Friday, January 30, 2009

Crashed Chip and PIN machine at BHD

Crashed Chip and PIN machine at Belfast City Airport

Grabbing breakfast at the City Airport before joining the queue for the Ryanair flight to Stansted (and ultimately being ordered to drink up or throw out the carton of tea before boarding), the Chip and PIN machine at the cash till was not having a good morning.

Display on crashed Chip and PIN machine at Belfast City AirportDisplay on crashed Chip and PIN machine at Belfast City Airport

PMS makes it onto the Channel 4 news

Home Heating Oil - getting a good deal

As I’m sometimes reminded at home, I’m not always the most business savvy.

I’ll scan Amazon for the cheapest edition of a book I wanted to read (not always settling for the most recent print as they tend to be more expensive than older ones), I'll shop around for gadgets online, and in a multi-million pound ITT exercise I’ll pour over the pros and cons of what the tenderers are proposing. Bit I’m less rigorous when it comes to home purchases like heating oil.

Hylands Fuels

I’ve been using Hylands Fuels for a long time. When we moved into Dundonald six and a bit years ago, Hylands were a local Dundonald-based supplier, offering a same-day fill-you-up-on-the-way-back-to-the-depot service. Three years later when we shifted to Ballyhackamore, they kept the business.

Most of the time I didn’t even phone around to get other quotes. Supporting local seemed more important than saving a few pounds.

But with the move to Lisburn, I had a crisis. Take the cheapest option available on or, find a local Lisburn supplier, or stick with Hylands (who are no longer local)?

In the end I made the call to Hylands, and after the embarrassing conversation about having a lower quote but wanting to give them the business, they matched the deal I’d found as long as I paid in advance by debit card (which I would have had to do for the other quote anyway).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

EDCO closing down

Another one bites the dust.

EDCO closing down sale in Belfast

Purveyor of exercise books, coloured paper, 11 plus papers, and in the olden days, BBC Micros and Cumana disc drives.

And very soon to be no more.

Call in to 47-49 Queen Street and pick up a bargain A5 notebook, an A2 sketch pad, or a selection of Ladybird storybooks at 50% off before it's too late!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Three things I learnt about 3 mobile broadband

Three logo

Moving house and being without a network connection for an indeterminable length of time seemed like a good opportunity to check out 3’s PAYG mobile data dongles.

The first thing to know is that although 3 are still advertising the Huawei D100 home routers on their website and in their stores, there haven’t been any in stock in Northern Ireland (Belfast stores and Lisburn at least) since Christmas, and the stores are holding waiting lists of keen customers.

3's Huawei E156G mobile broadband USB dongle

Second thing is that the data download speeds I experienced in Lisburn with the 3 dongle (Huawei E156G) were basically dial-up speeds – you could watch the BBC News home page downloading over half a minute or so. And downloading a short audio podcast was taking twenty minutes. Nothing like the suggested coverage. Only three bars out of eight on the GUI ... and it was killing all the USB ports on the Mac Mini after twenty minutes or so use, forcing a reboot.

The third thing to know is that there’s a three day return period for 3 mobile broadband equipment. (Unlike Orange which offer a more generous 14 days.) If you’re not happy with coverage, you can return the mobile dongle to any 3 store to get a full refund, not just the one you bought it from. (Though they had to ring up to check.)

So while I know some readers of AiB that have had very positive experiences with 3’s mobile dongles, I was unable to join the club.

And one last bonus learning point. 3’s PR team don’t seem to answer their emails ... well, the ones sent by bloggers anyway! Maybe they’ll get in touch after this post?

Welcome to Lisburn (now updated)

The kind of town city where you can put newspapers, magazines and dry cardboard in the recycling bin, but you can’t put normal paper or envelopes (even ones with the windows torn off). So that means that most post will end up in the bin (and the local landfill) and not be recycled. Correction - Mon 2 Feb - the Waste Management Officer has got back to me and although office paper isn't mentioned on the literature, it can be put in the green bins.

And unlike Belfast, Lisburn City Council don’t seem to run a home composting scheme where households can pay a small amount to purchase a compost bin for their back garden, further reducing the kitchen/food waste that gets thrown into the black bins? Correction - Mon 2 Feb - they do run such a scheme - just not advertised on the website - and composters are available by calling 0800 092 0246 and paying £5 for a voucher that will allow you to collect a composter from their Altona Road depot (or +£10 for delivery).

Found them:

  • 75% of 1995 baseline levels by 2010
  • 50% of 1995 baseline levels by 2013
  • 35% of 1995 baseline levels by 2020

After all, don’t Councils have waste reduction targets, and fines from Europe if they don’t meet them in a few years time?

Anyway, at least they posted through the information about the normal/recycling bin rota, even if they didn’t mention which day our street is collected!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

EasyJet feels so much safer than Ryanair

It's funny, but I've a grudging respect for easyJet. I like to think it's the good influence of Go - the British Airways lowcost operator who got swallowed up by easyJet a lot of years ago.

easyJet take safety very seriously. They must know that "low cost" would quickly be reversioned "corner cutting" if they were involved in an air accident, and their business would be doomed.

Ryanair logo

On the other hand, Ryanair have had their fair share of thrills over the years - remember the plane that didn't land at Derry airport? - and yet onboard I get no feeling of confidence about safety.

This morning's FR6122 red eye from Belfast City to Stansted started badly, with boarding sequence numbers being completely ignored, and passengers being boarded like cattle.

Then there was the "put that hot drink in the green bin before you board" instruction as I walked out towards the plane. Bad enough that they charge so much for on-board refreshment, but worse still to deprive passengers of finishing drinks (in cups with lids) bought in the terminal.

But the worst problem was during the safety announcement. There's pretty good evidence that when people listen to the announcement and are aware of the brace position and the locations of emergency exits, they are significantly more likely to get off a crashed plane alive.

So it was appalling to realise that at the point the safety announcement had started to describe the location of the exits, one of the cabin crew wasn't yet in place to wave her arms in time with the words. She got in place and caught up a few seconds later, but it seemed to underline the lack of rigour with which Ryanair view these things. And potentially deprived some passengers of a clear mental picture about the exits.

Surely the senior cabin crew shouldn't have okayed starting the tape until everyone had stopped doing their pre-takeoff duties and taken their proper positions?

Ryanair could do with instilling more confidence in their customers minds as they travel in their blue and yellow portable shopping arcades.

Update - bought a copy of Ruinair to read on the way home!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Out to Lunch with Zoë Conway and John McIntyre

Zoë Conway was on the lunchtime menu at the Out to Lunch festival on Friday. The perfect way to relax in the middle of frantic box-unpacking. Fiddling alongside her talented guitar-playing husband John McIntyre, she wowed the gathered crowd with blue grass amongst a wide variety of musical styles.

Zoë Conway at 2009 Out to Lunch festival in Belfast's Black Box

While the music was amazing, the body language was fascinating to watch. Often playing with her eyes closed, as if feeling her way through the music, Zoë would look up at the appropriate moment, catch John’s eye and the rhythm would switch or the tune would change.

Now speaking (posting?) as someone with a lowly Grade 4 certificate in the violin, Zoë’s nimble finger work was amazing. It’s obvious now that God didn’t intend violins to be limited to being played on one string at a time, or for pizzicato to be purely the preserve of the player’s right handed fingers ... or for the four strings to be locked into being tuned to G D A and E.

Zoë Conway at 2009 Out to Lunch festival in Belfast's Black Box

If only the photographs could have captured the clouds of rosin that scooted up into the air whenever the strings were particularly strongly attacked with the bow.

A great concert. And for me, the last ticket for this year’s enjoyable Out to Lunch festival.

Adapted banner for 2009 Out to Lunch Arts Festival

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Alan in Belfast is undergoing a transition too

It's been quiet on the blog over the last few weeks. I've been preoccupied. There are a couple of posts overdue about Out to Lunch festival events, but they'll have to wait.

Before Christmas we came to the decision to move house. I delayed doing anything about it until the New Year. And so on the Monday 5th we rang up to look round a house, on Wednesday 7th we signed the lease (on a different house), and two weeks later - today - we're all boxed up and moving in. (Renting is so much faster than the process of buying!)

[They're started heaving the boxes of books out now.]

East Belfast has been a wonderful home over the past six years. Real community, great neighbours, a bakery around the corner (try the Golden Crumb's cinnamon loaf), the Orient takeaway, a convenient Post Office (until they closed it), two miles from St George's Belfast City Airport (until the travel ban), and ten minutes from work (during the school holidays at least).

But with Littl'un starting school in September, and P1 classes getting out earlier than most UK car plants these days, being nearer to grandparents sounds like a good move.

So Alan in Belfast is off (back) to Lisburn ... which we'll refer to from here on as "Belfast's Bedroom".

Spending the first 29 years of life living in Lisburn, it's hard to get too excited about going back. Now I don't want to be mean, and perhaps I'll (re)discover the joy of Lisnagarvey, but it's not an instant attraction. Lisburn's a nice enough town (I mean, city), but lacks the character and depth of Belfast.

[Time passes ... Arms stretch ... Boxes of books still being carried.]

So will the blog name change? No.

I'll still be working and enjoying Belfast, just talking about it from a suburb! And maybe there'll be the odd post about the joy of trying to get our old house fixed up and on the rental market over the coming months.

So anyone wanting to buy or rent a 4 bedroom 2 reception house in Belmont/Ballyhackamore, double fronted, garage, quiet street, lovely neighbours, good schools nearby ... drop me an email!

[The wardrobes are coming down ... much panting and shouted instructions from the boss. I wish I could have recorded it - would make terrific imaginative radio. But the desk will be worse.]

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Crossover between two (digital) US transitions

There are two transitions happening at the moment in the US.

One is well known – the Obama transition from being president-elect to taking over power and being sworn in as President on Tuesday.

The other is the US-wide shut-down of the analogue terrestrial TV network (ie, using aerials to pick up analogue TV signals) and switchover to digital terrestrial.

Analogue switchover image from Media Guardian's Organ Grinder blog

The UK is doing its own Digital Switchover (DSO), phasing this change in between 2008 and 2012. Northern Ireland will be (one of) the last region to move, and the timing – whether before or after the London Olympics are broadcast on Freeview in HD using clawed back spectrum – remains uncertain.

However, in the US, they’re taking the big bang approach. And that’s where the two transitions collide. The Obama team have recently written to Congress to ask them to delay the shut down of the analogue signal.

The Department of Commerce is running a coupon programme to offer households $40 discount vouchers to use when purchasing digital set top boxes. But all the coupons have now been handed out, leaving a growing waiting list of people unable to get a voucher until the currently distributed ones expire and can be reallocated.

There are also questions on whether the FCC call centre (scaled for 350,000 calls/day) will be able to handle the predicted 1.5 million calls from confused consumers in the first two days following switchover.

Nielson research from December showed that 7.8 million (6.8% of US households with TVs) were completely unprepared. Hispanic households were worst prepared, with 11.5% facing no TV reception post switchover, compared to 6.2%)of non-Hispanic households.

The proposals to postpone the US digital transition until June 12 have support from broadcasters like ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC as well as consumer and community groups and some politicians (including Obama). However, the FCC are not keen, citing consumer confusion and engineering work already scheduled by broadcasters to boost the power to existing digital transmitters and remove their analogue antennae. Congress will soon vote on the issue.

Check out the Broadcast Engineering Podcast Headlines for 14 January for more details.

(Image from Media Guardian’s Organ Grinder blog.)

PMS :: the UK financial scandal that isn’t embarrassing enough to cajole the UK government into action

Presbyterian Mutual Society (PMS) logo

A couple of posts in November 2008 passed comment on the Presbyterian Mutual Society debacle. In some ways things have moved on since then, and in others they haven’t.

The administrator has now written to PMS members asking them to vote on his proposal to slowly run down the PMS to maximise return on investments (and perhaps leave it running as a going concern), rather than a fast winding up that would definitely undervalue the society’s assets (commercial property).

The main factor that caused PMS members to forget mutuality and seek to withdraw their investments was the government’s move to guarantee investments in other unstable mainstream financial institutions. If PMS had been run under the watchful eye of the Financial Services Authority (FSA), then it would have been covered by the guarantee and not left vulnerable.

So after initial murmurings and letter-writing, at last the NI Executive seems to have turned its full attention to the matter, with (Presbyterian) Sir Reg Empey suggestion on the Nolan Show last week that the First and Deputy First Ministers would now be taking their appeal for fairness to Gordon Brown in a face-to-face meeting.

But it seems strange that the national press and media haven’t really picked up the story of perhaps the only UK financial institution that is being allowed to fail in this crisis. Even UK investors in Icelandic banks (somewhat outside the FSA’s normal remit) were rescued by the UK government. Yet PMS is only failing due to the UK government’s protection of other institutions.

Despite this, the plight of PMS barely gets a column inch in the national press, and doesn’t get an airing (that I’ve discovered) on financial programmes like Radio 5 live’s Wake up to Money or BBC Two’s Working Lunch.

But while the story just smokes in the corner, there’s no embarrassment for the government and no impetus for action. (Mere moral obligation doesn’t seem to be a motivator.)

Update - Monday 19 January - there's a petition running on the 10 Downing Street website calling on the Prime Minister to "provide similar governmental guarantees to UK mutual societies as for banks" which you can sign online if you agree with the statement.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Out to Lunch with Shappi Khorsandi

I was going to start this post by saying

If you liked your comedy dark and spicy ...

... but that sounds like a line straight out of Shappi Khorsandi’s mouth!

Shappi Khorsandi at Out to Lunch 2009 Festival in Belfast

Flying over to Belfast wearing her Ugg boots and expecting to appear on Out to Lunch - a local radio show - Shappi helped the local economy by purchasing more stylish shoes to accompany her Guinness-fuelled lunchtime gig as part of the Out to Lunch festival.

An intimate affair *not* with more that a hundred people crammed around tables, supping their stew and pasta in the gloom while Shappi tried to break the ice and get her routine going.

Born in Iran, moved to London, moved across London, and now appearing on Radio 4, Shappi regaled the gathered punters with a loosely coupled set of material, imitating a range of accents and with few subjects off limits. Quite an in-your-face routine for so early in the day. But she pulled it off with style, telling jokes at the expense of family members, most minorities, most majorities, Israel, Iran, the audience, and not forgetting herself. Offence liberally doled out to all sections of society.

Talking about her early life in London, Shappi quipped how she was sent to the

“Brownies … an after school club for Asian kids!”

Anyone sitting in the front row was a fair target for Shappi’s inquisitive probing – particularly if you walked across the front of the stage after her routine started, tried to withhold information, or admitted to being Iranian. So alongside Shappi, the stars of the show included the (often-random) interventions from Rosie, Joan and Reza.

Shappi Khorsandi at Out to Lunch 2009 Festival in Belfast

Many of her jokes have race at the heart of them. One memorable line ran

“I read the Daily Mail. All the other apers turn your fingers inky. The Daily Mail turns your fingers white!”

A good start to the short season of lunchtime (and some evening) events. Check out last week’s post about the festival and get your tickets booked early for the other performances over the next two and a half weeks.

Adapted banner for 2009 Out to Lunch Arts Festival

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

2008 travel round up

Crowded scene at Terminal 1 Heathrow on Wednesday 20 December 2006

Life is fairly busy at the moment, so posts are sparse.

But some late seasonal rounds up should appear over coming days, starting with the annual travel round-up.

Back in October 2007, I saw a marked change in my normal frantic travel pattern. Stopping working for a London-based team dramatically cut my flights. Since then, there has continued to be a general slow down in travel with a near travel ban in work for the past few months.

  • In total, I sped down a runway and took off 32 times in 2008.
    (2007 = 83; 2006 = 82; 2005 = 100)
  • I spent 18 nights in 9 different hotels, but only 9 nights for work.
    (2007 = 65 nights in 10 hotels; 2006 = 51 nights in 18 hotels; 2005 = 64 nights)
  • I’ve spent 31 days outside Northern Ireland, 18 of those days for work.
    (2007 = 101; 2006 = 85; 2005 = 114)

Unbelievably, I haven’t been in an airplane since the end of August ... which would explain the lack of travel rants in 2008!

Locally, Belfast City Airport was given the go ahead to increase its passenger and plane capacity, was sold off by Ferrovial for £132.5m, and finally submitted its application to extend the runway.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

(not so quick) Review of 2008

The most common question in our house on 31 December was

“What were your highlights of the year?”

Cue lots of head scratching, memories of holidays, trips away, and minor reminisces. But the question stuck with me today and I remembered more and more. So, quickly trawling back through a year of blog posts – which tend to cover major thoughts or events – here’s my less-than-compact review of 2008. (I'll add in some photos to break up the link-fest tomorrow.)

January 2008

January started as snow fell fast on the first Thursday night, delaying return to work by a day and instead we spent Friday building snowmen with Littl’un. After posting an unfavourable review, we were invited back for a second meal in two rooms on University Road and enjoyed it a lot. Toby Hadoke provided lunchtime titters as he explained how Moths Ate My Dr Who Scarf at the Out for Lunch festival, followed by a slightly bizarre “conversation” between local authors Glenn Patterson and Malachi O’Doherty. There was a rather full weekend that started with a conference in Windsor (including Evensong in Windsor Chapel followed by nibbles in the cloister) and finished with the building of seven of Ikea’s finest BILLY bookcases. Oh, and the yellow Mini went back and was replaced for six months with a second hand Smart Roadster and the first of many attempts to get a second key cut!

February 2008

February saw in the Chinese New Year (year of the rat), voting for the next Presbyterian Moderator Donald Patton (and my rational desire of a Panini sticker book of PCI ministers), a Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (“brokenness ... offset with determination”), the launch of David Park’s superb book The Truth Commissioner, the relocation of the Jaffe Fountain, and a look at CCTV cameras around the Waterfront.

March 2008

In March, AiB was two years old. Victoria Square opened to much fanfare, reasonable crowds, the sound of a hundred shutters taking photographs of the elaborate structure, and the (tedious) game of where and when will the Apple Store open started in earnest. There was mention of looming Muppetry in the Sesame Tree, a blogger meet-up in church followed by a great evening of Ladino music at the Los Desterrados concert in Belfast’s Synagogue and one of my photos from the night ended up in the national Jewish Chronicle – whose website is strangely! The BBC’s Passion provided food for thought over Easter and there was a superb concert of Big Tunes & Anthems by Shaun Davey in the Waterfront on St Patrick’s’ Day. I also announced that single parents should be issued with medals ... at least annually and reviewed a purloined copy of the redesigned Third Way magazine (the one with that Ben Elton interview in it).

April 2008

April was the month that Northern Ireland Post Offices came under threat. Philip Johnston returned to estate agency in East Belfast and rescued MCW Residential. Ryanair made dubious and unsubstantiated claims about their flightpaths out of Belfast City Airport over Belfast Lough and I favoured Ikon (later Mystery Worshipped) over the Celebration of Hope. Belfast Courts erected a squiggle. The bookworms - Samson and Goliath - finally appeared on-screen alongside Potto and Hilda in Sesame Tree. Belfast had a miniture flash mob. And car problems meant I caught the bus to work.

May 2008

May saw little fanfare until the last minute when the display MOT certificates became mandatory. AiB started to scrutinise supermarkets’ pricing policies of different sizes of boxes of tea bags. We went to Streamvale Open Farm on a blistering hot May Day (summer came really early). Freesat launched, though it was hard to find any set top boxes in Belfast. And after April’s car problems, the Polo turned into a C-Max (with the inevitable second key fiasco). At the Eurovision Song Contest, Dustin turned out to be a turkey. AiB took illicit photos at the Barry and Basil Show up at Stormont and returned to the grounds for some Red Bull Soapbox racing. Cheryl threw herself off the top of the Europa Hotel. I mused on what makes a good or bad church website, and then reflected on Ofcom’s latest nations and regions market communications report.

June 2008

In June, the Post Office consultation results were published and Belmont Post Office was confirmed for closure. More on tea bags. The NI peace process was compared to a game of chess and there was a visit to Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich over on the Falls for a spot of Irish chorale music. We went to France, didn’t book seats in advance for the TGV, didn’t climb the Eiffel Tower, and I didn’t enjoy the experience of ordering (and eating) profiteroles that arrived filled with cottage cheese and served with lettuce. Meanwhile a Lexus SUV tried to drive over a Porsche Boxster and a Toyota Celica in the Lisburn Road Co-Op car park. And a Sunday morning visit to Summer Madness with Littl’un was good despite the atrocious weather.

July 2008

At the beginning of July I ordering a new car for delivery in August and I noticed that my cars have been shrinking over time. Belfast rolled out it’s new branding. I met someone I’d previously blogged about and he unexpectedly remembered what I’d written. Always write to be read! I discovered just how deafening Lambeg Drums could be in a small community hall at the beginning of a cultural exploration of all things orange while a Swiss journalist and his family stayed with us over the Twelfth. So we took in the Belfast launch of Orangefest (and an interview with First Minister Peter Robinson) before things hotted up with a tour of East Belfast bonfires. The next morning witnessed the main Belfast Twelfth parade (all two hours of it) before discovering what happened afterwards at the field. The Belfast County Grand Lodge never did come back with any comment about the "Peace Keepers" toy guns on sale at the Belfast field. Being part of a photographic exhibitionAdd to Set – as part of the Trans Festival in the Waterfront Hall was an unexpected (and undeserved) opportunity and a great end to a busy month.

August 2008

In August I handed back the Smart Roadster and picked up the Toyota Aygo after a short delay. (Though I never bored you with the tale of the subsequent key cutting!) Tech Camp dominated the start of the month with a superb scavenger hunt and visits galore, more stop-go animations than I could fathom, and including an interesting one to SARC and a brilliant (and unexpected) one to the production company behind Sesame Tree. Other excitement included attending a wedding that was being filmed (for an as-yet unbroadcast late-night TV series), the new Broadway underpass on the Westlink turning into a gigantic swimming pool and Dalek cookies. Meanwhile, the Apple Store was furtively built and photographed while a Sheffield car park turned into another photo opportunity.

September 2008

September's Creative Camp Belfast was excellent. The big red switch was thrown on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (which spun off a rap and a hymn). I bought some monster ginger, the Proms came to Belfast City Hall ... oh, and AiB blog visit stats went through the roof as the Apple Store finally opened in Victoria Square (and I snuck in for a tour before the queue). The Independent newspaper went full colour (but had teething problems in Northern Ireland).

October 2008

In October, AiB went along with The Slugger Awards in the echoey atrium of W5. There was an architectural focus on Micro Compact Homes and a walking house. Sir Jeremy Isaacs had interesting things to say about diversity and Public Service Broadcasting at the Belfast Festival, while “Oxymoron” was defined as “a DUP minister for culture” at a conversation hosted by William Crawley between authors David Park and Glenn Patterson. The Festival forgot to say that the John Cage concert at SARC had been postponed … but the when it did go ahead it “asked more questions than it gave answers” (but was never blogged about).

November 2008

November again witnessed one of the side effects of blogging - the random invitations that occasionally arrive. So I donned my tux and bow tie to attend a free local showing of the new Bond film Quantum of Solace and met more Aston Martin owners that I realised existed in Northern Ireland. Obama won the US Presidential election, CNN experimented with holograms, and McCain gave a concession speech that will surely not easily be bettered. Vodafone’s Liveguy was nearly persuaded to come to Northern Ireland to hand out free 3G-enabled netbooks - but in the end didn't. There was a great Thanksgiving dinner. The Presbyterian Mutual Society came into the news when a minority of its members stopped acting in the mutual interest of all its members. And I went to see Hunger.

December 2008

December was the month in which David Cameron came to town and answered questions about The-Thing-With-No-Name set by local punters. The doors closed on Woolworths for the last time. Bells were rung for climate change outside St Anne’s Cathedral. A carol service was enjoyed, a cake was superbly decorated and an old Mac turned up in a stocking.

A busy and varied year ...