long Game!)

“This exciting new technology will set Policing the Future apart from the many other conferences you are invited to, by ensuring that you get the full benefit of discussions in all seminar sessions, not just those you attended, by capturing the discussions and feeding them back into the plenary session.”

So a quick Google turned up the School of Psychology (not Physics!) website of the University of Liverpool, and its Centre for Critical Incident Research (CCIR).

It boils down to an electronic, collaborative, debriefing tool (surprised it hasn’t been tagged as the Policing 2.0 conference), with laptop computers centred on tables arranged in a semi-circle.

“Through collaborative software these computers are networked together, thus resulting in the input information of one computer being shared with every other networked end-user. The debriefing process is ... an electronic focus group, where each delegate is able to type his or her thoughts and experiences into a computer, while simultaneously sharing these same thoughts and experiences with all the other delegates present. In this way, the delegates are able to respond to what their colleagues are thinking, and ideas are constantly being generated and discussed. As the facilitator offers no structure to the debriefing by indicating what should, or should not, be recorded, the outcome is thus an emergence of the delegates’ stream of consciousness (Crego & Alison, 2004).”

So they type but don’t talk. But sitting in the one room. Couldn’t they do this bit from their hotel bedrooms while getting dressed in the morning?

“There is no record of which delegate used a specific computer ... This anonymity removes any existing hierarchies ... and facilitates the discussion of sensitive topics (Clapper & Massey, 1996). The result, therefore, is “a non-inhibiting, synergistic environment in which group members are comfortable sharing ideas” (Clapper & Massey, 1996, p. 44). It is also useful in the sense that individuals are more likely to participate and share their views than they would in face-to-face interactions. Indeed, the level of interaction appears to be fairly equal, thus those who are less talkative in the group are provided with an opportunity to be heard (Easton, Easton & Belch, 2002). Finally, Crego and Alison (2004) hypothesise that 10 KV is both empowering, and has the potential to facilitate a “cathartic release” (Crego & Alison, 2004, p. 224) for the delegates, as it provides a channel through which they can freely and anonymously express their feelings.”

The rain came down, and the floods came up … but were cleared overnight

Regular visitors to AiB will know that I’ve an unhealthy fascination with a stretch of road around the back of the Waterfront Hall. The road’s officially called Mays Meadow. And it was most likely a very damp meadow, given the proximity of the River Lagan and the fact that the road still floods every couple of months when the nearby water pumping station gets overloaded and gives up.

Last night, they closed the road under the bridge due to severe flooding. Normally it takes a day or two to get the water service (or their contractor) out to pump away the excess surface water and someone to fix the pumping station.

But this time it magically disappeared overnight. That’s never happened before.

But then there’s not normally an international police conference called Policing the Future being held in the Waterfront Hall, some of whose delegates may still be a little nervous about coming to Northern Ireland and desire a couple of escape routes back to the nearest airport!

Potato Fayre at Crawfordsburn Country Park

Back in the middle of October I posted about an apply-flavoured afternoon down at Crawfordsburn Country Park. There was apple tasting, free fresh crushed apple juice, and a selection of animals that eat apples. All organised by the Environment & Heritage Service.

Well, this weekend, between 11am and 4pm on Saturday 24 and Sunday 25th February, the EHS is back in Crawfordsburn Country Park with a Potato Fayre.

Since there wasn’t any cider on show last time, there’s unlikely to be vodka tasting this time! But then, admission is free.

Why not go along and taste spuds in different dishes, find out how to grow them, and eat chips from a van parked around the back of the café. (I made that last bit up!)

Mona Lisa’s smile = demand for staff bonus?

Is it my imagination or is it the time of year for industrial action. Given the temperature outside, it seems foolhardy to consider anything that would involve standing in the cold holding placards.

In the last few weeks we’ve had announcements from British Airways, BBC, nurses, blood transfusion workers, the Civil Service and Aer Lingus.

But French workers have that je ne sais quoi when it comes to protesting. But the reasons behind the strike action by some of the Louvre’s staff may still be quite surprising. According to a BBC news article, attendants are “demanding a bonus for the stress of looking after the Mona Lisa and other popular masterpieces”.

They’re finding thay have less and less time to talk about the famous paintings, and spend their time maintaining the museum’s no-photo policy and keeping the crowds moving past the artworks.

A Louvre attendant who did not want to be named commented (most likely in a French accent):

“The stress is clearly linked to the number of visitors ... what’s unbearable is the constant hubbub of the crowd, especially in the really popular rooms like the one with the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo ... On Sundays, when the museum is free, it is even worse. There can be 65,000 visitors on one day. It’s unbearable and even sometimes dangerous.”

If this kind of action spread to Northern Ireland ...

  • bus and train drivers will be demanding bonuses to help them cope with the steady rise of passenger numbers on Translink’s services;
  • the new red-coated Traffic Attendants will be wanting compensation for the writers cramp they must suffer now that they are free to give out all those extra tickets to the cars abandoned on our streets.

Suggestions of other poor downtrodden bonus-deserving professions welcomed via the comments link below!

Monday, February 19, 2007

easyJet are not having a good day

The orange coloured airline we love to hate haven’t had a good day.

The early morning (and with a scheduled take off time of 06:15, I really mean early morning) easyJet flight from Belfast International to London Stansted eventually took off four hours late.

Although they had the decency to hand out £3 meal vouchers two hours into the delay, they wouldn’t allow passengers to transfer onto any of their other London-bound services.

And a series of other flights have been late or cancelled throughout the day.

The airlines operating our of St George’s Belfast City Airport have fared better.

Mini adventure … and I only wanted to change the wipers

You’d think that changing your wiper blades would be a trivial exercise. No.

15 or so years ago I heard a story that suggesting that Ford Sierra’s were built to last for no longer than ten years. Although the technology was available to manufacture quality parts and put together a car that would last for twenty or thirty years, it wasn’t in the car industry’s interests to slow down the buying cycle.

I wonder if BMW have taken this approach with the new Minis? Mine passed it’s third birthday in January, and immediately all the windscreen wipers broke. Now the frost has something to do with it, but within days of the inclusive three year warranty expiring, the plastic on the wiper blades tore leaving big sections of the front and back windows untouched. (The service warranty may not even have covered wipers anyway, probably classing them as consumables.)

So on a Saturday afternoon, I called in at Halfords to buy some new blades. For £3 extra, they’ll even fit them. £3 to save getting your hands dirty? What has the world come to!

But the fellow in Halfords wouldn’t sell me them for the Mini. Oh, they’re listed, but too fiddly to get on yourself. We won’t even do it. Nip up to Bavarian and get the real thing. Note to Halfords – consider incentivising your sales staff, or at least sending them on a sales course.

Half a mile up the road, and the Mini showroom and main Bavarian garage was closed. Saturday afternoon of course. No one would be free and want to buy something.

Went back round on the Monday afternoon. The Mini showroom is surrounded by colourful Minis. It has a big sign beside the door saying “Mini Parts & Accessories”. But inside, can they sell you a wiper? No. There are some on display (apparently justifying the “parts and accessories” sign) but you have to go up the road to the main Bavarian garage to purchase them!As I left, it was tempting to lift (no make that, steal) some off one of the mass of colourful Minis that surround the little showroom.

Up to Bavarian. The Customer Service desk could arrange for them to be fitted, though the guy was too embarrassed to quote the full price. But you need to talk to the parts department if you want to buy them and DIY.

Twenty five pounds and three plastic0bagged wiper blades later. At least it was no dearer than Halfords.

Fiddly little devils. Finally gave up trying and consulted the car’s instruction manual. The front ones were easy enough. But the back one doesn’t get any easier when you follow the instructions. “Pull back to the stop.” What stop. Should read “use brute force to pull old wiper off”. Finally got them changed, though a plastic tab went flying off in the process. But it doesn’t look like the wiper will fall off anytime soon.

So thank you Halfords. You were right. They’re awkward to fit.

And thank you Bavarian. You were as efficient as usual. (My measure of efficiency is the Customer Service call that they make every 6 months or so. “Are you happy with your Mini”. “Yes, except that the boot doesn’t always close properly, and although you changed the catch within the first year, it’s really no better.” “Oh, I’ll get someone in the service department to phone you back.” And no one phones back. Twice they’ve taken my story. I can’t be bothered to chase it. And neither can they.)

And the biggest, most genuine, thank you to Cornell Finch for the accompanying picture that’s released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Amazing Grace

Across the country, lots of churches made sure that Amazing Grace was included on the hymn board.

Today was labelled as Amazing Grace Sunday, marking two hundred years since William Wilberforce and his friends “took on the most powerful forces of their day to end the slave trade. His mentor was John Newton, the slave-trader-turned-song-writer, who wrote the world’s most popular hymn, Amazing Grace.”

Although two centuries have passed since the abolition of the slave trade, today there are still 27 million men, women, and children enslaved around the globe. The need for justice and mercy continues.

Entire families work long days in rice-mills, brick kilns or on plantations. Children are abducted and forced to fight rebel armies. These people are all slaves: they cannot come and go as they please and are some are beaten or threatened with violence. They have no autonomy in their day-to-day lives and deserve the right to be free

Also watch out for the film Amazing Grace that releases in the UK on 23 March.

John Newton (played by Albert Finney in the film) wrote the words to the hymn to accompany a New Year’s Day church service in 1773. He was the captain of a British slave ship for many years until he underwent a dramatic religious conversion while steering his vessel through a storm.

Repenting and regretting the misery he had inflicted on the thousands of human cargo he had transported for many years, he devoted his life to God. Keeping his feet on dry land, he become an Anglican (CofE) rector of St. Mary Woolchurch, in London, were he drew large congregations and influenced many, among them William Wilberforce.

Newton died in London in December 1807.

(Adapted from

Irish Blog Awards ... we were robbed!

As expected, no sign of Alan in Belfast amongst tonight’s announcement of the short-listed candidates for the Best Arts and Culture and Best Newcomer categories in the 2007 Irish Blog Awards. You need come serious electioneering to get enough votes cast to make it to the final five!

A big thank you to everyone who voted for AiB, and for everyone who has stopped by to catch up with what’s going on. Please keep coming back if you like what you read.

Better news for Jett Loe over at Letter to America who is still in the running for Best Arts and Culture Blog, Best Podcaster and last year’s Irish Blog Awards LTA podcast is up for Best Podcast. Though can he beat of the stiff competition from Old Bones?

Good to see Red Mum shortlisted in Best Personal Blog and Slugger O’Toole will be slugging it out to the bitter end with rivals in the Best Political Blog category.

It looks like there will be quite a battle between Arse End of Ireland, Blogorrah and Twenty Major - all up against each other in multiple categories.

A panel will now decide the final winners of each category.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Robert Adler created the TV Remote Control

Robert Adler created the first wireless TV remote control in 1955. Rather than relying on a wire stretching back from the remote to the TV, Adler and his colleague Eugene Polley built a wireless remote (the Flashmatic) that flashed visible light at photo cell mounted on the front of the TV.

His next enhancement was a battery-less version that used high frequency ultrasound. The buttons struck one of four lightweight aluminium rods inside the remote (much like a piano’s keys hit the strings). A receiver inside the interpreted these high-frequency tones and switched channel, etc.

By the 1960s, Adler had moved to electronically-generated ultrasonic signals.

It was only in the 1980s that TV remotes moved away from ultrasound and over to Infrared light control.

Why am I telling you this?

Well the IEEE Edison Medal holder (1980) and Emmy award winner (1997) died this week on Thursday 15 February. Aged 94, he had filed his latest patent for touch-screen technology only two weeks ago on 1 Feb.
His wife, Ingrid, said Adler wouldn't have chosen the remote control as his favourite invention. In fact, he didn't even watch much television.

“He was more of a reader,” she said. “He was a man who would dream in the night and wake up and say, ‘I just solved a problem.’ He was always thinking science.”

Adler wished he had been recognized for more of his broad-ranging applications that were useful in the war and in space and were building blocks of other technology, she said, “but then the remote control changed the life of every man.”

The IEEE’s 1980 biography of Adler finishes with the remark:
“One incident is characteristic. When sent to Moscow as a member of the IEEE delegation to the Popov Society Meeting in 1969, he learned Russian so that, as a goodwill gesture to his hosts, he could present his paper in their language.”

Stormont closed for business ... well, the play park anyway

An early morning visit to the play park in Stormont Estate ended in disappointment.

A small sign pinned up to the fence at the far end of the car park explained:

Try explaining that to a two year old who needs to get back into the car and go over to muddy Cairnburn instead! Hope they sort out whatever's wrong and get it open again soon.

Friday, February 16, 2007

What would you bet on Bob McCartney winning more than one seat? Read on for the official odds!

Confession time. I’ve never been through the door of a bookmakers, though I have peered through the windows (now that you can see in). I don’t particularly like what gambling does to some people, though I admit it doesn’t destroy everyone who has a flutter. But if this post is your first step on a slippery slope to ruin (or fortune), don’t come blaming me when you turn into John McCririck!

Eastwood bookmakers are offering odds on various outcomes of the March 7 elections. As a public service, and to satisfy my curiosity, I emailed through to ask if they had odds on Bob McCartney winning more than one seat?

After all it’s an outcome that deserves some speculation. It’s probably more fascinating than the last couple of series of Big Brother! And it gives us all something to do while waiting for the final shortlists for the Irish Blog Awards.

And after some stabbing at a calculator and chewing a pencil, thanks to Adrian Eastwood we have the odds! I guess that they’ll appear on Eastwood’s NI Assembly Election webpage over the next day or two and be available over the counter too. (But remember, much like the price of petrol at Tesco, they’ll continue to go up and down over the coming weeks.)

Bob McCartney updated

  • To win no seats - 5/4 Evens
  • To win at least 1 seat - 1/2 4/6
  • To win at least 2 seats - 9/2 5/1
  • To win at least 3 seats - 20/1
  • To win at least 4 seats - 100/1

Now bookmakers are really smart when it comes to setting odds. They don’t have a ready-made roulette wheel or one armed bandit that guarantees to favour the house and rake in the cash. So they have to take into account both their best guess of what the outcome will be, balanced with their best guess of their customers’ perceptions of the outcome.

But Peter Hain, the Chief Electoral Officer and the next Speaker of the NI Assembly can sleep easy and not get too worried about the ramifications of McCartney winning more than one seat, because Eastwood’s don’t reckon it’ll happen!

There was another interesting set of odds on Eastwood’s email.

Will the Northern Ireland Assembly be restored on March 26th ?

  • YES - 3/5
  • NO - 6/5

Win only

A good reminder, that in NI politics, the endgame isn’t ever quite how you’d imagine.

Pithy sayings to light your path to democracy

On the way across from Castle Court to the Belfast Electoral Office to fill out a last minute absent postal voting form, I walked through a paved courtyard in front of Stan’s Cathedral.
Suddenly I noticed that there was writing on some of the paving stones I was treading on.

According to the notice, I was walking through Writers’ Square, which ...

“... pays homage to Belfast’s rich literary tradition, with quotations about Belfast by famous local writers carved into the stone underfoot.”

And so I read what Robert Lloyd Praeger had to say back at the turn of the 20th century ...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Only a couple of hours left to apply for a postal vote ...

It’s the (seemingly annual) pilgrimage to the Electoral Office in William Street, just around the corner from Stan’s Cathedral to fill out a yellow absent postal voting form.

Today (Thursday) is the last day to hand completed forms back in.

If you’re going to rush out and fill one in, bring a friend with you to the electoral office who can sign the back of it. It makes the whole experience faster. And make sure that they haven’t signed any other postal forms ... there’s a limit of one each.

While many people still live and work with a fair degree of predictability, some of us don’t know where we’ll be from one day to the next. Across Northern Ireland, thousands of people catch red eye flights to the UK mainland and beyond each morning, to spend a day, a few days, or longer working away from home.

Yet, in my case anyway, these are often scheduled only a day or two in advance. Certainly not four weeks in advance! On March 7 I should be in London, maybe even as far away as India, or I could be back in the office if any of the potential meetings are cancelled.

So the need to categorically state where you’ll be, and when you’ll be leaving the country and returning (with times if it’s on the day of the election) is practically impossible. If you’re not on the first flight out, then your postal vote application will be rejected since you could vote before going to the airport. And if you land more than an hour before polling closes, you’d be expected to go and vote in person.

While the strict NI voting rules are there to protect democracy, they don’t really encourage voting. Is the system not actually making more and more of us bend and abuse the rules in order to exercise our right to vote wherever we end up in the global village?

Don’t modern times require modern rules to reflect modern (mad) living?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

How to find a quiet restaurant in Belfast?

Book a table for February 13th. In fact, don’t bother booking. They’ll be empty if our experience was anything to go by. Only two tables served all night. Yet they’re all booked solid the following evening for Valentine’s Day.

But that didn’t hamper the quality of the food. So if you fancy an Indian meal in Belfast, check out the Zafron at 241 Lisburn Road. (It’s half way between Tate’s Avenue and Tesco.) Being a fan of mild and non-spicy, I can recommend their chicken korma! And the peshwari naan was excellent.

The decor doesn’t shout opulent, no hanging drapes or thick carpet pile, but it’s functional, relaxed and the grub’s good.

Kombat Opera Presents … The Applicants (based on The Apprentice)

Update: Big hello if you've arrived via the BBC Two website!

They kindly put a link to this posting from various pages on the BBC Two site, based on the quote from Dave Gorman. To clear up any confusion, I'm Alan, not Dave. He's funny, I'm not. He helped to scriptwrite Kombat Opera. I just write this blog.

You'll want to know that the first episode of Kombat Opera goes out on BBC Two on Sunday night. 10.50pm in Northern Ireland, 10pm in the rest of the UK.

And while you're here, why not check out the rest of the blog ... there are film reviews and all sorts of stuff to keep you occupied for five minutes!

The other Opera!

Back in January I posted about a new series of television programme-based operas that are were being filmed for output on BBC2.

In addition to Question Time, they’ll be operafying Wife Swap, The Apprentice, Panorama and South Bank Show ...

... five performances featuring a non-singing central comedy character, backed up by recognisable West End actors and professional opera singers up in the north west of England, at locations around Manchester and Blackburn, backed by the 45-strong BBC Concert Orchestra.

Since then, news on the show had gone quiet. But this afternoon I got an emailshot from Dave Gorman outlining his latest shows and plans, and near the end he throws that he ...

“... script-edited a 5 part series of operas called ‘Kombat Opera Presents ...’

I attended a screening of a couple of episodes last week and they went down a storm—they’re very funny, a bit rude, often quite silly, and very, very different. All in all I’m hugely impressed by the way they’ve pulled them together and I think the series is pretty darned exciting. I hope you'll enjoy them too.”

The first episode will be Kombat Opera Presents – The Applicants. The BBC Press Office’s briefing material explains:

“Sir Alan Prentice (John Thomson) is an entrepreneur, straight-talking businessman and the hire and firer in reality TV business show The Applicants.

The episode sees the contestants pitted against each other to become their mentor’s favourite and claim a position on his board. Their task is set by the short-tempered Knight and, as the axe hangs over one of the contestant’s heads, the infamous line, “you're fired” is heard, and another contestant is lost in a spectacular, bloody fashion.”

Dave Gorman reckons that the series starts on Sunday 25 February at 10pm, though the official BBC2 schedule isn’t public yet. Sounds interesting.

East Belfast - runners and riders

While AiB makes the (ahem) occasional posting about politics, I deliberately steer well clear of making political comment. It’s not where I want to go, and there are plenty of other blogs if you want any particular partisan viewpoint.

But living in East Belfast, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to comment on the consistency of local Assembly representation over the last eight years. I'll get this over with in one big long post, and then we can go back to films, books and the media for a while!

(Since this was written, but before I managed to publish it, I’ve been beaten to the post by Sammy Morse’s excellent analysis of the same area. Check out his wisdom: he's professional in his analysis; I'm fairly amateur. There’s also good information about the previous local elections over at the Ark, the NI Social and Political Archive.)

Of the six candidates elected to represent East Belfast in the original 1998 Assembly elections, only two MLAs will be contesting the constituency in March 2007!

Reg Empey (UUP) and Peter Robinson (DUP) are looking to make it three election wins in a row.

But what of the other four?

John Alderdice (AP) retired from Northern Ireland politics in 2004, and continues to sit in the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat. His seat is now occupied by Naomi Long who is standing for re-election, and got her posters up first!

Ian Adamson (UUP) still represents the East Belfast Victoria ward in Belfast City Council but didn’t make it onto the ticket for the 2003 election. His place went to Michael Copeland who won in 2003 and is standing again. Jim Rodgers who narrowly missed winning the sixth seat in 2003, is also contesting again for the UUP this year.

David Ervine (PUP) died suddenly in December 2006, having won a seat in 1998 and 2003. Dawn Purvis is running for the PUP this year, though it’s not her first Assmebly election. Back in 1998, when the ballot paper must have looked like a Tesco receipt, she was the second PUP candidate.

Sammy Wilson (DUP) won an East Belfast seat in 1998, but disappeared off to East Antrim in a successful bid by the DUP to capture three of its six seats in the 2003 election. Robin Newton took his place, winning a seat in the 2003 election and is standing again.

And in case it all gets too wordy, I tried to tell the story pictorially … umm.

Five of the 2003 winners are running again. Keeping up so far?

But amongst the other unsuccessful candidates from 2003, some are returning to try again, and others have been swapped out.

Marks for consistency awarded to:

  • The Workers Party’s Joseph Bell is running again, as is socialist Thomas Black.
  • And zany Rainbow George will appear on the ballot again, this time under the banner of Making Politicians History. (Remember the unsuccessful postcard campaign?)

Swap Shop badges pinned to:

  • The SDLP are running with Mary Muldoon instead of Leo Van Es.
  • And Sinn Fein’s Joseph O'Donnell has been replaced on the ballot with Niall Ó'Donnghaile.
  • The DUP have swapped out the unsuccessful Harry Toan for Wallace Browne.
  • The local Conservatives will be represented by Glyn Chambers rather than Terry Dick.

Each time we have an Assembly election, the parties get smarter (never thought I'd say that!) and the number of candidates gets smaller.

Prediction time ...

  • My local predictions would be that four of the sitting candidates who are running for re-election will be returned without too much bother: Naomi Long (AP), Reg Empey (UUP), Peter Robinson (DUP) and Robin Newton (DUP).
  • The fifth and sixth seats will be a battle between Michael Copeland (UUP), Jim Rodgers (UUP), Wallace Browne (DUP) and Dawn Purvis (PUP). While David Ervine (PUP) had a lot of first preference votes, they may not transfer in sufficient quantity to assure the party’s new candidate of a seat. While I wonder whether or not a shrinking UUP vote will be split across Copeland and Rodgers, with neither of them pulling through, if I had to make a bet, I’d say that Michael Copeland and Dawn Purvis will get the last two seats.
Which in gender terms would mean that East Belfast would have gone from all male (1998) to one woman (2003) to two women (2007). If it continued at this pace, by the next election, the local MLAs would actually reflect the gender balance of the electorate!
  • I’d also foresee that the Alliance vote will decrease (though not enough for Naomi Long to lose her seat), while the combined SDLP and Sinn Fein first preference votes will increase, but not enough to challenge for a seat this year.

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

Bob McCartney cloned … and Brian Wilson starts an online video campaign!

While election fever may be growing, AiB still isn’t planning to be dominated by psephology. But it’s hard to avoid just now.

Let’s face it, how many national elections feature the same candidate in six different constituencies?

(c) BBC

Drum roll please for Bob McCartney, who is either desperate to retain his seat in the assembly or couldn’t find enough other UKUP candidates to spread across the 13 constituencies that they’re targeting.

You’ll see his name on the ballot in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Foyle, Lagan Valley, North Belfast, North Down, South Antrim, West Tyrone.

What happens if he wins two or more seats? Double-length speeches!

And just whose vote is he trying to damage in these constituencies? For sure he's offering an anti-agreement candidate on the ballots. But his reward won't be in terms of actual seats. More likely, it's just to give him column inches and a thin but wide "mandate across Northern Ireland" to continue to oppose Good Friday and St Andrews.

Time will tell. But only in Northern Ireland! (Update: Just noticed that Rainbow George is somewhat incongruously standing in all four Belfast constituencies for Making Politicians History. Remember the unsuccessful MPH postcard campaign? And Mark Devenport has an opinion piece about the implications.)

I’ve been banging on about candidates and politicians engaging with the public. Hillary Clinton was an easy example of someone trying to Let the Conversation Begin™.

But what about our next bout of local elections in Northern Ireland?

Will the major parties continue sticking posters to lamp posts with cable ties, dropping leaflets through our letterboxes, and bickering publicly on local radio and television? Or will they start to dip their toes in the online world?

Well, hats off to Brian Wilson who is standing for the Green Party in North Down. (Another rival to one of the many Bob McCartneys and also to newcomer Brian Rowan who we talked about before.)

Embedded video removed ... but you can still view it at YouTube. (It was messing up Blogger's formatting.)

He went all the way up to the Giant’s Causeway (slightly north of his constituency boundary) to film the intro for his four minute campaign video, hosted on YouTube.

Brian wins first prize in the race for the Web 2.0 vote. Unfortunately, like much of Web 2.0, the prize is over-hyped and may well under-deliver!

Feels good to be linking back to Slugger O’Toole for once - instead of all the traffic coming my way!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ballyhackamore shops still under threat

Remember the story from late December about the sale of property in Ballyhackamore, currently leased to seven shops?

The current tenants had offered the £1.4 million asking price. But it looked likely that the buildings would be snapped up by property developers with deeper pockets who could offer a significantly higher sum to secure the property to build apartments. This would have left the shopkeepers a maximum of one or two years left on their commercial leases.

(c) BBC

After a protest on the Upper Newtownards Road and some media attention a spokesman for Lord Eames (whose family own the buildings and have put them up for sale) said that the property would be taken off the open market.

(c) 2006 Belfast Telegraph

Discussions between the family and the current tenants were to take place in January. But it’s all gone quiet.

Talking to one of the affected shopkeeper last weekend, it seems that the talks haven’t happened yet. He still feared that the most likely outcome is that a property developer will get hold of the property, and that their leases will only be renewed for as long as it takes the new owner to get planning permission.

Why not visit John Self over in the Asylum

John Self is a frequent commenter on this blog. He reads a lot, and sounds like he has even more unread books that me! But he also writes very good reviews of books and films, which he’s been posting over at Palimpsest forums for several years. (A lot better than you’ll ever find here in AiB!)

So check out his new blog at the Asylum -

Browsing through a couple of the comments already posted on the blog, one answer resonated with me. In a reply to a question asking where he finds the time to read so much, John explains:

"I also discovered, through comparison with others, that I read quite quickly on a page-by-page basis, though I didn’t think I did. There is finally an unattractive element of mania in my reading: often I find myself reading as much for completion as for the pleasure of what’s in front of me. In fact I would rather like to slow it down a little, wallow more, but it’s a struggle against habit."

That feeling of having started a book, and being unable to abandon it, even though it’s dragging is one I often experience. There were maybe only two books last year that I didn’t persevere with, but I reckon the number of abandonments should really be higher.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Did the Bafta awards go to deserving films?

So how did last night’s Bafta awards tie in to Alan in Belfast’s favourite films of 2006 and the handful viewed already this year.

Of my top three films of 2006, two picked up multiple awards.

  • Children of Men well deserved to win the Cinematography award – remember that ten minute single shot near the end? And it picked up a trophy for Production design too.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth won Best film not in the English Language, beating Black Book which was shortlisted. It topped the poll for Costume design and Make up and hair … getting the faun’s barnet just right!

And two of this year’s best films so far were successful too.

  • The Last King of Scotland did well, winning Best British Film, and Forest Whitaker picked up a gong for his portrayal of Idi Amin. It also won the Adapted screenplay category, and narrowly missed out on Best Newcomer’s Blog.
  • Babel won the Achievement in Film Music category … it so wasn’t going to win Best Film!

A real surprise (to me, at least) was Casino Royale which won the Bafta for Sound category. Why? The opening theme was unmemorable and the string and brass stabbing orchestration wasn’t anything special. (Eva Green won the Rising Star award for her portrayal of the intelligent Bond Girl, Vesper Lynd.)

The balloon is up … in the Grand Opera House this week

A few years ago, I laughed my way through Martin Lynch’s The History of the Troubles (According to my Da!) in some of the cheapest seats that Belfast’s Grand Opera House had to offer. It was the show’s “third and final” season.

A three hander, with the well known radio and UTV news reporter Ivan Little (little in name only) taking the central role of Gerry Courtney (Da), alongside Conor Grimes and Alan McKee in a sparse set.

The story follows Da’s journey from spectator to participant, taking him from Belfast bars to a spell in Long Kesh. The best laughs are in response to the brilliant lines from a character called Fireball, delivered with a lisp and perfect comic timing.

For many of us thirtysomethings (and younger) who were born during the Troubles, some of the history happened before we had matured to an age of political awareness. Since I’m no history anorak, in my head I had crudely assigned labels to some of the episodes that were touched on in the show: mostly “don’t-know-the-detail-but-don’t-like-that”. At times I felt uncomfortable with the material. There was a feeling of giving in to peer pressure and joining the rest of the theatre audience to laugh at situations that were now assigned to the past.

Thinking back that was good. Our past can’t be forgotten, and can’t be ignored. But if too many of us overanalyse it, we will never get our foot of the clutch to drive forward into better days. So the show is hilarious, yet shocking when you realise that you’re laughing at this countries bloody history and at opinions that are probably only slightly removed from real people.

The show went on to run for a spell in London’s West End. I dread to think how little of the dialogue would have been deciphered by the London audience!

But now it’s back for a “record-breaking 5th run” and updated with some new material, it’s well worth a trip to Grand Ole Opera House between Monday 12 and Saturday 17 February.

“The balloon is up!” as Fireball would say. Get your tickets booked early.

Changes at Downtime and Cool FM

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the Newtownards-based Downtown and Cool FM, and the latest RAJAR results for local radio listening. The results came only days after their owners EMAP Radio (who own a lot of radio stations) had told the local stations to downsize, making up to 15 full time employees redundant, mostly in technical/engineering roles and the newsroom.

There were rumours that some presenters would go too. Now Downtown and Cool FM have confirmed that some specialist freelance presenters will not have their contracts renewed. And the recent changes to the scheduling (moving Lisa Flavelle, and cutting Jerry Lang’s Biggest Jukebox from five nights a week down to three) may unsettle some of the existing presenters too.

Changing times in the local radio industry.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

BBC NI News Online 'littered with quote marks'

Why do half the titles of news articles on BBC News Online's Northern Ireland home page all use text in quotes? Is it ‘their local style’ or just ‘a bad habit’ by the headline writers?

Less than half the quoted phrases are actually taken from quotations in the main article. Some are puns. Others just ‘shoulder shrugging’ by the writers. Maybe there should be a quote tax on BBC News NI’s online journalists.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Vote early ... and return often

This blog was started last March 2006, partly as a result of the interest generated by the Irish Blog Awards, but also as an experiment to see what blogging was about before having to talk about it at a Technology Camp last summer.

In the first post, Alan in Belfast promised ...

“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.”

... and I never quite got around to stopping!

With a fair few film and book reviews (see the links in the right hand column) and some comment on the local arts scene and media, I’m delighted that Alan in Belfast has been nominated for the Best Arts and Culture Blog in the Irish Blog Awards 2007.

And we’re also up there in the Best Newcomer category too.

So thank you for the nominations. You can see the full list of all the categories and the nominated blogs over at Jason Roe’s site.

Please vote early (the poll closes at 5pm on Friday Feb 16th) … and even more importantly return to read this blog and leave your comments often!

Black Book (Zwartboek)

Director Paul Verhoeven is better known for Holywood blockbuster movies such as RoboCop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct. Returning to make a film in his native Netherlands for the first time in 20 years, Black Book (Zwartboek) picks up the story of a young Jewish woman hiding in a Christian family’s house in September 1944, near the end of World War II. (Forced to recite New Testament verses before being served any food, it’s not the best of hiding places.)

Rachel Steinn’s journey to the Hague begins when a bomb destroys the family’s home. A local Dutch policeman helps her to escape by boat along with the rest of her family to safety in the south of the country. But it’s a trap, and the German’s attack, killing all but Rachel. Shivering in the cold water, she is rescued by locals and is transported in a coffin in the back of a hearse to a resistance group based in an undertakers.

Now wth a change of hair colour and using the name Ellis de Vries, she becomes more involved in resistance missions, ending up befriending the Gestapo chief Ludwig Müntze, a keen stamp collector!

It’s good to sea that last year’s run of films with torture scenes has continued into this year: Casino Royale, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Last King of Scotland, Black Book. Is it possible to distribute a film without attempting to torture the cast?

Getting a job as Müntze’s secretary, she places a bug in his office, but also witnesses his softer side, and falls in love. He’s convinced that the war is nearly over, and is working to negotiate a ceasefire with the resistance movement to limit needless deaths. It’s also in Müntze’s office that she gets to know Ronnie, a fun-loving girl who is similarly working and sleeping with the German officers.

With every escape and operation foiled, there is clearly a mole in the resistance. The spotlight even turns on Rachel, who ends up incarcerated alongside Müntze who has been accused of treason. As the war ends, Ronnie arranges for Rachel and Müntze’s rescue, and they flee The Hague to live on a house boar! But the chase and the journey isn’t over. She’s still under suspicion ...

The film starts in 1956 with a clip of Ronnie and her Canadian husband on a bus tour, stopping off at a kibbutz in Israel. She unexpectedly finds Rachel teaching in the classroom, delighted to be reunited after more than ten years.

Yet the final moments of the film are a reminder that strife hasn’t been completely eliminated from Rachel’s life. There are explosions, soldiers and so the cycle begins again with the start of the Suez Crisis.

At time, it feels like Black Book will never stop ... it’s a mammoth two and a half hour. And like any good thriller, there are endless twists and turns, leading cast and audience to jump to the wrong conclusions about people’s motives and decisions. War is complicated, and while history portrays winners and losers, reality defines light in many quarters (even if accompanied by great evil).

Although I’d read some good reviews, I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much. It has a touch of the Basic Instinct about it (including a reference to that moment). Verhoeven stated in an interview with the Guardian:

“Of course there are nude scenes, I'm Dutch!”

And the Dutch influence extends to the English credits which include reference to the “Stand Inns”!

If you're quick, you'll catch it in the Queen's Film Theatre each night for the next week.