Friday, October 31, 2008

Did you hear the one about the Walking House?

Having given up on tea bags, and forgotten to keep you updated on the full gruesome Charles Hurst experience of buying a Toyota Aygo (great car - just past 1000 miles after three months!), small houses could well become a preoccupation of this blog!

Moving house is such a pain. Just ask the removal firm we’ve used the last couple of times! But imagine you could eliminate the need to pack everything into badly labelled boxes and never quite get around to unpacking all of them at the far end. Instead you could simply take your house with you!

Well, this isn’t a post espousing the joys of caravanning, or news that we’ve bought a Dormobile or a Volkswagen Camper van.

N55's Walking House

No it’s news of the Walking House, described as

“a modular dwelling system that enables persons to live a peaceful nomadic life, moving slowly through the landscape or cityscape with minimal impact on the environment.”

Solar cells and small windmills supply your power needs, while collected rain water is channelled through solar heaters. There’s a mini-kitchen and a composting toilet. Oh, and six legs.

Back to the blurb …

“It is a common fact that walking often helps a person concentrate their thoughts and creates a mental state that enforces mobility of the mind.”

Ok so far.

“The WALKING HOUSE is constructed to move at a pace similar to human speed exactly for this reason.”

Close-up of the Moving House's legs

Clump, clamp, clank! (Check out the youtube clip.) Like something out of The Tripods, a hexagonal house walks up the street in the middle of the night. Oh, that must be the Smith family making a midnight flit. Funny only the other day she said she was fed up with the neighbours!

“By adding several modules together the system can provide dwellings that adapts to social needs for living as a single person, in a family, a collective or even in a WALKING VILLAGE. In this way the WALKING HOUSE adapts to persons instead of persons having to adapt to the house.”

I’m not sure if the Caravan Club will be offering membership to Walking House owners any year soon, but it’s a novel design idea that grew out of the N55 group (can’t find a better word to describe them) being

Resting in the Walking House's living room
“... asked by Wysing Arts Centre to collaborate with a group of travellers in the area around Cambridge, where there has traditionally been a large population of travelers [sic] living in a symbiotic relationship with the settlers, making a living as seasonal workers on the farms. After an initial meeting with one of the groups, it was clear that the traditional nomadic culture was disappearing fast and the Romani people where settling down and living as a marginal group with all the problems that goes with this situation.”

And so the modern version of a Romani horse-drawn carriage was created. Coming to Boston soon.

“The WALKING HOUSE requires no permanent use of land and thereby challenges ownership of land and suggests that all land should be accessible for all persons. Society could administrate rights to use land for various forms of production of food for example, but ownership of land should be abolished.”
Walking House from above

N55 have also experimented with other Micro Dwellings and Urban Free Habitat Systems.

(via ShinyShiny and Geeky Gadgets)

Follow-the-moon, sustainable power?

“Customer service desks follow-the-sun while IT operations follow-the-moon like Richmond (behind the Red Door) in The IT Crowd!” (Alan in Belfast!)

In a world that never rests, global companies with global customers are starting to run help desks spaced out at eight hour intervals across the globe, providing their customers with support no matter where they are or what time it is, as well as minimising the need for overtime payments and crazy shift patterns. It’s referred to as follow-the-sun.

Still from Susan Watt's Newsnight report on global warming by computer (c) 2008 BBC

But last night’s report on global warming by computer from Newsnight’s science editor Susan Watts introduced a variant on that phrase - follow-the-moon.

It’s a method of minimising data centre power requirements (and costs) by always running the applications and servers that support business processes in locations that are in darkness.

Outside of the business day, temperatures are cooler, reducing the aid conditioning required in the vast data centre halls, often the size of several football pitches. (Using any country’s or culture’s definition of football!)

And out of hours, demand is lower and electricity suppliers offer cheaper off-peak rates, further reducing the cost to businesses.

So as long as you can afford to replicate the hardware infrastructure in multiple locations (two or at most three) and can virtualise the software and seamlessly shift it between servers (in different locations) without customers noticing, follow-the-moon offers a way to cut power requirements and cut costs.

Iceland offers another saving for data centre operators: air conditioning controlled by opening the data centre door a bit wider to let more of the artic wind blow up and down the aisles!

If you’re interested in green technology and sustainability - as it applies to enterprises - check out Tom Rafferty’s regular musings over at Greenmonk.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Faith and Freedom at the Belfast Festival

A conversation that veered from empty pulpits and lecterns in Catholic churches across Ireland, to the apparition at Knock, to whether hell exists, to Dawkins and secular atheism.

William Crawley, Ann Marie Hourihane, Malachi O'Doherty and Rev Lesley Carroll at the Belfast Festival Faith and Freedom discussion

The following quotes are from tonight's Belfast Festival Faith and Freedom discussion in the Elmwood Hall, hosted by William Crawley, the panel consisted of Ann Marie Hourihane, Malachi O'Doherty and Rev Lesley Carroll.

"Are revivals the Protestant equivalent of Roman Catholic apparitions?"

"I want to be up to my neck in the world - as a religious person - and not separate."

"... conversation not confrontation ..."

"The God Delusion is the Da Vinci Code of atheism"

"Atheism has become the default position for the frustrated, disappointed and down right lazy"

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Seventy Two Virgins - what kind of novel would you expect Boris Johnston to write?

Cover of Boris Johnston's Seventy Two Virgins

Boris Johnston has (and nurtures) an image of being bumbling, eccentric, jolly, articulate yet not smooth talking, classically trained, able to mock himself, pretending to be the common man except from a privileged background. His appearances in the media vary from comedic moments in Have I Got News For You to unconventional statesman waving the flags at Olympic and Paralympic closing ceremonies.

I started writing this post about a month ago ... and perhaps Boris has thrown off some of his bumbling persona more recently, and shed his cultivated amateur politico status to join the professional ranks with his short but decisive conversation with Sir Ian Blair that led to a vacancy at the top of London's Metropolitan Police Service.

Seventy-Two Virgins is a comic novel penned by Johnston (his first fiction?) and set against the backdrop of an unravelling terrorist attack at Westminster. The American President is coming to Westminster Hall to address the assembled MPs and staff. But an ambulance has gone AWOL and is making its way towards the security cordon with an unusual team of dangerous men on board.

The story unfolds and the pages turn quickly as the British and American security teams suffer from bad timing, bad personnel and bad mistake after bad mistake as they begin to sense that something is about to go spectacularly wrong. It’s a farce without the forced gags, and a fun bedtime read.

The title’s reference to seventy-two virgins comes from the promised reward in paradise for the terrorists. Though the - perhaps controversial - issue of 72 raisins is raised. Issues of taste, tact and humour abound, with a little explosive toilet humour near the end. And did the reader ever expect a US Secret Service sharpshooter called Pickle to be a deadly assassin?

Johnston’s cleverness is on show throughout the book. He doesn’t actually (need to) identify the political parties and persuasions of any of the characters, and only takes pot shots at the French, American and bad guy stereotyped players.

Surprisingly readable fiction ... that provided this week’s word of the week: ratiocination. Boris’ vocabulary is impressive!

Late for church

The problem with going to a local church is that you tend to turn up late. At least, that our experience. The closer you are geographically, the more last minute you make the dash down the road to the pew.

Ryanair flight coming in to land at Belfast City Airport one Sunday morning

On the other hand, we've discovered that a good thing about one local church is that it has a park nearby. Which means that if the weather's good, we can have fun with Littl'un on the swings (not locked up!) and the climbing frame, as well as watching the planes coming in low to land at Belfast City Airport, before darting across the road to settle down for the service. (The output from one service illustrated below.)

Of course, perhaps God is more Sabbatarian than I reckon ... this morning we were hoodwinked by the blazing sunshine we saw out the window at breakfast. So we headed down to the park a bit earlier than normal. But after a swing, twirl on the roundabout, and a rock on the springy-creatures, it was fr-fr-freezing. So we nipped up to local caff - a really decent wee greasy spoon - for a cup of tea and a slice of bread and jam for Littl'un.

But returning down the road to church, I glanced at my watch as we turned in through the gate. 11:31am. A minute late. Up to the door. Pushed it. Locked. Same on the other side. Same on all the doors. And it took a few good knocks on the door before someone heard, found the key, and let us in out of the cold to a warm welcome inside.

Perhaps our misfortune was linked with today being marked as Reformation Sunday - marking the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg back in 1517. Though it did bring about the interesting observation (and I re-phrase slightly) that perhaps the Protestant church today is in need of a second reformation!

The output of a sermon

While were on the subject of religion, the BBC's Director General Mark Thompson gave a lecture for Theos (a public theology think tank) a couple of weeks ago. It makes for fascinating reading or listening as he ponders the relationship between religion and the media, touching on successes like Manchester Passion and controversies like the Jerry Springer Opera.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Turning Christmas (tree) on its head

If you ever wanted to turn Christmas on its head, B&Q are now selling the Christmas trees for you!

Upside down ones!

Ummm. £49.98 for the largest fibre-optic glowing one in the top right photo.

I'm not sure if these will ever take off - in fact, a member of staff admitted that some of the upside-down trees (below) were actually last year's stock.

Last year's stock of upside down Christmas trees

So if you're feeling a need to distance yourself and your household from normal convention, head across to B&Q and get a new perspective on your tree.

Mind you, not for me!

(Though I have played around with less conventional trees in the past.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A bitter cold SARC ... the Festival postponed the John Cage concert, but did they tell anyone?

Tonight, I’m about to leave the house to head across to the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) on the Malone Road to the concert of John Cage music. Tech Camp visited SARC during the summer, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go back to hear something in their performance space. True surround sound. Above. Below. Front. Back. To the sides. Should be fun, even if 10pm is a late start. Let’s just hope that 4’32” isn't the only piece played. Four and a half minutes of surround sound silence could be too much!

So I drove over to the Malone Road, got parked, and walked up through the freezing cold to SARC. Lights off, gate locked shut. No sign of life. No sign of information. John Cage caged in?

Ticket for tonight's postponed John Cage concert at Belfast Festival

Checked my ticket. Thursday 23-October-2008. Start Time: 10:00 pm. That’s tonight. Went down the road to see if entry would be through the Crossland Building. No sign of life there either.

Checking the festival website on my Blackberry - though my thumbs were having trouble typing in the cold! - the John Cage concert is now listed as Tuesday 28 October. But no mention of a change of time.

I called in the QFT - the Festival’s ticket office - on the way home, and they confirmed that the concert was postponed to Tuesday night. But how was I to know? Having paid a £1.50 transaction charge when I ordered the tickets online on 30th August, would that extend to informing me of a change in date? The box office had my address to post out the original tickets, so did they write to me? Did they email me? No.

A waste of time and petrol.

Now to figure out if I’m even free next Tuesday night. I’ve been holding tonight free for nearly eight weeks now. Making sure that my wife was back in time to look after Littl’un while I would escape over to the late-night concert.

While the previous two Festival events have been enjoyable, tonight was a big let down. The only surround I experienced tonight was surround cold. Above. Below. Front. Back. To the sides.

Update Friday 6pm - The Festival got back this evening (twice!) with kind responses explaining that I'd "... come across the only error in the entire festival brochure. We thought we had contacted all bookers but appear to have neglected you." Trust in Festival restored!

Festival fun and ILBF music

It’s that arts and culture time of the year when the Belfast Festival programme oozes with tempting delights. Sticking mostly to wordy events, Sunday night was spent in the company of Sir Jeremy Isaacs.

And last night, it was back up to the same room at the top of the Linenhall Library to hear a little from authors David Park and Glenn Patterson. (Knowing that both authors sometimes call in at this blog, it was tempting to ignore the event! Apologies in advance.)

William Crawley interviewing authors Glenn Patterson and David Park at the 2008 Belfast Festival

Long time readers will know that I raved about Park’s book The Truth Commissioner when I reviewed it back in February, and then missed the launch due to airline/weather woes! Last night’s compère and interviewer William Crawley reaffirmed his view that it should have been on the Booker short-list this year.

“Reality can surpass even what your imagination can project.”

Alongside Park and sliding forward on his shiny seat - behind rather than chair - Patterson opened his section by reading a fantastic short piece Hives. Sometimes I wonder if Patterson’s best work can be found in these brief passages written standalone or contained over a couple of pages within his books. Well observed, often with comical asides. The audience laughed along with the excerpt from his most recent publication, Once Upon a Hill: Love in Troubled Times. Spending the first 29 years of my life in Lisburn, it never sounded so interesting as when Patterson described the 1920s riot that features heavily in his memoir, along with mention of Bachelor’s Walk and The Robin’s Nest.

Commenting on Park’s book, Patterson proposed that

“All books are about the time at which they are written.”

Even the ones set in the future reflect the conditions at the time of putting pen to paper (or characters on the screen). True too that NI authors are mainly

“writing into the gap between the image and the reality of Northern Ireland.”

They’re not the easiest pair to interview, so the evening rarely reached the point of conversation. But the insights into their writing, thinking and lives was exactly what the audience wanted to hear. And there was great mirth at the definition:

“Oxymoron - a DUP minister for culture!”

Speaking of culture, an hour before the Festival Talk, I’d been up in the Ormeau Baths Gallery at the Irish Language Broadcast Fund’s launch of their 2008/9 productions. The fund, administered by NI Screen, and reinvigorated by Gerry Adams’ intervention earlier this year, helps fund Irish language film and TV productions as well as nurturing a sustainable production industry.

Faoi Lan Cheoil celebrities performing at ILBF launch

As well as a show reel of upcoming productions on BBC NI and TG4 we were given a taste for Faoi Lán Cheoil, a nine-part series that follows eight celebrities on their journey to learn to play a Irish traditional instruments. Actor Jeremy Irons, playwright Marie Jones and leading dancer from Riverdance Dearbhla Lennon took up the challenge to show that you’re never to old to learn new tricks. After the tutors showed off their talents it was the turn of the celebrities. And after a false start, they got into the rhythm and played merrily.

For now, you can catch the series on TG4 on Wednesday evenings at 10.30pm, and possibly on BBC NI at a later date.

Tonight, I’m about to leave the house to head across to the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) on the Malone Road to the concert of John Cage music. Tech Camp visited SARC during the summer, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go back to hear something in their performance space. True surround sound. Above. Below. Front. Back. To the sides. Should be fun, even if 10pm is a late start. Let’s just hope that 4’32” isn't the only piece played. Four and a half minutes of surround sound silence could be too much!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sir Jeremy Isaacs - Belfast Festival - thoughts on Diversity and PSB

Jeremy Isaacs

On a previous visit to Northern Ireland in his role of chairman of the committee tasked with nominating the UK’s European Capital of Culture, Gerry Adams (jokingly) told Sir Jeremy Isaacs not to come back if he didn’t pick Belfast.

But the media industry and current affairs veteran was back in town on Sunday night as part of a Belfast Festival talk in the Linenhall Library, sponsored by local current affairs and factual indie Below the Radar.

The Festival were operating a no photographs rule - in case someone stole the speaker’s image? Anything in quotation marks is as accurate a quote as I was able to scribble down. This post is designed to capture what Isaacs said, and make it available to the wider local debate about PSB, rather than be any reflection of my personal opinion.

Well known for producing long-running documentary series like The World at War (26 part, broadcast while I was still in nappies), Ireland: A Television History (1980/1) and Cold War (24-part, 1998/9), he was the first chief executive of Channel 4 when it launched twenty six years ago before moving onto a turbulent spell at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House.

The talk began with his definition of how diversity can be identified in broadcasting, namely characteristics like “ethnic origin, location and accent”, where Isaacs reckoned that accent (the age, gender, mood etc) was a key quality:

“Listen out for the individual voice of a programme maker with something to say. They’re rare as hens teeth.”

Isaacs’ reckoned that today’s plethora of digital channels doesn’t “signify diversity” but instead points to “separation - films there, pop here”. Diversity should draw different genre and content together on a channel.

The old system of ITV regions created a set of powerful production centres that supplied network programming as well as their own regional content. So Coronation Street was a product of Granada, the north west of England franchise holder. Each ITV region chose whether or not to show the soap ... though they all did within four months of the show starting!

In contrast, Isaacs felt that today, the once diverse ITV has collapsed the majority of the regions down to single ownership and central control and is making drastic reductions in its regional news teams and non-news output.

“Diversity vanishing fast.”

The BBC’s Pebble Mill Studios opened in 1971, and its Birmingham network drama department commissioned programmed using their devolved responsibility. They decided what was made and ultimately put into the schedule.

Jana Bennett made an announcement last week about increasing the BBC’s out-of-London network programme spend to 50% by 2016, setting up regional production targets and movement of well-known network programmes to be sited in geographic production centres across the UK. (So by 2016, Northern Ireland’s contribution to BBC network programmes should rise from 0.4% to 3% ... better reflecting the proportion of licence fee payers living here.) Four or more network commissioning posts are also being created across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

While not insisting on geographic quotas, Isaacs argued that there is “still a requirement for devolution to prevent material having to make its way to the centre and then make its way back out again”.

“Radio and TV properly conducted ... give us an idea of the nation talking to itself ... many distinctive voices need to be heard though they may provoke complaints that they can’t be understood!”

Isaacs’ explained that while “we now know there’s no such thing as a mass audience” and “broadcasters need audiences large enough to make programmes viable”, the pursuit of the maximum audience is ultimately “boring”. He felt that the trend should be fought.
He suggested some audience reactions to good Public Service Broadcasting

    • “Be Surprised
    • Encounter the new
    • Get a life”

while improving the current state of PSB would require

    • “Decentralisation ...
    • Take the power of the commissioner (or some substantial part of it) away from the centre ...
    • Spread it about.”

To Isaacs, it seems too easy to offload productions to Cardiff and Glasgow but still receive the same completed programmes back at the centre, exactly as they would have been before.

“Shifting production around will bring economic benefit. But where’s the cultural advantage? Where’s the change of accent? If not, there’s no point ...

Broadcasters need to seek out the [bad handwriting!], the one-off, the weird, the inventive.”

Advocating a new condition on their licence, he would like Channel 4 to be ordered by Ofcom to make a significant proportion, say 30%, of programmes through small indies.

“Don’t let the big suppliers squeeze out the small producers ... we need to corner shop for diversity.”

Commenting further on the current low level of regional productions, Isaacs’ reckoned:

“Northern Ireland is seriously under-represented in the output of the BBC and of Channel 4. I understand the BBC’s plans are an extremely hopeful step in the right direction ... Channel 4 has publicly accepted not enough programmes made here reach its screens ...

Northern Ireland has 3% of the population. Northern Ireland’s programme makers contribute 0.3% [sic] of BBC’s output across the nation. A tenth of entitlement, if not expectation.

There will be no shortage of ideas if someone comes here and looks for them.”

In a reference to Jana Bennett’s comments about “changing the very DNA of the BBC”, Isaacs went on to worry that the BBC might be cloning its DNA rather than changing it. (And he wondered if it was even possible to change your DNA.) Would the lift and shift of programmes, or the new geographically distributed commissioners actually be enough? The real change of attitude would, he suggested, be to weaken central control and stop commissions all happening in the one corridor in London.

The talk finished with three short clips from productions which illustrated what Isaacs meant about the individual voice of a programme maker.

In the short Q&A session afterwards, Isaacs tackled questions about C4’s educational programme booklets, the lack of local television arts output as well as a tendency to timeshift network arts content to late night slots as well as explaining how the early Channel 4 struck a balance between its twin funding streams.

Commenting on the history and future of ITV, Isaacs said:

“ITV held onto the audience but made no attempt to understand it ... convinced government that they had to be a big enough player on the world stage to buy up international companies … so they centralised and combined ITV regions.

They now complain to government to allow it to drop commitments ... and once lean, they’ll be bought by an international conglomerate, but will loose any national, never mind, regional, commitment.”

Daily Mail image of Jeremy Isaacs and the Channel 4 logo

Asked what Northern Ireland had contributed to television, Isaccs responded that

“The Troubles awakened an interest in what was happening here ... but also awakened in broadcasters an interest in what was happening in normal people too.”

He finished with some comments about the Ireland: A Television History, a story which deserved a much wider audience, and a story which still had no end.

You can read more about the history of Channel 4 (and Isaacs’ involvement) in a couple of books: Dorothy Hobson’s Channel 4: The Early Years and the Jeremy Isaacs Legacy and Maggie Brown’s A Licence to be Different - The Story of Channel 4.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

International Organ Day

Phil O'Kane's photo of the organ pipes in 1st Presbyterian Church, Belfast

Just thought I should share the news that today is International Organ Day ... part way through the International Year of the Organ!

Celebrating playing with two hands, two feet and all those buttons.

Travelling back and forward from Belfast to Lisburn, I used to catch the merriment on The Organist Entertains on Radio 2. But I hear less and less from the pedals and pipes these days.

Andrea Rea had more detail in a piece on Sunday Sequence this morning. (Available online until next Sunday.)

(Photo by Phil O'Kane via Flickr)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Diary of Russell T Davies, aged 45 and three quarters

Book cover of Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale - Russell T Davies & Benjamin Cook

Russell T Davies has been associated with bringing Doctor Who back onto the screens of BBC One after a long absence. The combination of his writing ability, together with Julie Gardner’s production expertise seemed to take the risk out of reviving the science fiction show and making it in Cardiff.

Davies early TV experience started in children’s television production (even presenting a single episode of Play School) before changing emphasis to writing cheap’n’cheerful daytime soaps, ITV’s The Grand, Channel 4’s Queer As Folk, Bob and Rose and The Second Coming. And then he became show runner (combined writer, producer, and holding-the-show-together role) for Doctor Who, Torchwood and other spin-offs.

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale documents Davies’ email correspondence with Ben Cook, a Who aficionado writing for Doctor Who Magazine. For a year, as the fourth series was written, filmed and edited, Davies and Cook talked about the behind-the-scenes chaos and drama. Davies was remarkably frank – even with the opportunity to edit the conversation before publication – though the book’s publication does come as he starts to bow out of the programme and hand over to Steven Moffat.

In between questions and emails, the book is peppered with Davies’ scripts, walking the reader through the process of writing the first draft and the subsequent edits to get down to the right length and an affordable special effects budget.

Davies’ life in his Cardiff flat away from his Manchester home is full of juggling writing episodes out of sequence, editing and rewriting other people’s scripts, tone meetings and read throughs (and subsequent rewrites) for episodes about to be filmed, starting the editing process to tighten up already filmed episodes, as well as consideration for launch events, Christmas specials and the next series.

“I never think of it as work, really, no matter how much hard graft I actually do. Even if no one ever saw this stuff, I’d be doing it anyway.”

It’s funny to discover how quickly he generates ideas for big themes – the “One of them will die” prophecy – and then spends months changing his mind about how it’ll be played out on-screen. His ability to delay and procrastinate feel familiar :( yet he takes it to a whole new level.

Missing award ceremonies because he’s running behind with a story. It’s not uncommon to start costing (and even filming) without the script finished and locked down. And since Davies doesn’t write all the scripts for the series, he ends up editing them, in some cases rewriting all but the gist of the original author’s idea. Further slowing him down!

There’s a dichotomy to Davies’ role. While he torments himself over every last line in the script while writing it until the point of delivering to the production team, he then shifts into Executive Producer mode and detaches himself from the emotion he poured into the story and allows scenes and characters to be chopped for production and cost reasons without hardly a second thought.

A perfection writer, but a pragmatic producer (aided by Julie Gardner’s ability to sweet talk extra money, minutes or both out of the BBC’s Head of Fiction, Jane Tranter).

It’s a weighty tome – certainly not a book to be carried on the bus – and while it only covers the fourth series, it is an excellent read for Whovians and more normal Who-fans. To be honest, I skipped over most of the script extracts to get back to the fascinating Russell and Ben ping pong email chain.

Ikon SPEAKS - Understanding transformance art: faith, fetish and religion without religion ... Sunday night at 8pm

After a soft launch last month, on Sunday night Ikon is getting down to the serious business of thinking outside the box in The Black Box tucked into Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.

Three cans illustrating the three flavours of Ikon: Evolves, Speaks and Recalls

This year, Ikon’s taking a three-pronged approach to its monthly gatherings, cycling around between

  • Ikon EVOLVES - offering up a brand new experiment in transformance art;

  • Ikon SPEAKS - Pete Rollins or a guest will be serve up some food for thought, followed by music and discussion;

  • Ikon RECALLS - returning to a previous “ classic” gathering, re-imagining it and learning something new from it - and an opportunity for folk who missed the start of the party back in 2001.
Peter Rollins at his book launch - The Fidelity of Betrayal

Sunday 19th at 8pm is an Ikon SPEAKS, with Pete planning to talk around "Understanding transformance art: faith, fetish and religion without religion". The good news is that you don’t have to be a heretic or a hippy to attend ... though an open mind and a willingness to engage in debate never hurts.

Friday, October 17, 2008

citi credit card attempted theft thwarted

(It's a bit of a tabloid headline!)

As a policy, I generally pay credit card bills by Direct Debit. That way, I get the convenience of paying by plastic, but none of the pain of interest charges if I forget to pay the monthly bill in time. And when I was travelling three or four days a week, the chance of missing a bill or not getting through the pile of mail waiting at home was high.

So imagine my surprise on opening up the citi credit card bill tonight to discover the following two transactions on the bill.

Balance from Previous Statement £50.53

6/10/2008 Direct Debit Payment £50.53-

9/10 Interest Charge £1.00

That's all there was on the bill. An interest charge for paying the bill automatically. Theft!

Problem is that phoning up the credit card company to get your paltry £1 refunded costs me time and money. Particularly when having keyed in all the card and security details in response to the automated system, the first person to answer busied their lne and pushed me back onto the queue and back round the keying in cycle again.

The agent who answered second time round, went on hold and quickly came back with the encouraging statement that "it must be a system error" - something I've now heard several times from different credit card companies that have been liberal in their interest charges.

My initial request for them to refund the phone call was met with a we-don't-do-that response. But the "manager" was more enthusiastic, even if slightly too thankful that diligent customers rang in to tell them of their mistakes so the systems could be investigated and everyone else affected refunded on their next bill!

All seems a bit petty - even for me! - but in an age alternately labelled as a credit crunch and a credit crisis, it seems wise to make sure that the financial institutions learn to play fair and don't take advantage of their customers. (Though how they figure out that telephone calls cost 30p/minute is a question I left unasked ... £2.70 for the 9 minutes taken to resolve the call seemed like a good result. I'll let you know if it doesn't appear on the next bill.)

Some (more) movement at Belfast City Airport … and some questions.

In an announcement* that’s been long expected, the Department of the Environment have increased the permissible capacity of the recently sold Belfast City Airport.

  • The maximum number of flights is up 3,000 to 48,000 per year, but now includes previously non-counted flights (private jets and non-commercial aircraft).
  • The “seats for sale” limit has been increased by a third up to 2 million passengers. Clarification at 5.30pm - that's seats on sale for 2 million passengers flying out from Belfast City, with another 2 million passengers assumed to be flying back.

The airport’s public figures for flight movements show 41,893 in 2007, well under the limit (assuming there are small numbers of non-commercial flights).

However, the passenger volumes look to be in breach of the current and new target of seats for sale, with 2.1 million passengers in 2006, 2.2 million in 2007, and 1.9 million already in 2008. Will ping an email to the airport to see if there’s a rational explanation. Clarification at 5.30pm - so with a current "seats for sale" of 1.5 million in plus out, that's a current target of 3 million passengers - which this year's projections fall safely below. Next year's maximum would be 4 million (2 million in, 2 million out).

Belfast City Airport's graph of passenger volumes for 2006, 2007 and 2008 (to date) - graph copied on 17 Oct 2008

Environment Minister Sammy Wilson explained:

“The modified Planning Agreement represents the outcome of a lengthy, open and transparent review including consultation with Belfast City Council and North Down Borough Council plus the Airport Forum which includes representatives of the local residents’ groups.

Careful consideration has been given to all representations that have been made and I am satisfied that the modified agreement represents a balance between the concerns of the local residents and the economic benefits generated by the airport.”

*No official press release published yet on the Department of the Environment website. Update Tuesday 21 October - a press release backdated to 17 October has today finally been posted on the DOE section of the Northern Ireland Executive news release website.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Credit Crunch: Curse or Blessing?

Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland logo

Crookedshore has some information on his blog about tonight’s Catherwood Lecture on Credit Crunch: Curse or Blessing? to be delivered by Elaine Storkey in Union College (at the back of Queen’s). It’s being run by the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland in partnership with Tear Fund.

The lecture blurb explains ...

“With all the doom and gloom around global recession, where is the good news? In recent years CCCI has been involved in reflecting how our faith engages with and affects society as a whole. We are called to courageous investment in our society and this must have economic implications. As we struggle with rising fuel prices and falling house prices, the developing world struggles with soaring food prices. What difference does faith make to our economic decisions?”

Crookedshore adds ...

“The lecture is free and will be held at the Chapel in Union Theological College, Belfast beginning at 8pm. A large crowd is expected, if advance requests for info are to be believed so best get there reasonably early.”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Micro Compact Homes ... downsizing to match the economic downturn?

Micro Compact Home - at night

I've long had a Google alert set for news about the cube houses that grew out of a student project set by Prof Richard Holden at the Technical University Munich.

Known as micro compact homes (m-ch) they're basically teeny weeny white cubes - 2.66m x 2.66m x 2.66m, with a ceiling height of 1.98m, and weighing 2.2 tonnes. With a timber frame shell and clad with anodised aluminium (which may or may not look like the new Mac laptops due to be announced on Tuesday evening) they are easy to heat and easy to cool. Everything within easy reach. Not designed for cat swinging, though house gymnastics would be a cinch.

A tight squeeze round the table in a Micro Compact Home - photo by evilcoffee

Despite their compact and bijou interior, the minimal space can support two "compact" double beds, storage space, a sliding table allowing five people to dine, a TV (flat screen!), a shower and a toilet, a kitchen (including double hob, sink, microwave, fridge, freezer and storage) and air hearing/conditioning. Solar panels an option. £26k + installation + extras.

Collage of the inside of a Micro Compact Home - photo by Ramuardo

Perfect for students - like the O2-sponsored village of seven pods at the Technical University Munich that house six students along with Richard Holden (who seems to have fallen in love with the design).

Might be a safe bet for a Grand Designs!

Could build a tree of Micro Compact Homes!

Last week's Telegraph ran an article detailing a selection of other micro-homes, including the Loft Cube - which looks as good on top of a building as standing at ground level!

(Dining scene by evilcoffee; Collage by Ramuardo.)

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Danish clocks

There is a traditional Danish proverb that says:

"When you have a clock in your house, you know the time. Once you get two clocks you are no longer certain."

(ITIL Service Transition book)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Slugger Awards - for the wee guy and the big names

The Slugger Awards 2008 in W5, Odyssey

Tonight saw the inaugural Slugger Awards, an offshoot from the well politics (and space) group blog Slugger O’Toole. Deserving of a rare, politically-centric post on AiB.

Northern Ireland’s been a den of online political conversation, debate and bad-tempered argument for a long time. It’s out of that foundation of dial-up message boards that Slugger was born all those years ago. It’s produced a space where people already engaged by political goings-on at a local or national level can voice their opinions against the melee of other informed individuals - including those with vastly different views.

Getting the politically informed to talk to each other is a good first step in Northern Ireland, a land were you’re taught from an early age not to talk to strangers about politics or religion. Sometimes feels that as a consequence of that human advice, God blesses us with unusually notable weather to give us something to chat about!

But Slugger’s become an online watering hole where the less informed and less engaged can hazard an opinion too. A place where you’ll not get cut down too quickly, and where it’s possible to have an opinion without having to swear allegiance to a particular party. With a range of contributors, there’s a spectrum of commentary, and plenty of the post authors pitch in below the line in the stream of consciousness comments too.

Tonight’s awards were presented in the echoey atrium of W5 in the Odyssey. Belfast really lacks a diversity of non-political, non-hotel spaces in which to host a few hundred people. (But if W5 want to host too many more big evening events, they’d need to invest in some wall cladding!) Generous sponsors provided food, drink, big framed awards, and Tim McGarry humorous asides as he kept the night on the road.

Nevin Taggart from NALIL (North Antrim Local Interest List)

While a lot of the awards featured politicians, there was a good mix within the categories. Local councils and councillors as well as MLAs, Stormont Committee Chairs, and politicians providing representation outside NI in Westminster and Europe too.

Local newspapers reporting life in their communities as well as more prominent journalists. And a political blogger (left) with a real focus on north coast issues.

  • Up-and-coming Politician of the Year - Daithi McKay (Sinn Fein)
  • Local Newspaper of the Year - Impartial Reporter
  • Local Council of the year - Belfast City Council
  • Local Councillor of the Year - Deirdre Nelson (DUP)
  • Trevor Reaney, newly in post Director general of NI Assembly Commission
  • Jobsworth of the Year - Assembly Commission (and it was collected in good humour by the newly appointed director general Trevor Reaney - pictured to the right with his award)
  • Journalism Award - David Gordon (Belfast Telegraph)
  • Stormont Committee Chair of the Year - Danny Kennedy (UUP)
  • Political Blogger of the Year - Nevin Taggart behind the North Antrim Local Interest List (NALIL)
  • External Eternal Representative (MPs, MEPs and others) - Peter Robinson (DUP MP)
  • MLA of the Year - Naomi Long (Alliance)

Living in East Belfast, it was good to see two of our MLAs present - Dawn Purvis and Naomi Long (below). Good also to hear politicians praising good traits and hard work in their peers in other parties. So clips of unionists on screen naming nationalists and vice versa. Less generous for Iris Robinson to heap praise on her own party colleagues but no wider.

Naomi Long with her award for MLA of the Year at The Slugger Awards 2008

Unfortunately no space awards, though perhaps next year the Armagh Observatory might want to sponsor a category.

Sometimes you’d think that politicians would prefer if only their party won votes and seats to the exclusion of everyone else. Yet without a variety of opinion, politics would become totalitarian and democracy would be lost! But tonight guards seemed to be down, and I hope the politicians, their minders and their supporters caught a glimpse of the benefits or a wider engagement and a more collaborative approach.

So a splendid effort by Mick Fealty and his team to get such a range of sponsors to make the event possible and free. And perhaps a further encouragement for political structures, big and small, to seek recognition and appreciation from beyond their natural constituency over the next 12 months.

PS: Did I get the feeling that Channel 4 - one of the sponsors - are trying really hard to get a foothold in Northern Ireland as they set up the local outpost of their 4iP digital media initiative and build links with the local digital and media community. Stuart Cosgrove and Ewan McIntosh both in attendance to hand out awards!

Update: Davy Sims' Digital Circle podcast catching the atmosphere and some of the attendees and winners appeared a couple of hours after the awards finished.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Gerry and his Cookie Monster watch

Promo shot for Northern Ireland's Sesame Tree

Now AiB has had a minor fixation with the local Sesame Tree programme, helped by a visit to see the production company with the PCI Tech Campers, and an occasional email conversation on the subject.

Martin McGuinness allowed himself to be photographed with Hilda and Potto at the show's launch earlier this year. But according to Mark Devenport's excellent blog last week, Gerry Adams has gone one step further.

Gerry and the Cookie Monster

Gerry Adams is in the United States, ostensibly telling Americans about the serious nature of the current deadlock. However I suspect that his real purpose is to go shopping for muppet memorabilia.

Apparently he ran in to the President of Sesame Workshop, Gary Knell, at last month's meeting of the Bill Clinton's Global Initiative group in New York. Sesame Workshop make both the legendary Sesame Street and the local version, Sesame Tree.

The SF President told the SW president that Sesame is "huge" here. Then Gerry showed Gary his wrist, on which he proudly sported a Cookie Monster watch. Mr Knell's view was that this was as good as it gets.

Sesame, of course, doesn't just appeal to republicans. When Gary Knell visited the Assembly earlier in the year, the Speaker Willie Hay presented him with an Ian Knox cartoon of 108 muppets outside Stormont.

You couldn't make it up!

Swing Girls - another insight into Japanese culture

I’m still getting to grips with Japanese cinema. I have easy rules of thumb for many national cinematic productions. Danish films centre around family relationships. French films tend towards atmosphere and emotion, often dark and sometimes surreal, with no need to produce concrete endings. Australian films shy away from sunshine and adopt a darker, drug-induced tone. Irish films appear low-budget (since they are) and park in a lot of angst with a small cast.

Japanese films are harder to label.

Swing Girls DVD cover

Last night’s entertainment was a borrowed DVD of Swing Girls. After an unfortunate set of accidents leading to the food poisoning of the school brass band, it is essential that a replacement band is formed and rehearsed in order to support the baseball team at their next important match.

The original culprits make another bad choice and decide to drop their remedial maths lessons by joining the band. Except their musical experience is mostly limited to playing the radio. Over time, and with many adventures along the way, a few core members finally get the rhythm of swing and become a jazz big band. But the now-recovered school brass band are not impressed.

It takes a long time to tell the story. The first half hour feels like a set of sequences that were roughly edited together but never finished. But it sets up the social background of the film, the education system, different treatment for star performers, rich and poor, girls deemed to have weight problems but without actually carrying excessive weight.

It initially feels like a film to be abandoned, but the last hour improves. Some things still baffled me by the end.

  • The remedial maths class was all female. Are Japanese school classes largely gender segregated even through the overall school is mixed?
  • Without giving away the story for any AiB readers who will go on to watch the film, the big band do eventually enjoy some success. Yet the film ends without the success being marked. It’s implied. Perhaps emphasising that personal satisfaction in reaching and demonstrating your dream is more important than official recognition.
Scene from Japanese film, Swing Girls

According to the unerring IMDB:

“All the music scores in the movie were actually performed by the actor and actresses themselves. They were not dubbed. Many of the actresses had never played an instrument before. They took intensive music lesson at Yamaha Music School for several months before the shooting began. To promote the movie, the actor and the actresses performed live in concerts in Japan and USA.”

While my knowledge of brass fingering is sketchy, I suspect that the actors may well have dubbed over their pictures. Despite that, the film is full of toe-tapping music from Glenn Millar and others.

A great soundtrack that makes up for the less-than-driven plot as the swing girls (and one boy) learn about what it takes to be committed to and passionate about performing music, discover what really goes on behind the doors and inside the head of their dull-looking remedial maths teacher.

Back to labelling Japanese films. Perhaps the trend is that they have a tendency to take a strange situation and then add a lot of unexpected but not overdramatic twists, concentrating on exploiting people’s weaknesses until they find solutions to improve.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Quatermass Experiment - science fiction doesn’t have to be nerdy

Scene out of The Quatermass Experiment

Feels like a repeat post … and it is! Back in December 2006 I mentioned watching a repeat of The Quatermass Experiment on BBC Four. Originally broadcast in 2005 as a hundred minute live drama, it featured David Tennant as a doctor, it mixed together space, science and the unknown, and brought back memories of reading (all but the last page of) Quatermass and the Pit when I was still at school.

I caught another repeat of The Quatermass Experiment on iPlayer a few weeks ago, and watched it before it timed out last night. Despite the original story being written and broadcast as six half hour episodes in 1953, with the slight revisions added as part of the abridged 2005 version, it was still an engaging drama.

Also helps show that science fiction doesn’t have to be nerdy, minority and full of shiny space suit shoulder pads, but can break out and be intelligent, accessible and relevant.

Though I’m now struggling to think of many examples of other sci-fi that “breaks out” other than The Last Enemy, Superstorm Primeval or Torchwood. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Google's time machine - searching the web as if it was still 2001

Google has been celebrating its tenth birthday. They restored the oldest search index that they have archived ... from 2001 when the web was a tad more bijou and compact!

Google's restored 2001 search index

So no mention of alaninbelfast back then!

Searching Google's 2001 index for alaninbelfast - 0 hits

And while Blogger was up and running - certainly not the only blogging platform back then - it occupied a more modest corner of the internet.

Only 3 hits for when searching Google's 2001 index

Google's historic search index links where possible into the Internet Archive's excellent Wayback Machine - so you can see some of the sites as they looked all those years ago. homepage from 2001