Monday, December 31, 2007

Top ten pick of the names in 2007

Another post that was written a week or so ago, but then turkey and Christmas pudding got in the way!

It’s silly season, and while most shops are winding up to the sales and most offices are winding down to the annual party, government statistics agencies across the UK have been compiling their lists of top ten baby names. Since the year’s not yet over [at time of releasing their press releases] the analysis covers the period from January to early-December 2007.

Top names for girls in 2007 in Northern Ireland / Scotland / England+Wales

There are strong regional differences. Not a single girl’s name Only Sophie makes it into the top ten for all three reported regions (NI, Scotland, England + Wales). [Thanks Ruth!]

And if you mine further into the Northern Ireland figures and look across the five Health and Social Services’ boards, Aoife and Caitlin only make it into the Western Board’s top five and miss out on the overall top ten.

Top names for boys in 2007 in Northern Ireland / Scotland / England+Wales

The full list containing 2007’s top 100 names won’t be published until next summer. But if 2006’s anything to go by, Alan won’t make it into the top 100.


2007 travel round up

Crowded scene at Terminal 1 Heathrow on Wednesday 20 December 2006

So the end of the year, and time for the AiB annual travel round up.

Work-wise, there were a lot of trips to London (resulting from working on a number of project teams that were at least partially collocated in the big smoke), and a lot fewer visits to Ipswich. Not to forget one to Brussels - via Eurostar!

And then there was a sudden cessation in mid October, when I was no longer part of the day-to-day London-based team, with only two days away since!

  • In total, I sped down a runway and took off 83 times in 2007.
    (2006 = 82; 2005 = 100)
  • I’ve spent 65 nights in 10 different hotels.
    (2006 = 51 nights in 18 hotels; 2005 = 64 nights)
  • I’ve spent 101 days working outside Northern Ireland.
    (2006 = 85; 2005 = 114)

The worst month was August, with 17 days away - out of 22 working days.

Belfast waved goodbye to Air Berlin and FlyWhoosh. I haven’t yet enjoyed the delights of new-to-Belfast operators Aer Lingus or RyanAir. There were a few delays, but no need to spend the night at the airport. London City Airport turned out to be a joy. Flapjacks were an issue with bmi!

Getting the train up from London to Newcastle during the June English floods was quite straightforward, but getting a refund out of GNER (replaced by National Express from tomorrow) for the cancelled train home proved more difficult - three months in the end.

(The 2007 film review will appear in early January.)

Ikea news roundup (12 days later than planned)

This post was drafted back on the 19th December ... and comes to you twelve days late.

Considerable press coverage of Ikea's opening in Belfast from both sides of the border. The Irish Times opened its Ikea-focussed article this morning …

Nobody died

Following on, the reporter continued ...

After weeks of doom-laden predictions on the talk shows, miles of police cones on the Holywood-Belfast dual-carriageway to deter hysterics tempted to abandon cars mid-carriageway, scores of CCTV cameras, 20 PSNI officers on Ikea traffic duty and a helicopter overhead to quell rampaging flat-pack fiends, we considered packing flak jackets, tents and three-day rations.

Come 8am, two hours before opening, what we got was an unnaturally orderly and cheerful queue of about 60 being entertained by jugglers and stilt-walkers.

Irish Independent picture of Paul Reid holding up sign

While the Irish Independent and Belfast Telegraph finished their articles - environmentally friendly given that obvious reuse that Anita Guidera got by tailoring the same piece for two newspapers - with a reference to the much-quoted bed/conception statistic:

“From humble beginnings selling pens and nylons in Sweden back in 1943, today it is claimed that one in 10 Europeans are conceived in Ikea beds. After yesterday, Ireland's contribution to that statistic will begin.”

According to a PA report:

More than 15,000 shoppers visited Belfast's new Ikea shop during its first day of trading.

And the BBC suggests another 15,000 visited the next day (Friday). Not a bad footfall for a new store.

And the traffic tail backs - though just on one lane of the Sydenham bypass - eventually arrived on 27-31 December. But no massive gridlock yet!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ulster Bank - Anytime online banking - what use for their card reader?

A few months ago, the Ulster Bank mailed out card readers to users of their Anytime online banking service.

Until then, all you needed to access your account online was the account number, a 4-digit PIN and a password - three things I could carry around in my head.

An as-yet redundant Ulster Bank card reader!

But then they issued a card reader, that you slot your cheque guarantee/debit card into that can generate a one-time code once you've entered your card's PIN number. That's two physical things I now need to carry around if I want to access online banking when I'm away from home.

Except that having posted out the dinky blue card readers - at least three months ago - the Ulster Bank have yet to turn the service on! So the old account/PIN/password security must be good enough after all. Wonder how much the exercise cost them? And why the delay?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Irish Blog Awards - open for nominations

Irish Blog Awards logo

It's started a bit earlier than last year, but the 2008 Irish Blog Awards are now seeking nominations. So if there's a blog or two that you read regularly - or a podcast you regularly listen to - and think stand out beyond others, then nominate them.

(Though the server seems to be underpowered tonight - Sat 29 Dec - leaving more time to think of worthy nominations.)

Last time I looked, there's no closing date for nominations, but they're likely to be open for four weeks or so if it follows last year's pattern. Update: Nominations close at 9pm on Friday 18 January.

Damien Mulley has reflected on last year's issues, and eliminated the mass public vote:

"New nomination system, new judging system and a restriction on the number of categories you can be nominated in. This means there’s more chance for smaller blogs to get through and combined with no public vote this year, it means it’s not a popularity contest that gets you to the second round. So, to be clear, all nominated blogs will get judged in round 1 and whittled down and some will go forward to round 2 where the judging gets a lot tougher."

My only concern is around the categories that reward specialist bloggers that stick to a single subject, rather than the (majority?) of generalist bloggers who post about a wide range of topics. But you can't have everything!

Replacing a broken car seat under warranty

We purchased a Maxi-Cosi Tobi car seat back in September 2006. I remember that lunchtime well - Northern Ireland were playing in Windsor Park and cars and buses were being abandoned all around Boucher Road as fans made their way to the match.

Maxi-Cosi Tobi ... not a car seat I'd recommend!

The seat we'd wanted in Halfords' sale was out of stock, so they cunningly upsold us to a "new improved" model - which gave nothing but trouble.

The straps frequently needed to be untangled, and the stiffness meant that the plastic around the pull-tightening-tether eventually cracked, making it sharp and difficult to secure our wee one in the seat. And it had an enormous base that made it quite a challenge to climb into - since no child waits to be lifted in for any longer than necessary!

Broken tightener on Maxi-Cosi Tobi

Over a year from purchase ... and then I noticed mention in the instructions about a two year guarantee for plastic parts. Aha!

So back we went to Boucher Road Halfords - who agreed to replace the car seat with no fuss or quibble. Given that the seat's occupant had recently celebrated her third birthday and now tops 15 kilos, there was no point swapping for a similar seat - so instead they agreed we could have a Britax Evolva 123 (covers class 1+2+3) that can provide a five-point harness for another few months before we switch to using the normal seat belt threaded across the front.

Britax Evolva 123 car seat

Only downside is that its enormously fiddly to fit into the car. I'd got quite expert getting the Maxi-Cosi Tobi into the car in the dark, but this new seat will be a bigger challenge! But if it's more reliable in tightly securing our bundle into her seat, that's a price worth paying.

So thank you Halfords - for customer service that made it all so straightforward.

New Year Honours ... and Steve Furber who designed computers that could run a 22nd century intergalactic cargo ship

I've noticed that the New Year Honours list always dominates the BBC News homepage on the last Saturday morning of the year. Not only does it lead the top story, but it's the same for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and most of the categories below (technology, business, etc).

As the day progresses, the sections with most news eventually drop the honours story from the coveted home page slot, and lead on something else. But Technology is usually quiet on a Saturday, so it's no surprise that one particular story is still up top tonight.

Steve Furber

Steve Furber - a key designer behind the BBC Micro and other Acorn computers - has been awarded a CBE in the New Year Honours list. According to a report, he got into computing when

... in the late 70s he became involved with the Cambridge University Processor Group, a club for computer hobbyists. "There was a gang of us who used to order integrated circuits and microprocessors from the very small number of shops that sold them," he said. "We got these bits and started building machines." During this time he was approached by Herman Hauser, co-founder of Acorn.

Pity it took 25 years or more to honour him. Those of us who honed our programming skills (that would be 6502/65C102 Assembler as well as BASIC!) on BBC Micros etc owe Steve Furber and his colleagues at Acorn a big thank you too.

An interesting aside from Mike Cowlishaw's Acorn web pages tells the story of an earlier microprocessor kit - the Acorn System 1 - that preceded the Atom and BBC Micro.

“... the System 1 was entirely designed over an Easter vacation ... Sophie produced the monitor program by hand (hand assembly of 6502 code), we blew it into a PROM and it worked straight-off. There may have been a minor bug or two, but basically it ran first time, previously untested.

Acorn System 1 - in the middle of Blake's 7 Slave computer

The System 1 had a starring role in the BBC’s Blakes 7, I seem to recall. It was used as the control panel on the cargo vessel they went around in, and I seem to recall Sophie noting that they even pushed the right key sequence to run a program.

This was the time when Sinclair was quoted as saying that a ZX81 could run a nuclear power station.

The Acorn riposte was that an Acorn System 1 could run a 22nd century intergalactic cargo ship!”

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Wisdom weary? The final part (five)

Chinese Calligraphy ... Wisdom

It's tidy-up time of the year, and I took a quick look at draft posts that hadn't ever been published. The series of wise quotes ended prematurely, with the penultimate post never quite being succeeded with the final one ... until now!

To prevent you being wiped out with wisdom overload, this mini-series will now come to an end with a flourish of three clichés to finish:

Some days you are the bug, some days you are the windshield.

If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.

Never ask a barber if he thinks you need a haircut.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Doctor Who - now a Christmas institution

Blue Tardis collection at Belfast's W5

The Doctor Who Christmas Special - part pantomime, part Poseidon Adventure remake.

I loved the lesson in Earthonomics:

“I shall be taking you to old London town in the country of UK, ruled over by Good king Wenceslas. Now human beings worshipped the great god Santa: a creature with fearsome claws and his wife Mary. And every Christmas Eve people of UK went to war with the country of turkey. They then eat the turkey people for Christmas dinner ... like savages.”

I wondered why there wasn’t a episode commentary sitting waiting on iTunes? Turns out that the BBC’s podcast rules and regulations were written a bit too restrictively. So they don’t allow for this kind of long episode audio show if it’s not related to a radio programme. So presumably until they negotiate something with the BBC Trust – who approve the services that the BBC write-up – the commentary to accompany Voyage of the Damned is only available via streaming. Boo hoo.

But good to see the trailer for Torchwood which will pop up on BBC Two mid-January.

An afternoon in a Mini Clubman

Having attended the Mini Clubman launch back in November, I managed to test drive one the Friday before Christmas. Though picking up a car from Boucher Road at lunchtime on the day that everyone escapes from work early wasn’t the best idea of the year! And leaving it back at 5pm was even worse.

(I didn't take any photos of the car - but then discovered it was one of the launch models and I'd some handy snaps from November.)

Mini Clubman being unveiled

The alpine white Clubman I drove was 24cm longer than the standard Mini Cooper that I’ve been driving for the last four years. The extra side door beside the drivers door – often dubbed the suicide door – gives much better access to the back seats. Combined with the extra 8cm of legroom, it’s particularly useful for fitting a car seat and getting a toddler in and out. (Big hit with a three year old!)

The split back doors give good entry into the boot. Despite the extra length, you’ll only fit the smallest of buggies into the diminutive boot. You can accommodate a regular one by putting down one of the split back seats – but it brings a bit more road noise into the car interior.

The boot of a Mini Clubman

I’d wondered if the split door wouldn’t badly obscure the view out the back window ... but the door frame is thin enough that stereo vision (two eyes looking at slightly different angles) compensates and you’ll not miss anything – other than a very slim signpost!

There’s a new BMW engine in the Clubman – it’s a lot quieter than the Cooper from four years ago, and allegedly less thirsty for petrol. Not sure why it needed a sixth gear though? The petrol model I test drove features eco-start/stop. So when its out of gear and travelling less than a couple of miles an hour the engine cuts out. And then when you put your foot down on the clutch it starts up again. Causes you to be a bit heavy with your right foot at the start, but I adapted within an hour.

There have been a few other less favourable “improvements”. The indicators no longer move up and down properly, making it hard to cancel or just blink briefly. And radio’s been integrated into the central dial, creating oodles of buttons but much harder to control.

But it drives well, and it is tempting to order one in the New Year to replace the Cooper that has to go back on its fourth birthday in January to be sold on some lucky punter.

Ikea ... scrummy meatballs, dodgy lifts, and a popular destination

As several people and articles had suggested before the Belfast palace of kitsch opened, Ikea's restaurant offers the most divine meatballs.

Make sure you get the (looks like) cranberry sauce and (they don't call it) gravy to go with it. A regular-sized portion gets you exactly 15 meatballs spooned onto your plate.

Yummmm ... though the spindly chips are a bit bent and not crisp enough.

TIP - If you've applied for a (free) Ikea Family loyalty card, you'll be able to get free tea/coffee at the restaurant as well as the take away stall behind the main tills on the far side of the self-service warehouse.

All the fears of travel chaos on the roads continue to be unfounded - the planners must have got it right! Ikea's footfall is consistently over 10,000 each day, and the car park is moderately full most of the time, but there haven't been many big queues or jams on the approach road.

In fact it's so easy to get into that it's overtaken Secret Sainsbury cafe as somewhere local to pop into on a wet day. And there's a little person who loves to take her shoes off and hop under the bedcovers in the show rooms in the children's section!

Today - Boxing Day - the yellow-jacketed event/security team weren't even needed out with their red-tipped torches to direct traffic into the car park. (Thank goodness - as their Stalinist approach includes directing young families away from the more convenient ground floor spaces, and refusing to let you pick up a trolley to wheel your child from the car park and into the store!)

And they'd obviously cut back on catering staff as well - with paper plates and plastic cutlery being used this afternoon instead of the normal stuff. Not so eco-friendly an image as Ikea normally like to project. And although most aspects of the store feel like they've been engineered within an inch of their life, not leaving a supply of plates beside the dessert slices, running out of bread rolls and being unable to electronically process debit cards wasn't to the usual standard.

(They use old fashioned swipe boards for payments with debit cards. When the slip got creased under the swiper, the till operator casually tossed the slip into the bin at his feet - not even ripping up the paper which had my credit card number and name imprinted on it. So too with the second slip until the third attempt got an acceptable swipe.)

And watch out for the lifts. As well as both car park lifts dying on the opening night, one of the main customer ones inside had been playing up and was cordoned off today. Every new building - residential or commercial - always has its Achilles heel. Ikea seems cursed with dodgy lifts and uneven paving in the smoking corner outside the entrance next to the kids playground.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007


Donaghadee lighthouse

Christmas Eve saw a trip to Donaghadee. Hawaiian burger and chips in the Captain’s Table chippie on the harbour front. Then a walk out to (and around) the light house with our three year old.

Donaghadee lighthouse

Donaghadee lighthouse

Beautiful skies. And a recently whitewashed lighthouse was very photogenic. Flickr has more snaps.

View from harbour into Donaghadee

View through lobster pots into Donaghadee

(I can see why - back in September - Donaghadee was the venue for a local Flickr meetup.)

Early morning Christmas Eve shopping - good and bad

At ten to eight this morning I witnessed at first hand the military operation being run by M&S out at Sprucefield.

Customers in a short queue waiting to collect their turkey and other festive goodies. The collections were all timed to prevent complete madness. Two massive freezer containers in behind the tills, and a refrigerated lorry out the back with yet more "birds".

The big boxes of desserts looked good - profiteroles instead of pudding anyone?

The big Tesco in Lisburn was having less luck having suffered a bomb scare around 7am, causing trolleys to be abandoned in the aisles and checkouts as customers and staff evacuated.

By half eight staff were shopping in reverse, wheeling around trolleys and putting goods back on the shelves.

According to the cashier on one checkout, the security man on the door went white as a huge number of police cars with flashing lights turned up at the Bentrim Street store.

An unpleasant reminder of the old Northern Ireland - one that hasn't entirely gone away you know.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Guardian Technology - Mapping Britain's blogosphere (but not on this side of the Irish Sea)

Image of Guardian newspaper front cover - 50,000th edition

I was disappointed at the Guardian's article by Guy Clapperton entitled Mapping Britain's Blogosphere that was published on Thursday morning (20th December). I held off ranting about this on AiB for couple of days, but since there's been no reply from the Guardian, here goes!

Firstly, it seemed poor to publish an article about blogging and then not turn on the commenting feature on the website to allow readers to have a conversation about the article. Not very new media in an industry in which the Guardian is trying to lead the way. And it flies in the face of the concept of blogging.

Secondly, while the article's author deserves a small pat on the head for his inclusion of two cities in Scotland (Edinburgh and Glasgow) and Wales (Cardiff and Swansea), there wasn't even a tokenistic nod towards Northern Ireland which has a growing blogging community (some of whose posts are aggregated at

In an email to the Guardian's Technology editor - though he hasn't yet deemed it worthy of a reply - I suggested that

"next time someone commissions an article about the UK, why not include all the nations and regions - not just the ones that can read the Guardian in full colour ..."

a reference to the old Portadown press that means that NI readers get greyscale pictures instead of full colour and lose the TV reviews from G2.

Scan of Technology Guardian logo

Update - 30 December - Charles Arthur (editor of Technology Guardian) did reply tonight with a brief email.

Further update - 3 January - And an edited version of the email was published as a letter in the Technology Guardian pullout this morning (thanks to colleague Paul who noticed and tipped me off) - carefully removing any mention of this blogs URL and the final clause mentioning losing the TV reviews from G2.

partial scan of letters page from Technology Guardian - 3 January 2008

Update - January 7 - Oh, and Charles Arthur published a blog entry of all the letters he received over Christmas, including even more related to the Blogging Britain article.

Sending Jonah to talk about big fish

For the first time in months (perhaps a year) we sat down together last night and watched a couple of hours of telly live. (Admittedly after a recorded episode of Property Ladder from a month or so ago!)

So there was the joy of Nolan Live - which had some highs balancing out a few lows. But I was glad that they covered Omagh, even though it was the Christmas special. Brought back memories of Gerry Kelly's Friday night show on UTV that ran for years, and managed to switch between local and national, whimsical and deadly serious every week.

BBC reporter Jonah Fisher - image (c) BBC

The most unexpected moment of the night was during the second item in the Ten o'Clock News. A story about Japanese whaling with at-the-scene reporter Jonah Fisher. It's playground humour, but I can't help smirking at this particular assignment!

The intended comedy arrived with Folks on the Hill - whose animation is incredible considering that its a one-man production on software/kit that would fit under your desk.

Despite his high price tag, I'd never watched more than five minutes of Friday Night with Jonathan Ross before last night. It was surprisingly good: a lot less puerile and needlessly smutty than Graham Norton. And there's a quick fire wit and rapid bantering that Ross achieves with carefully chosen guests that few other talk show hosts (including Nolan) can manage. It's a skill, and he has it. But I'm not sure it'll entice me to sit up that late to watch the new series when it starts in January.

And since this is a TV-related post, watch out for the repeat of Liverpool Nativity over on BBC One on Sunday night - 11pm in Northern Ireland, 10.45pm in other UK regions.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Who's been reading in my library?

An earthquake struck about 30 miles off the coast of New Zealand on Thursday 8.55pm (0755 GMT) a magnitude of 6.8 on the Richter scale. The city of Gisborne seems to have suffered the brunt, with damage to buildings, cracks in roads, and very stressed residents.

(c) BBC - Image of Gisborne library post-earthquake, with books scattered all over the floor

This is what the Gisborne library looked like afterwards.

Irish broadband penetration still low

Logo for the Irish Independent - with a little snow for Christmas

Yesterday morning’s Irish Independent reports on the figures released by Comreg on Wednesday showing that the number of Irish broadband users rose by around 8% last quarter to 705,000, a penetration rate of 16.35% (or 18.4% if mobile broadband users are included).

“However, the country still ranks as having one of the lowest broadband penetration rates in the developed world, behind industrialised nations such as New Zealand, France, Italy, the US and the UK.”

ComReg logo

In contrast, the 108,000 new mobile phone subscriptions in the same period beings the mobile penetration up to 114%. That’s more than one mobile per person, a total of 4.9 million active mobiles on average each sending 127 text messages per month.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Snapshot(s) of Belfast - Wed 19 Dec - lunchtime

I'd caught the back of these creatures (statues?) from the other side of the window. So I nipped in the door of the Belfast Hilton to get a better view.

It was a mini nativity scene. Very colourful, and no doubt there's a story behind the artist and the inspiration, but there was no obvious sign to explain beside them. Update: there was a sign - just that I missed it the first time. The crib was made by pupils in years 8 to 11 in St. Gerard's ERC - a co-educational school for children and young people aged 4-16 with special educational needs. The crib is based on the work of the Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin in the colours and traditions of Tahiti.

As I took the photo, my gaze was distracted by the sight out the window past Mary's head. A team of Santa's elves offloading stuff from the back of a car!

Five minutes later, walking down past Cornmarket Arthur Square, there was a busker dressed as a bunny playing outside Dunnes, early for Easter! Not sure how much playing he was doing, and how much the keyboard was taking credit. But one of many surreal sights Belfast can throw up at lunchtime.

Later on, at the junction of Callender Street and Castle Lane, a more festive bunch were tunefully filling the street with carols.

Made me think that we should choose a day in January, and document Belfast that lunchtime. Photographing all the buskers and street collectors that we can find. Taking a social snapshot of Belfast that hour. Capturing the building works, the fashion, the weather, the buses, the people. A mad idea - one definitely worthy of Letter to America of old - but it's grown on me during the day.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Endings - Heroes, Spooks, Tolkien's The Hobbit

Although Heroes has ended for most people, I’m still two episodes behind. To be honest, I’m not convinced I’ll be following the second series when it airs next year. I’ve noticed a series of US dramas have been moving my viewing acceptance criteria along a journey.

  • West Wing was fast and furious, more words that you could pick up, talking about subjects you knew nothing about. But gripping relationships keeping the viewers’ loyalty. (And it was one of my loose 2007 resolutions I managed to complete – getting through all seven seasons before the end of the year.)

  • 24 was high octane drama, action packed, strong cliff hangers at the end of each episode, multiple storylines running in parallel in and across episodes.

  • Lost added a surreal dimension to US drama. Lots of unexplained, and never-explained details, keeping the audience guessing which parts of the story would turn out to be important, and when the next bolt out the blue would appear from stage left to upset any modicum of sense viewers had managed to make of the spaghetti storyline. Just about made it through all the terrestrial TV episodes, and abandoned at the point it went to Sky.

Then came Heroes.

A strong first episode introducing a cast of disconnected characters with special powers. As the series progressed, the beginnings of interactions between heroes, darker sides to their friends and families, and a sense of purpose – though not quite like the Fellowship of the Ring! Heroes has less surreal unexplained stuff than Lost, less cliff hangers than 24, and not so well crafted relationships as West Wing.

So I’ll bear with it to the end of this series, but unless the next one gets great reviews – not sure the screenwriter’s apology makes that likely – it’ll be deleted from the Tivo as soon as I notice it’s been recorded.

Two other endings to cover in this post.

The latest series of Spooks reached its dramatic conclusion last night. Bet there’s a resuscitation – rather than a resurrection – at the start of the next series. I was surprised there was no mention of next year’s Rogue Spooks Spooks: Liberty spinoff at the end.

And news that Peter Jackson will be involved with the cinematic revisioning of what remains of the accessible books in JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth narrative. Having kissed and made up with the studio which owns the film rights to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Jackson has been confirmed as producer (not director – as yet unnamed) for New Line Cinema’s forthcoming Hobbit films. Yes plural. Two films. Got to milk it for all it’s worth – and make it worth the trip down to New Zealand.

Myers-Briggs on the cheap

I normally avoid online quizs - IMHO they're a waste of time and not very useful. But knowing a couple of people who've been through the proper Myers-Briggs interview and analysis, Ruth E's post caught my curiosity.

Save yourself the pain of paying someone to do a Myers-Briggs (MBTI) personality test ... and free alternative online version.

Click to view my Personality Profile page

Problem is that the swing between sides isn't terribly strong, so a couple of questions answered differently could have swapped me from F to T.

Maybe rather than being a dreamer or visionary, I'm actually a fence-sitter!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

two rooms ... but there’ll only be one visit (actually we did go back and it was a lot better!)

Second quick review this week. Christmas is a funny time of the year in the catering and hospitality industry. Larger groups than normal, all ordering at the same time, putting pressure on kitchens and waiters. Good places seem to rise above it and churn out turkey dinners (nearly) better than your mother can produce, while poor places collapse under the pressure.

Outdoor signage for two rooms restaurant in Belfast - from

A work do in two rooms (23 University Road, Belfast, BT7 1NA - where Zio Belfast used to be) on Friday night tended towards the poorer result. While we’d ordered in advance of the pre-provided menu, they’d changed some of the options, so we had to order again when we arrived. And the starter I wanted vanished off the menu.

Bruschetta with goats cheese etc was a fine starter. (Someone else had the pea risotto - which looked like a handful of peas floating in Ambrosia rice pudding!)

The roast turkey main course was tough not tender, and cut so thick you could have soled your wellington boots with it. Service felt slow (an hour between the starter plates being set on the table and the main course arriving) and bit cheeky - there’s a limit to the number of wisecracks you really want to hear.

At least one person ended up in the restaurant next door - Tony Roma’s - which has a similar looking name (in the dark, the words begin with T and R).

Overall, not impressed, and won’t be back. Check out the Harbourview Japanese restaurant over at the Waterfront instead!

Update: Responding to an email from the owner who'd read this post, we did go back ... and found it much improved the second time - good enough to recommend!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Exodus (Channel 4 / ArtAngel)

Exodus (or Margate Exodus) was a film shown on Channel 4 towards the end of November. But as part of a one man bid to help speed the death of linear television, I picked it up on 4oD (Channel 4’s on-demand catch-up service) and watched it tonight just before it was due to expire.

Exodus header image from Channel 4 Exodus microsite

It’s a modern day retelling of the biblical Exodus story – seems to be all the rage at the momentwritten and directed by Penny Woolcock. Set in a mythical country that bears an uncanny resemblance to Margate, its leader Pharoah [sic] condemns all undesirables to live in a secure camp, based in the disused Dreamland amusement park. (It has more than a touch of Children of Men about it.)

Still image of Aaron and his blood brother Moses in Dreamland, from the film (Margate) Exodus

As a baby, Moses was abandoned on a beach by his mother, found by Pharoah’s wife, and brought up in his privileged household. Played by Daniel Percival, Moses’ social conscience ran against his father’s beliefs (Bernard Hill). Witnessing an attack on a young woman while on a guided tour of Dreamland, Moses hits a soldier with the butt of a gun and accidentally kills him. So finds himself trapped, hiding inside the camp. Over time he meets his real Mum as well as his sweetheart Zipporah – the house-maid his father sacked.

The film’s website explains the parallels:

"The story of Exodus is thousands of years old and cuts across many faiths and cultures. Immigration has never been more meaningful than it is today. Exodus begins with the Egyptians complaining about the immigrant Hebrews – there are too many of them, they’re having too many children. They are ‘the undesirables’ and a problem to get rid of."

Filmed in Margate – itself a major UK entry point for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants – we follow Moses as he adapts to camp life, throws himself into education, and wrestles with the military pressure Pharoah puts on the camp.

Waste Man - before being burnt

When Jethro the school headmaster is shot, the undesirables erect a massive wooden sculpture as a funeral pyre – the burning bush - and Moses sends a stark message to those outside the camp, including his father. But is that the voice of God he hears? (The burning man was actually created by Antony Gormley.)

But his non-violent approach isn’t working. How can Moses lead the people out of the camp? And so a series of plagues are released on the outside world. Algae contaminate the water. A computer virus infiltrates broadcast and IT systems. Food is poisoned. People start dying. Are they innocent or complicit in Dreamland’s suffering? God’s voice is no longer heard. As the military retaliate by storming the camp and shooting randomly, is Moses really following the right course of action?

As the plagues continue, we see Pharoah become more and more irate and crazy.

But when the undesirables are eventually free to leave, can they control their anger and need for revenge? Can Moses live with the consequences of the domino chain he started to topple? Thou shalt not kill doesn’t seem to be commandment of the month now.

Waste man burning on Margate beach

It’s a superbly shot film with understated music. Part of the film’s creation was the involvement of the multi-ethnic resident and immigrant community in Margate, culminating in Exodus Day on Saturday 30 September 2006, when the major crowd scenes were film along with the burning of the waste sculpture.

A film that doesn’t duck the big questions of how to counter loss of identity, intolerance and social inequity? A film that doesn’t stop short of asking what sort of God would kill the Egyptian first borns?

Childen (undesirables) escaped from Dreamland on the beach

Yet the ending – spoilers ahoy! – stops short of the undesirables escaping their oppression through a parting of the English Channel. There is no solution. Instead, Moses fails to bring complete liberation, and the cycle of violence and oppression seems to start again, this time with the roles of oppressed and oppressor reversed.

It’s an ending, and perhaps not as clichéd as it would otherwise have been, but it’s imperfect and perhaps the film deserved better.

Harbourview Japanese restaurant ... excellent

cropped image from xxxrmt's flickr feed

A quick review. My first time in the Harbourview Japanese restaurant that opened in the carbuncle built in front of Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. (That’s slightly unfair, as the side facing the Waterfront/river is perfectly pleasant, but the back side facing the courts looks like the good entrance to a hotel.)

Anyway, back to the main subject of what’s inside.

Really nice décor and ambiance. (I choose to forgive the Christmas muzak that invades our eardrums at this time of year.)

(slightly) cropped version of an image of the inside of Harbourview Japanese from ConnorTreacy's flickr feed

You get to sit at a table/bar, and the food is cooked in front of you, expertly timed to suit the speed of your group’s eating. The chicken and salmon that came with Set Meal A was beautiful, particularly the salmon.

Recommended. Good value for the quality of food. Would go back. And would encourage others to try it out.

Now all Belfast needs is a sushi bar - though someone will no doubt now tell me we already have one.

(Photos courtesy of xxxrmt and ConnorTreacy on flickr.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)

Cover of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

There’s something very satisfying about reading a good story. And Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel The Time Traveler's Wife does not disappoint – other than me wanting to spell traveller with a double l!

I read somewhere that the key to writing good science fiction is to distort just one aspect about the environment in which the characters inhabit.

Clare is six when we first pick up her timeline. A man called Henry keeps popping into her neighbourhood and her life, and over the years their friendship develops … as well as Clare’s patience. Like some men, Henry has trouble sticking around. But his excuse is a bit more elaborate (if hard to explain).

Henry suffers from Chrono-Displacement – a rare genetic disorder that leads him to unexpectedly vanish from his normal life (leaving his clothes to fall to a crumpled heap on the floor where he stood) and reappear back or forward in time (naked as he bring nothing other than his body with him). He could be away minutes or hours or days.

His first task on arrival is to find clothes and a way of getting food if he stays for more than a few hours. Cue lots of tricks such as getting Clare to keep his spare clothes hidden in a consistent location. Cue also lots of meeting up with himself in the past and future to find out what’s going on.

Henry is 24 when he travels back and first meets Clare as a child. But when they eventually meet up in real life, there’s only 8 years between them - long enough for Henry to have a history of relationships and misfortune behind him.

And so the story follows Henry and Clare through their lives. Henry hops about, often leaving Clare not knowing when he’ll return. Like the old text-only computer adventure games would have said: “Time passes”. (Oops! Second reference to that this month!)

It’s a fascinating book. Really well written. The whole time-travelling thing could have got so out of hand, but by mainly sticking to Clare’s timeline, there’s a stable reference point in the narrative, allowing Henry to bounce around, weaving his vapour trail in and out of her life. Towards the end, it also turns into an incredibly sad book, with Henry aware of his own mortality, and tears welling in the reader’s eye.

Perhaps a perfect read for this time of year – Advent – a season of waiting and anticipation. In the book, Clare waiting for Henry to next disappear or reappear, waiting for their life together to stabilise, waiting for a baby. In our household, waiting for a sick child to fight off an infection and rebound to her normal perky self. For Mary and Joseph, to await the birth of Jesus and the complete uncertainty beyond. And for Christians, the waiting for Christmas that itself reflects the long journey towards Easter.

Liverpool Nativity

Following on from the success of Manchester Passion on Good Friday 2006, BBC Three broadcast Liverpool Nativity live at 8 o’clock tonight. Mostly indigenous actors performing and musicians singing music from the Liverpool area to narrate a modern day version of the Christmas story.

BBC - Liverpool Nativity - Mary (Jodie McNee) and Joesph (Kenny Thompson)

I explained the background to the story in an earlier post, but a quick recap for the uninitiated:

... expect to find Geoffrey Hughes playing the Angel Gabriel narrating the events, and Cathy Tyson cast as Herodia, a paranoid government minister “desperate to cling to power, orders a crackdown on immigration” directing events as they unfold live in Liverpool city centre.

Of course, any nativity would be lost without Mary and Joseph (Jodie McNee and Kenny Thompson). Joseph is an asylum seeker, instructed to report to the nearest passport office, whilst Mary “discovers she is pregnant and must fight to protect both Joseph and her unborn child”.

At the beginning, narrator Gabriel (Geoffrey Hughes) made constant references back to the “original” nativity to explain the fairly obvious parallels that were being drawn in the modern (though still quite original) Liverpool nativity. Not something that happens when one of Shakespeare’s works gets updated. But probably due to the feeling that understanding of basic biblical stories is waning. (Not to mention the recent Daily Telegraph rants about school nativities etc).

Fun to see the wandering minstrels following the main characters around Liverpool with their guitars, violins and accordions - like the disciple’s band Manchester Passion. Maybe as European Capital of Culture this is what Liverpool will be like for all of 2008! Buskers unite!

As well as music and song, there were some lovely moments of humour.

[Worried Mary racing away from Joseph to clear her head after hearing that she would be pregnant when her mobile rings.]

[Mary:] Don’t tell me it’s twins?

[Crowd laugh]

The comparisons with Manchester are inevitable, and I can’t stop myself thinking back to the moving power of the 2006 production. Who’d have thought that the Beatles, sons of Liverpool, would end up lyrically weak when compared to Mancunian Oasis! Though Lady Madonna was a fitting accompaniment for the Magi (three Kings) to present their gifts to the baby (sleeping in shopping trolley for a crib).

With betrayal, death and resurrection, the Manchester Passion was always going to be a stronger story. But there was a moment at the end of the Liverpool Nativity, as Mary, Joseph and their baby leave the stage to “do one” (run away), the narrator Gabriel implored the crowd to

“Open up and let them get among you. And when they’re among you, swathe them, bring them into your community, swathe them with your humanity, with your love.”

It’s quite one thing for members of a crowd – any crowd - to turn up and be associated with a cause - in this case the plight of Mary and Joseph - but quite another to take the step from mental/vocal support to actual physical involvement. To put their lives and homes and safety where their hearts are. Very Jesus!

If your BBC Three reception this evening was as bad as mine, you’ll be able to catch it again when it’s repeated later tonight at 11pm on BBC Three and then next Sunday (23 December) on BBC One at 11pm (in Northern Ireland - 10.45pm in rest of UK).

Update: Looks like a couple of other people enjoyed it too.

Update: Unofficial overnight viewing figures should that the TV audience peaked at around 710,000 for the 8pm showing on BBC Three, and was also shown live in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Early Carol Service

Carol Singing

There aren’t may workplaces in which staff choose to gather to sing carols one lunchtime before Christmas. And while I don’t work there, I was in the building and ended up in BBC Reception in Belfast with sixty or so other people for half an hour yesterday lunchtime.

With 11 carols printed out, beautiful accompaniment on piano, double bass, guitar, and the dulcet tones of John Toal leading the singing, those gathered sang heartily for half an hour – and with quite a bit of harmony.

It was during the penultimate carol – Silent Night – that my brain started to fade in the voiceover from Simon & Garfunkel’s 7 O’Clock News / Silent Night track. As we stood singing, it was like a modern day recreation of their song, with the plasma screens offering a window out onto the world as we sang about

Silent night, holy night, Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing alleluia.
Christ the Saviour is born, Christ the Saviour is born.

Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth, Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

Nine lessons and carols is usually a bit closer to Christmas Day. But yesterday lunchtime, it snuck up on me. It might be the only carol service I get to this year, but it was worship, and it’ll be every bit as memorable and special as one held in a church building.

(Originally posted on The Mockingbird's Leap - an advent blog.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ikea opened, the media swooned ... and the public decided to leave it to the weekend

This morning all of Belfast ... no make that all of the local media ... was abuzz with the opening of the island’s first Ikea store. No more getting the bus on the ferry across to Scotland. No more flying across as Iris Robinson admitted on Not the Nolan Show this morning - you wouldn’t bring a big mattress back on the plane!

Closing the Ring film poster

(It wasn’t the only opening in Belfast with the locally filmed movie Closing the Ring - directed by Richard Attenborough - being premiered in Belfast before a short run in a small number of Irish and UK cinemas. Unfortunately, the film hasn’t found a large distributor, so is unlikely to recoup its costs.)

Image from opening of Ikea Belfast, (c) BBC

The three policemen that checked out the Ikea store opening in Malaga were on safe ground as a few hundred people supported by crowds of traditional media (and the odd blogger, ahem Mr Barnes) watched Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers saw his way through a Swedish log whilst Ian and Martin looked on.

I was lying sick tucked up in bed as all this happened. Even then I couldn’t miss it on the radio later.

On the way into Ikea Belfast

Popping out for a few messages this evening around 8 o’clock, I decided to chance Secret Sainsburys. No traffic problems on the A2 or the slip road down towards Holywood Exchange. And the lure of the blue and yellow store caught me in its Scandinavian grip, and pulled my car towards the multi-storey car park as if by tractor beam. We got held up briefly as a fire engine unexpectedly drove past the line of traffic and though a gateway into the land behind the main car park with its blue lights flashing.

Despite a low turnout for the opening this morning, lots of people had been encouraged to pop down for Geoff Duke before bedtime. The security/event team looking after the car park said that they’d filled the main car park this evening, but hadn’t needed as much of the overflow. (The top floor of the Ikea car park will be a great spot for plane spotters, with a great view over the Belfast City Airport runway and apron.)

Arches of balloons welcome visitors to Ikea Belfast on its opening day

So I decided to go in, and see how quickly I could escape from the one way system!

Up the stairs under the balloon arches, past the restaurant, and followed the Exit signs.

Took ten minutes.

Wonder what happens in an emergency? Should have looked for the green signs!

I’ve previously referred to Ikea as bringing kitsch to Belfast, and the photo below is proof! Colourful plastic kitchen gadgets galore.

Swedish kitsch on sale in Ikea Belfast

I bought a packet of paper napkins – we needed some for a birthday party on Saturday. Despite the dress rehearsal last Sunday when Ikea staff could each bring four friends or family to the store to browse and buy, the guy serving me on the till was still getting used to getting plastic cards to work in the PIN reader. (There’s a 70p surcharge for using credit cards, so you might want to use a Switch Maestro card if you’re only buying napkins.) Turns out that this is his second job. During the day he works as a civil servant. But at night he transforms into a blue and yellow super hero till operator. He explained that

“I always fancied the Ikea dream ... but I’m not sure I could stand this very long on top of a full time job!”

There may yet be more vacancies for co-workers at Ikea.

Out of order lifts on Ikea Belfast's opening day

Finally escaping the store, I wandered back over to the car park. Both lifts were now out of order – though people were getting into the right hand one on the first floor and wondering why they couldn’t make the doors close since the man in the yellow coat had only blocked off the ground floor door. Oops.

Home is the most important place in the world - sign outside entrance to Ikea Belfast

All in all, it’ll be fun to go back in a month or two. The sign outside the Ikea entrance summed up what Northern Ireland’s shoppers felt today ... it's where they chose to be. But I bet it’s bedlam on Saturday and Sunday afternoon!