Wednesday, September 30, 2009

East Belfast Speaks Out .. they spoke out

While James Smyth claims not to know what a blog is, he knows all about community. Along with three others, he came up with the idea of East Belfast Speaks Out – an open forum for members of the public to come along and put questions to public figures. Over 130 people, young and old, turned up at Ashfield Boys High School this evening to hear local politicians, a shadow NI minister and the local head of Amnesty answer their questions.

East Belfast Speaks Out flyer

Stimulated by “(the hugely successful) West Belfast Talks Back moved to the Holywood Road”, the organisers’ aims were:

  • To provide access to leading politicians to discuss issues of general concern to the public
  • To encourage active participation in the political sphere from a cross-section of what can be seen to be a currently disappointed electorate/population.
The first bit of tough talking came from warm-up man Tim McGarry who had escaped his usual Hearts and Minds taxi for the evening. His biggest laugh came when he pointed out that Pope Benedict XVI and Ian Paisley are the same age. (Paisley’s senior by a year and ten days.) But if the Pope had a son it’d hardly be more embarrassing than Ian Paisley Junior!the panel at East Belfast Speaks Out

Conor Bradford chaired the public session that followed, asking the panellists what they would like Northern Ireland to be like in 2015.

  • Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP MP, MLA & Councillor) wants NI to be the best place to live in the UK.
  • Naomi Long (Alliance MLA & Councillor, and not speaking tonight as Lord Mayor) wants to see a society that will follow through with change and move forward not back.
  • Laurence Robertson (Conservative MP & Shadow Minister for NI) wants devolution to succeed.
  • Gerry Kelly (Sinn Féin MLA & Junior Minister) wants “equality” to be a word owned by everybody.
  • Patrick Corrigan (the token non-politico and NI Programme Director for Amnesty International) wants devolution and politics to be seen to be working, strong rights protection in place, and for NI to have a place on the global stage where we aren’t just “on the take from everyone else”.

The body language was interesting, with Jeffrey Donaldson leaning back in his chair to quip a remark towards Gerry Kelly - very familiar, as if they were both in the Junior Ministerial gang. And the Tory on the end beside Gerry Kelly - a position you wouldn't have found Norman Tebbit in.

Questions followed from the floor, starting with whether loyalist working class areas were being left behind, whether the media was judge and sometimes executioner, and whether the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was effective as so far it had only addressed loyalist killings.

Laurence Robertson said that it would be Tory policy to draw a line under the past, with no new inquiries. He had problems with the cost of the HET and the way it tied up the police when they “have better things to do”.

Naomi Long felt that there was a lot of good community work going on that was ignored by the media. “I agree entirely with Naomi” said Jeffrey Donaldson before going on to explain his view “The media are part of the problem in Northern Ireland – everything is negative, creating an atmosphere that is unhelpful. Should be a balance, but isn’t.” The view of the two TV crews, two radio reporters and newspaper journalists isn’t known!

Donaldson went on to challenge the view from the floor that the NI parties were at loggerheads: “We agree on more things than we disagree on.” He also disputed the perception that “garden centre protestants have deserted the ballot box”, suggesting that less than 30% of working class unionists now voted.

At this stage the event had been going an hour and we’d had one funny warm-up, some good-humoured introductions, one question from Conor Bradford and only one question from the public.

The HET discussion led on to talk about the costly Bloody Sunday inquiry, the issue of truth, Gerry Kelly being very open about his past (which didn’t someone sitting at the back reading out his criminal history as part of a question half an hour later), and a suggestion from the floor that it was about time Gerry Adams admitted being a member of the IRA. Patrick Corrigan commented:

“I think there are people up on the hill, at Westminster, in the MOD, in all arts and parts, who don’t want the truth coming out.”

Perhaps in another preview of what effect a Conservative government might have on Northern Ireland, Laurence Robertson felt that there was a strong case for NI to be an “enterprise zone”, with a reduced corporation tax to attract business.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly sitting beside Tory Laurence Robertson at East Belfast Speaks Out

The 11-plus got a brief airing in a question from a school girl. We discovered that Gerry Kelly failed his and Naomi Long passed hers. Her view is that regulated selection is better than this year’s unregulated selection, and that a practical solution would be to regulate selection for two years while all party talks were held to resolve the issue.

PUP Councillor John Kyle (“the gentleman in the red tie”) asked about the City Airport runway extension. Jeffrey Donaldson admitted that he had lobbied the environment minister (Edwin Poots or Sammy Wilson before him?) on the merits of holding a public inquiry. There needed to be a complementary strategy for Belfast’s two airports, offering proper competition with Dublin airport (which takes 30% of NI’s flying passengers). He felt that the runway extension was more about Ryanair trying to knock Aer Lingus out of Northern Ireland.

The evening rounded up with an unexpected mention of NAMA. If some of the Titanic Quarter debt ends up in NAMA, would the politicians on the panel lobby to change the TQ scheme whose 8000 apartments no longer look attractive to use it instead for a multi-sports stadium? Jeffrey Donaldson liked the idea, but thought there would never now be agreement around a multi-sports stadium.

It’s interesting to make the inevitable comparison between tonight’s community-organised panel and the Northern Ireland Assembly roadshow that was held in East Belfast last week. There was some overlap in the questions asked and topics covered. One overlap in the invited panel too.

In terms of public engagement with elected politicians, 130 people turned up tonight (with no refreshments) versus 50 last Tuesday (with the promise of tea/coffee). Perhaps the only disappointment was that there weren’t more students in the audience. But the organisers’ two aims were certainly met.

East Belfast Spoke Out ... quietly and without incident. But they spoke. And perhaps it'll spread.

Re-tuning stressing websites - TV Re-tune today’s casualty unavailable on 30 September 2009

We’re heading into tea bag territory with the number of recent posts about dead websites ... but after yesterday’s problems, the main TV Re-tune website has borked.

Anyone receiving Freeview from a relay transmitter (rather than the main three transmitters at Divis, Brougher and Limavady) will lose ITV3 and ITV4 as part of the retune.

DPP disrupted - this time online, and it’s their own doing!

Normal best practice is that if you take a website offline and you put a notice up on the front page, then you display alternative contact details so that people can phone or visit to conduct their business and find out what they wanted to know.

Not so the District Policing Partnership (DPP) websites which are currently offline. (Google’s cache of the old Contact Us page will help if you need to contact them in the meantime!)

District Policing Partnership website down - no contact details on the holding page

Back at the end of August I posted about the Lisburn DPP’s website being very out of date. They hadn’t updated to announce the public meeting in August; had only half the 2008 minutes published and none of the 2009 ones; their link to a calendar of meetings was broken; and they have the wrong phone number on their How to ask questions page.

The very next day, the local Lisburn DPP Manager replied to explain that the NI Policing Board hosted the websites and had frozen them while website improvements were being made. It was all due to go live around the end of August.

One month later, and not only is the Lisburn DPP site not updated, but the entire set of DPP websites are offline. The news this time is “Several security issues with the new DPP website” have prevented it going live.

District Policing Partnership logo

These days, policing and justice are even more prominent than normal in Northern Ireland’s news and political agenda. Other than local newspapers, the DPP websites seem to be the main way of local people finding out about their opportunities to engage with the DPP and find out what they’re doing. So it’s disappointing to discover that the website is so unsatisfactory and so out of date.

And it all falls very short of the NIPB’s own (April 2008) DPP Code of Practice that expects

Reports of Meetings in Public

... Not later than 7 working days after the report of the meeting in public of a DPP has been formally ratified, the report must be available on the DPP website.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The dinosaurs will be back ... in 2011: Primeval saved from extinction

Primeval logo

Like its dinosaurs, new life has been breathed into ITV’s Primeval with a recently announced deal.

Back in June, ITV confirmed that there wouldn’t be a third series. The post was titled “The dinosaurs have left the building ... RIP Primeval”.

However, the co-production deal will see two further series produced and airing on ITV1 in early 2011 and shown later on UKTV’s Watch channel, with the fifth series later that year on Watch followed by ITV1.

UKTV is a joint venture between BBC Worldwide (the commercial, non-licence fee-funded subsidiary of the BBC) and Virgin Media Television.

Cue lots of headlines about extinction and resurrection. To me, there’s only so much that you can do with dinosaurs, and Primeval have been through the list a couple of times already during the first three series! On the other hand, the thirteen new episodes will keep a little more science fiction brewing on our screens and will no doubt trigger a rerun of the existing shows during 2010.

Freeview retuning from lunchtime on Wednesday 30 September

The Freeview website is down this morning … perhaps flooded with hits from people wanting to find out about the Freeview retune that’s coming up tomorrow.

Freeview website kernel erroring

There’s a bit of channel shuffling going on across the different multiplexes in order to make Channel Five available to more people. It’s all part of the larger Digital Switchover choreography that will finally give five the same potential audience as the other four terrestrial channels, and eventually launch a Freeview HD service on one of the multiplexes.

You can get more details at the dedicated TV Re-tune website (which seems better scaled to cope with the demand). Update - TV Re-tune borked on the day of the retune!

On Wednesday 30 September improvements are being made to the Freeview service to pave the way for the digital TV switchover. You will need to re-tune your Freeview TV or box (including BT Vision and Top Up TV) from lunchtime onwards to ensure you continue to receive your available channels, including Channel Five.

Analogue (viewers with just four or five channels), satellite and cable viewers will not be affected.

I don't think it's the end of the world if you don't retune tomorrow. Some people will just notice that they'll lose Channel Five ... and you may get some warning messages popping up on your Freeview box to remind you!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Policing the Public Gaze: The Assault on Citizen Photography

Policing the Public Gaze: The Assault on Citizen Photography

The last ten minutes of tonight’s Arts Extra programme (starts at 17.55) was devoted to the issues of citizen journalism and the pressures that photographers can come under while out documenting the world. Something AiB is not immune from!

Pauline Hadaway from Belfast Exposed talked about her recently launched report Policing the Public Gaze: The Assault on Citizen Photography, and Belfast flaneur and photographer Moochin Photoman (“recording the present for the future”) backing up the ideas with some personal examples.

There’s a discussion on the subject of the report in Belfast Exposed on Tuesday 29 September from 7-9pm. Get in touch with the organisersBelfast Salon – if you want to go along.

The full report is available from Belfast Exposed website. The Executive Summary begins ...

From the late nineteenth century, countless ‘citizen photographers’ recorded almost every aspect of human experience, from intimate family occasions to uncensored images of war. They bestowed a vast photographic legacy, which provides us with a key insight into the past.

Throughout the twentieth century - through wars, cold wars, public disorder, IRA campaigns and countless national emergencies - British citizens enjoyed almost unhindered rights to take pictures of anything or anybody in public places.

Yet today, in peacetime, citizen photography is coming under growing assault. There is no overarching ban on photography, but there has been a creeping restriction of everyday photography - by community safety wardens, private security guards, and self-appointed ‘jobsworths’. The dynamic behind this is a suspicion of the citizen, and the identification of the citizen photographer with the paedophile or terrorist.

There are countless ‘no-go’ or touchy subjects for citizen photography. As a result, many children are growing up with gaps in the family photo album – no sports day or first swim photos - and as a society we have big gaps in our archives.

Martini libraries - any book, any time, anywhere

Assembled bookcases - BILLY by Ikea

In my experience, libraries are wonderful places: filled with wonderful books and generally staffed by wonderful people.

The old Lisburn public library on Railway Street was a haven of words that would be taken home on loan from the days when I still fitted on the colourful plastic seats around the youngest books.

The school library also held fabulous books amongst the shelves and shelves of less attractive books. Who would have through that the Hitchhikers Guide Original Radio Scripts would be tucked away in non-fiction. And perhaps the love of books was boosted by the process of helping move the library from it’s old room to the new wing and then being able to eat lunch every day for the upper sixth year in the library.

And QUB library offered access to an enormous number of books about all manner of intriguing subjects. Picking a random floor in the old main library building to find a carrel (outside libraries, a “carrel” reverts to being called a “small desk”) to sit at would often lead to the distraction of wandering along the nearby stacks finding books that looked more interesting than the Applied Mathematics exercises that needed to be completed.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve been taking Littl’un to the public libraries at Ballyhackamore and Lisburn. Lots of sitting on the floor, reading books aloud, sometimes being read to, and often throwing interesting books into Littl’un self-selected pile. Great to discover that you can borrow/renew/leave back books from/at/to any Northern Ireland library.*

News breaks this morning that armed only with your local library card or proof of address, you’ll be able to borrow books from libraries across Northern Ireland, England and Wales under an initiative of the Society of Chief Librarians. Scotland may join the scheme at a later date.

The scheme is obviously ideal for families going away on holiday and not wanting to fill up their cabin baggage with heavy and bulky books. While you’ll have to leave the books back to the same area, the BBC News online article explains that:

The aim is to encourage more people to use libraries, in the face of competition from online book sellers and people browsing in bookshops with coffee bars.

The society’s president Fiona Williams explained that:

“Libraries are a public service for everybody. We want people to know that all libraries are open to them, not only the libraries where they live.

This is an important step towards making libraries even more accessible to all.

The society is developing a scheme for the future where one library card would allow the holder to borrow and return books to any public library in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

*Suggestions welcomed for a better wording of this sentence!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful Symmetry bu Audrey Niffenegger - book cover

Audrey Niffenegger writes great fiction.

Having turned time on its head in her previous novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, I’d have bought Audrey Niffenegger’s new book Her Fearful Symmetry even if I hadn’t been sent a review copy. This time, she turns life and death on its head. This time she managed to bring tears to my eyes in the first chapter rather than the closing one – somewhat unusual!

It’s a book about Julia and Valentina Poole who are identical “mirror” twins – mirror images of each other, externally and also their internal organs.

Julia is confident and extrovert, brusque and bossy. Whereas her fragile twin Valentina is shy and inhibited, nicknamed "Mouse", sensitive to being watched as well as sensitive to the mood of nearby ghosts.

Although they don’t know her, when their Aunt Elspeth dies, she leaves her London flat to the twins, on the condition that they spend a year living there. The plot follows the twins as they leave their family home in the US and move to central London to occupy the apartment that backs onto Highgate Cemetery.

Like the twins themselves, there's a beautiful symmetry in the men they grow close to, each relationship overshadowed by a previous unfinished love.

Martin lives upstairs, and since his wife moved out he’s been unable to leave his flat. Through one of those multiple occupancy incidents when water comes through the ceiling, Julia befriends him and becomes is drawn to the man behind the OCD.

Robert lives downstairs. As Elspeth’s lover, he was supposed to welcome them and look after them. But he’s shy, missing Elspeth and too attached to the cemetery for his own good. Soon he’s besotted with Valentina. And watch out for the Little Kitten of Death.

I’m not sure that anyone’s actually happy in the book: neither the living nor the dead. Though as the reader gets to the last third of the book, all but the twins seem to be making progress towards their goals.

Like a brilliant play, not all the well constructed and imaginative characters get to meet each other on stage at the same time. Written in the third person we see inside everyone's head – like a giant voyeuristic plot.

Speaking to Julia, Martin summed the twins up well when he observes:

“You're like an old married couple, you and Valentina. You have everything divvied up, all the talents and the chores.”

They're fiercely protective of each other, asserting their right to be there and help each other ahead of any other assistance. Yet behind the virginal white matching outfits, there's abuse and a bit of a history of hitting and biting, spitting and pulling hair. As the book progresses, the twins spend less time together. The perfect twin-ship is unravelling:

‘Don’t you think it’s time we started having our own lives?’ Oh, God, just let go, Julia.

‘We do! We have out own lives together—’ Valentina!

‘That’s not what I mean!’ Valentina threw the shoes across the room. They bounced harmlessly on the carpet. ‘You know what I mean – I want my own life. I want privacy! I’m sick of being half a person.’

It’s a ghost story too. I’m not sure when I last read a ghost story? It takes a very humanist approach and one that at times left me wondering how? and why? and really? At the same time, the ghosts have such good characters. Without spoiling the plot, there’s a great moment half way through when a ghost finally finds a way to communicate with the living.

____ places a tentative fingertip on the piano. She recalled reading somewhere that household dust was largely comprised of shed human skin cells. So perhaps I’m writing with bits of my former body. The dust gave way , soft particles yielding as she traced a shiny path. She exulted in the ease of it ...

Perhaps in a nod to the science fiction genre that the novel could so easily fit into, there’s even a mention of Doctor Who and Madame de Pompadour!

A book about twins. A book about London viewed through the eyes of visitors. A book about the wonder of Highgate Cemetery, those who look after it as well as those buried there. A book about those with restless souls and the lengths they’ll go to be at peace.

The prose is superb, the story is original, the plot is beautifully balanced between detail and pace. You need a good reason not to buy, borrow or steal this book. Dan Brown may be easier to spell, but Audrey Niffenegger is a much better read.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A time of new beginnings - hotels, culture, cycling and pizza

I remember being in Lisburn’s previous hotel. The Woodlands Hotel was set in off the Belfast Road, I think roughly on the site where Garvey Manor’s houses sit. At the time, Crossroads was still showing on Ulster Television (as they were then known), and it seemed very like Woodlands. Lots of low chairs. Not too many customers.

Premier Inn logo

Today the media are making a bit of a fuss over the well named Premier Inn in Lisburn ... well just a bit outside. No longer holder of the coveted title of being the only city in the UK that didn’t have a hotel.

Tonight was also the unveiling of the hard-to-wrap steel squiggle in Belfast’s Cornmarket. With the design chosen as the result of a public competition at the tail end of 2007, the Spirit of Belfast is a £200,000 investment by the Department for Social Development in the retail renewal of Belfast. Maybe someone will move into Littlewoods’ old shop around the corner soon?

Culture Night Belfast (25/Sep/2009) banner

There’s a free, repeat free, night of arts across Belfast on Friday night. Check out the Culture Night Belfast website for details. It’s a first for Belfast, joining in with other cities across Ireland and beyond.

Critical Mass Belfast poster

Friday night also see the first local Critical Mass cycling event – a kind of flash mob on wheels.

If you’re a cyclist, then the organisers encourage you to saddle up and ride past the Belfast’s Albert Clock around 6.30pm – “rain, hail or shine.”

There’s a 45 minute route for you to follow, “advocating the simple joys of cycling”

And it’ll also serve as a reminder to the car drivers around you that they pay road tax so you have smooth streets to cycle down!

Little Wing Pizzeria logo

And next Monday 28 September sees the opening of what sounds like a interesting (Belfast) city centre pizzeria on Ann Street just round the corner from the steel squiggle.

Little Wing Pizzeria could turn into a new lunch venue if it’s nice.

Have you got Just a Minute?

Just a Minute Reloaded looks like the perfect tonic for any Radio 4 fans reading the blog. A number of rounds have been animated. (If you’re not a JaM fan, the game challenges conteseants to “speak for one minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition on any subject that comes up on the cards”.)

The first clip features Paul Merton and his comical theories on ‘Sudoku’.

The second clip features Stephen Fry musing on the subject of ‘Digital Radio’.

And they’re embeddable on external web pages too!

Microsoft Courier prototype? A bit like a OLPC XO-2?

OLPC2 - One Laptop Per Child two-screen concept

I'm a huge fan of the concept of tablet computers (or eBook readers) with two facing pages.

The One Laptop Per Child concept photo of its OLPC XO-2 has tantalised my since the moment I saw it. There's such potential for intuitive use of this format of device.

Real books have facing pages - and that's something the Kindle doesn't achieve it its current form factor.

But the concept is no longer confined to OLPC. Rumours are circulating about the Courier - what looks like an internal prototype that Microsoft are building. Perhaps getting their heads around the possibilities before tuning a Windows variant to work over the two touch screens.

Below the fold - if the fold works! - is a video from Gizmondo.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pascal, four party responses, Wordle and a case of inverse proportionality

I’ve oft agreed with the words of Pascal:

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

It might be slightly cruel, but the situation can be summed up ...

There was this thing, with a panel, except they were all too busy to attend and take their places behind the table ... except one. Oh, and the public turned up in good numbers. But the other thing was more important, so most of the panel stayed at it. And no one else took their places.

You may wish to skip this post ... but if curiosity gets the better of you, I conducted a quick experiment in political engagement around lunchtime today when I fired off the same email to the various parties who failed to show up on the panel at the Assembly Roadshow in East Belfast last night.

Have you a quick comment on how last night your party balanced (1) the importance of the Justice debate and division at Stormont versus (2) your agreement for an MLA to appear in front of the members of the public (voters) assembled a mile down the road in the Park Avenue Hotel for the Assembly Roadshow?

As one of the fifty or more people assembled, am I right to be disappointed that your party couldn’t sacrifice one MLA to come down and join Dawn Purvis on the panel, perhaps before returning to Stormont for the division?

Given that they could see each other’s email addresses in the To: line and knew that the responses (or lack of) might be blogged, I expected most would reply. And at the time of posting, only Sinn Fein haven’t replied. Alliance replied with a direct quotation from Naomi Long; the other parties replied with a comment from their spokesperson. A big thank you to those who did reply.

As a mathematician who wishes he’d done more statistics, the intriguing thing for me is that the length of time taken to reply was inversely proportional to the number of words used to reply. Which means if Sinn Fein do ever reply, it’ll have to be pretty terse not to break the trend!

  • (UUP) 43 minutes, 265 words
  • (Alliance) 54 minutes, 260 words
  • (DUP) 82 minutes, 210 words
  • (SDLP) 137 minutes, 113 words
  • UPDATE Mon 28 Sep - And just over five days later ...
    (SF) 7368 minutes, 204 words - which broke the trend!

Putting the four responses through nicely summarises their content.

Wordle: Northern Ireland Assembly Roadshow party responses -

Much of what the parties said was very similar. The UUP and SDLP both pointed out in their statements that they had contributed to previous roadshows. Both these parties felt the scheduling of the roadshow against the Justice debate was “unfortunate”.

All four parties felt that the Justice Bill was important:

  • (UUP) “a particularly significant piece of legislation”
  • (Alliance) “legislating last night on a major issue”
  • (DUP) “clearly very important to the community and the DUP”
  • (SDLP) “ultimately most important debate of this Assembly year”

Other than wanting to send panellists, only one party articulated any importance of the roadshow:

  • (UUP) “an important role in maintaining contact between the Assembly as an institution and the voting public”

Did it catch them out?

  • (UUP) “The length of time taken by the debate did catch us unawares. The Business Office’s indicative timings had set aside a mere 3 hours for the Bill.”
  • (Alliance) “Because the speeches are not time limited it is virtually impossible to predict how long the session will last, and it was not impossible even at 8 o'clock that members could have voted and then gone.”
  • (DUP) “This was scheduled to be quite a short debate, which would have freed up MLAs later in the evening. However, it quickly became apparent that the debate was going to run into the evening and there would be a division at the end.”

So why did everyone have to stay?

  • (SDLP) “… given the importance of the Justice Bill and its negative implications for the core values of the Good Friday Agreement, the SDLP Assembly Group took the decision to impose a three-line whip for the whole debate, not just for the division … defending the principle of inclusive democracy enshrined in the Agreement with all the resources at our disposal has got to be the priority for the SDLP.”
  • (UUP) “MLAs absenting themselves from a crucial debate and only turning up to vote would not, in our view, represent an adequate approach to this particularly significant Bill. It was important for MLAs to be present in force to hear the various contributions and to weigh the arguments.”
  • (DUP) “the DUP had many members who wished to participate fully in the debate … Simon Hamilton MLA was scheduled to participate in the Assembly Roadshow but also wished to be a participant in the Justice Bill debate. He was unable to speak in the debate on the Justice Bill until after 7pm, but participation in the debate is not simply confined to making a speech, but in making and taking interventions to and from other speakers as well as participating in the division at the end.”

Could pairing not have freed people up?

  • (Alliance) “When we realised that this debate was not going to conclude in time, we tried to put pairing arrangements in place; however, the added complication was that most of the people on the panel were also active in the debate.

    Danny Kennedy and I are Chair and Vice Chair of the OFMdFM committee which will handle the committee stage of the Bill, and therefore had to be there for the Ministerial response, Alban Maginness is SDLP Justice Spokesperson, Francie Malloy as deputy Speaker was deputising to allow the Speaker to go to the Roadshow and Simon Hamilton is on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee which is dealing with justice, so we not only needed pairs but alternates from each voting group.

    When that was agreed at just after 8.20pm, we were then advised that it was past the point where they would be able to make it.”

It was such a good explanation, I didn't shorten it!

And for their final punch lines:

  • (UUP) “While we apologise for the absence of an Ulster Unionist MLA last night, we trust that the public and responsible commentators will recognise the highly unusual circumstances, evidenced by the fact that the Assembly did not rise until 12:50am.”
  • (Alliance) “I have written to the Speaker, asking that they avoid scheduling Roadshows on sitting days as the unpredictability of the timings will leave them a hostage to fortune. It doesn’t happen often but it shouldn't really be allowed to conflict at all.”
  • (DUP) “The Assembly is sometimes criticised for not giving scrutiny to legislation passing through. Whilst this was merely a piece of enabling legislation it did receive detailed scrutiny and debate and as a Member of the Legislative Assembly the legislative process should be a key priority for all Members.”
  • (SDLP) “… defending the principle of inclusive democracy enshrined in the Agreement with all the resources at our disposal has got to be the priority for the SDLP.”

Lastly, Hansard has caught up with last night’s proceedings up on “the hill”. For all the interest in the {significant | important | major} {debate | legislation}, can you guess how many of the 108 MLAs (well, 104 MLS if you subtract the speaker and the deputy speakers) were in attendance and voted in the division just before 9.45pm?

Answer: 80.

And the rest sure weren’t down sitting in the Park Avenue Hotel!

snippet from Hansard showing Justice Bill voting (c) Northern Ireland Assembly Commission 2009

Back to the colour chart for the three Belfast buoys

TBSteve's Flickr photo of the three (repainted) buoys

I’m sure the three buoys in the park beside St Anne’s Cathedral and the University of Ulster’s Belfast Campus were glad they’d had a paint job and been spruced up ahead of their moment in the mainstream media limelight this morning.

Good Morning Ulster covered the strangely coloured buoys just before half eight - starts about 1:56:05 on iPlayer - interviewing Belfast Harbour Master Captain Kevin Allen as well as Captain Robert McCabe from the Commissioners of Irish Lights who donated the buoys to Belfast.

The big news is that none of the three should ever have been painted blue! At some stage the conical one switched from its original black to the dark blue colour. And the flat pale blue one really should be red.

Robert McCabe wryly commented:

“If they [mariners] see a blue buoy they’ll have a little chuckle and say ‘thank God it’s on the land and not out at sea’ ”

According to the report, Belfast City Council will be correcting their mistake and repainting the buoys the correct colours, once they’ve consulted the experts on Pre-1979 Lateral System Buoyage! Maybe it’ll not cost so much second time around? (Update - you can read some more on the BBC News online article.)

In the meantime, I’ll patiently wait for BCC to answer Friday’s follow-up email to the information they originally provided.

(Thanks again to TBSteve for permission to use his Flickr photos.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Assembly Roadshow in East Belfast: homogeneity, cleavages and a panel of one!

It was like a giant metaphor for Northern Ireland politics: nothing quite runs the way you’d expect.

After eight hitch-free Assembly roadshows before the summer recess, what could go wrong with the first of the next batch, conveniently only a mile down the road from Parliament Buildings in the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast?

The enabling Justice Bill is what went wrong. The MLAs had been debating it since before lunchtime, and as the roadshow kicked off at 8pm, the only MLA panellist who’d arrived was the PUP’s Dawn Purvis. The rest were holed up in the Assembly, with party whips being blamed for not allowing anyone to leave until the expected division (vote).

The NI Assembly’s Director General Trevor Reaney opening the East Belfast roadshow in the absence of Speaker William Hay

Nevertheless, with a crowd of fifty or more people assembled – from Belfast, Lisburn, Ballymena and beyond - the Assembly’s Director General Trevor Reaney opened the evening’s entertainment proceedings, deputising for the Speaker Willie Hay who was still refereeing the debate further up the road. They showed a quick video which walked through various aspects of the Assembly, the Executive, the role of committees and how the public can interact with and visit the Assembly.

Then it was over to Eamonn Mallie and his panel of one.

“It’s a bit like a pub with no beer” he quipped.

The first clutch of questions came from Friends’ School politics pupils, asking whether MLAs’ salaries should be cut given the economic circumstances, and whether the number of MLAs should dropped.

Dawn Purvis (PUP) - the lone MLA to turn up for the panel at the NI Assembly roadshow in East Belfast

Dawn got a chance to answer and the fifty or so members of the public got every opportunity to chip in too ... as long as they could first satisfy Eamonn Mallie’s questions about their names, predicted A-level grades, and relationship status.

The fact that Northern Ireland is less homogeneous than Scotland seemed to be the killer reason not to shrink from 108 MLAs at this stage, together with the likely outcome of marginalising smaller voices (women, ethnic minorities and smaller parties). It was also noted (several times) that “Northern Ireland has cleavages”, referring to our divided past rather than anything more salacious.

members of the public who had turned up at the NI Assembly roadshow in East Belfast

The roadshow quickly journeyed through double jobbing, golden handshakes for councillors who depart in the local government shake-up in 2011, difficulties with councillor co-option, the lack of a joined up East Belfast regeneration plan, Belfast City Airport’s plans to extend their runway, and whether the panel had sympathy with the residents of Short Strand during Orange parades.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, the very affable water rates protesters gave up waiting for the other MLAs to arrive, and picked up their placards from the door on the way out!

Dawn Purvis clearly articulated her views, and the policies of her party, on most of the topics. Perhaps the only unsatisfactory one was around the feeling of Short Strand traders and residents that their freedom of movement (I think referring mostly to getting cars in and out of the area) was restricted during Orange parades - though there was some feeling it was a policing matter if more roads than strictly necessary were being blocked.

About then, Willie Hay arrived, apologised for the unexpected circumstances that had led to the panel being understaffed, and committed to rearranging the East Belfast roadshow before too long.

In the circumstances, a small victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The rematch is tomorrow night at 7.30pm (8pm start) in the Chinese Welfare Centre, Ormeau Road, Belfast … as long as the Justice Bill isn’t still being debated.

Just because it spell cheques doesn't mean the headline makes sense!

The Belfast Telegraph’s online headlines can be cryptic. This example has been up on the site since 8 September, and still listed on the front page with “easy” instead of “ease”.

Belfast Telegraph online headline - Airport scanners could easy liquid controls

Perhaps the online editors are distracted by the endless pictures of bikini-clad women illustrating stories - today it’s a story about a study showing that “vitamin D produced by the action of the sun on the skin may help improve survival for patients with skin and bowel cancer”.

By the way, was named News Website of the Year at the 2009 Coca Cola Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Press and Broadcast Awards. And I’ll hold my hands up to admit that this blog has far to go before it achieves perfect spelling and grammar.

Update - now fixed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

“Steel Squiggle” (Spirit of Belfast) takes shape

It’s taken a long time for the Spirit of Belfast to finally arrive in Arthur Square (better known as Cornmarket). Back in October 2007, nearly two years ago, I blogged about the Department of Social Development’s Streets Ahead public vote to select the piece of public art that would occupy the site of the old Cornmarket bandstand.

At the end of November 2007 came the announcement that Dan George’s Spirit of Belfast and its steel squiggles had beaten off competition from the wobbly pillars, a big spoon to win the £200,000 commission.

Then all went quiet. Well, the sculpture went quiet, while Arthur Square became a perpetual building site with the erection of Victoria Square and then shortly after the opening, the ripping up of the newly laid paving stones to search for buried gold (or something less interesting).

Fast forward to the beginning of May 2009, a plinth was built, wiring was installed, and then ... nothing.

Spirit of Belfast - the Steel Squiggle - half built

But at lunchtime today, the paved top was off the plinth and the four curved steel beams were being lifted and screwed into position. You can read Dan George’s ideas in fully on his website, but the gist of it can be summed up as:

Spirit of Belfast - four curved stainless steel squiggles, complete with “a ribbon of light provided by very energy-efficient light emitting diodes” whose “intensity, color [sic] and movement will be programmed as called for by events, the time of day ... or special celebrations within the city”. It intends to become “the hearth of our city centre”, drawing people to its interactivity as it weaves together steel and reminds of us of the fabric (linen) of our history.

With the evenings darkening and late night shopping soon to become the norm in Belfast city centre, it’ll be interesting to see how impressive the mood lighting will be. And in case you can’t wait, the artist’s impression of the finished work is included down below.

Spirit of Belfast - artist's impression

East Belfast Speaks Out - Facing Up To The Future - Wednesday 30 September

The first in what's planned to be an annual community opportunity for local East Belfast people to quiz political representatives and commentators takes place on Wednesday 30 September in Ashfield Boys' School, running between 7.30pm and 9pm.

Conor Bradford will chair the panel, with questions coming from the floor on the theme of Facing Up To The Future. At the moment, the panel consists of

  • Patrick Corrigan - NI Programme Director for Amnesty International
  • Jeffrey Donaldson - DUP MP & MLA for Lagan Valley
  • Gerry Kelly - Sinn Féin MLA for North Belfast & Junior Minister in OFMDFM
  • Naomi Long - Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alliance MLA & Councillor for East Belfast
  • Laurence Robertson Owen Paterson - Conservative MP & Shadow Minister Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The organisers - Roy Garland's Union Group - hope that the event will provide community access to leading politicians as well as encouraging "active participation in politics from a cross-section of what can only be seen as a silent majority".

Update - blog post about the event now online.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Belfast Flash mob freeze on Monday to call on authorities to take action around Climate Change

On Monday 21 September between 1.20pm and 1.30pm, Belfast’s City Hall will be one of 350 venues across the globe hosting a three minute “flash mob” freeze. The organiser’s aim is:

“to get as many people as possible to freeze like a statue for three minute in front of Belfast City Hall as part of a global day of flash mobs calling for the UN and local governments to take robust action to halt Climate Change.”

More details on Facebook or Ning.

Belfast Flash Mob Freeze

Saturday, September 19, 2009

£3,000 to repaint three buoys - one of them the wrong colour?

Over the past few years, Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter has really opened up. With arts festivals, events in the Black Box, and a great bagel shop, I’ve had more and more reasons to wander past St Anne’s Cathedral and the Art College (UU Belfast campus).

I marvel at the three buoys as I pass by the little nearby garden. (The buoys even briefly appeared on Twitter earlier this year when rumours spread that they might be removed to make way for building work.)

Recently something changed. Just before the Tall Ships Festival, the buoys were repainted. Belfast City Council’s Parks and Leisure Department – who are responsible for the garden – had noticed the “poor condition of the buoys” and decided it was time to make them ship shape.

Obviously, public art needs to be maintained. And without a fresh lick of paint, the buoys would peel and rust and eventually deteriorate beyond recognition.

Over a week, and for an estimated cost of £3,000-£3,500, the Council’s Property Maintenance Section repainted the three buoys. Seems an awful lot of money and time to spend on three buoys. Not sure I could afford those guys to come and repaint my house!

DogTired's Flicr photo of the three (repainted) buoys

Despite going to a lot of cost and effort, it’s rather strange to discover that the flat-topped buoy (previously red) was painted a pale blue colour – not even the same blue as the blue pointy buoy beside it.

The Council department don’t have any explanation for the change. Perhaps they were using up spare tins of paint in the shed? But the two shades of blue are ghastly.

As I walked past the garden, if I’d taken a closer look I might have noticed the plaque that explains how they came to be there.

The Buoys

The maritime influence is strong in Ulster. The coastline is long and there are many harbours. Belfast has a tradition as a sea port and shipbuilding city. Ulstermen over the years have built fine ships and served at sea in wartime and in peace. They have fished for their livelihood and sailed for pleasure.

Belfast City Council has used the gift of three navigation buoys from the Commissioner of Irish Lights as the theme of an Environmental Improvement Scheme to mark the Ulster seagoing tradition. These three buoys are more than 50 years old and are in pre 1979 Lateral System Buoyage colours. They are of the type used in local waters.

TBSteve's Flickr photo of the three (repainted) buoys

In a way, it’s a memorial garden, keeping alive the local maritime heritage which is diminishing with each passing year. I don’t notice a lot of art galleries or museum curators changing the colour of art works at a whim.

So as a piece of public art and as a memorial to our maritime past it feels like, after a period of neglect, Belfast City Council have committed an act of gratuitous vandalism.

Update Wed 23 - Good Morning Ulster followed up the buoy story - none of the buoys should ever have been painted blue - another repaint on the horizon.

(Thanks to Dogtired and TBSteve for permission to use their photos from Flickr.)

(By the way, it just so happened I'd video footage of the buoys that I'd used as part of a summary film about BarCamp Belfast which was held next door in the UUB building. And the only way to figure out Final Cut Express is to use it!)

NI Assembly Roadshow is back on the road

Northern Ireland Assembly roadshow bus image

Back in April, I posted about the Northern Ireland Assembly Roadshow that saw the Speaker William Hay and a selection of local MLAs setting out the devolution stall in public meetings held in nine towns and cities.

And from next week, they're back on the road. There's no need to preregister. You can just turn up, guzzle the tea and coffee from 7.30pm (no mention whether there'll be samples of Assembly Fudge!) and settle down to ask questions and listen to the panel's responses from 8pm.

Given the general apathy and lack of public engagement with political institutions, it was interesting to hear a Stormont official at an eDemocracy event in April explain that many members of the public attending the previous set of roadshows had admitted having been up to (tour Parliament Building at) Stormont before. In a way, the NI Assembly was engaging with the already engaged.

While I'm a little surprised that the same format of roadshow has been resurrected this Autumn, having heard about the efforts that the National Assembly for Wales makes to reach out to the Welsh population, and toured the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh while on holiday this summer, it's good to see our local Assembly and MLAs making the effort to meet the citizens they serve. And good to see them tackling non-geographic communities too with visits to the Chinese Welfare Centre and NICVA,

The organisers, speaker and the MLAs in attendance will be delighted to see you along at any of the events - whether you're politically involved, interested or just curious to see what they look like. While questions can be asked on the night, if you would like to submit a question beforehand, you can email it to info AT yourassembly DOT com or use the roadshow's Ask a Question page.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

10 Levels of Intimacy In Today's Communication + real-time train spotting

Ji Lee has a fantastic eye for graphic design - perhaps no surprise that he works for Google. In the 10 Levels of Intimacy In Today’s Communication he illustrates the different levels of intimacy, involvement and barriers involved in modern messaging.

10 Levels of Intimacy In Today’s Communication by Ji Lee

“The digital age has changed the ways in which we share our most important opinions and innermost secrets. We chose different communication platforms depending on the level of intimacy we feel towards the recipient of the message and the nature of the message itself.

The combination of technology and weight of information has given us new rules for just how we communicate with each other. This chart also ponders the question: Do more options to communicate with each other connect us or alienate us more?”

h/t to O’Conall Street.

Ji’s Please Enjoy website is well worth a browse around. Some other gems linked to from there include:

  • Aram Bartholl’s project to transfer a red marker pin from Google Maps to the real physical location; and
  • Imagine a transport system so punctual that you can follow the trains in real-time on a map, accurate even without live GPS data. You won’t be surprised that this independent tool is based around the Swiss railway SBB (Incidentally, SBB’s website is beautifully clear and customer focussed.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Skatin' in a Winter Wonderland? Lisburn's ice rink isn't all hot air!

Lisburn City Council

The Ulster Star have unearthed some more details about the £35,000 proposal for Lisburn City Centre to be transformed into a "fabulous winter wonderland this Christmas with plans currently underway to develop an outdoor ice rink in Castle Gardens". The article reports:

"The plans currently being considered would incorporate the 'winter wonderland' themed ice rink into a Farmer's Market planned at Castle Gardens on December 4, which would mean visitors could enjoy a day of Christmas Shopping, visiting a variety of stalls in Castle Gardens, where an exhibition on Lisburn's 400 years would also be set up, before paying a visit to the ice rink."

"The ice rink, which would also be used to attract school groups and families to the city, was originally proposed for Hillsborough. However, councillors suggested hosting the facility in the city centre, particularly as it would prove to be a fitting send off to the 400th Anniversary celebrations."

The council's Economic Development Officer, Paul McCormack, explained:

"Our hope is to have additional stalls linked in with the Farmer's Market on December 4, and if we can link that in then it could be of interest for other stalls and entertainment, although that would not be there every day ... There would be a lot of interest and attraction in the event. Plans are not yet finalised but the council are keen to support such a venture if all the plans can be organised."

The Nama Song

The tuneful Corrigan Brothers are at it again. Having previously supported election bids by Obama and sung about MP Expenses to help Craig Murray, this time they've turned their tunes to Nama - the National Asset Management Agency.

Monday, September 14, 2009

bmi makes small cut to Belfast City London Heathrow route

stock photo of bmi plane

Starting on 25 October, bmi are making a slight reduction to the frequency of flights between Belfast City and Heathrow.

They'll be dropping the following flights:

  • BD96 London Heathrow 19:00 - 20:25 Belfast City
  • BD97 Belfast City 21:05 - 22:20 London Heathrow

A flâneur's view strolling up Lisburn's Bow Street on Saturday morning

Lisburn's Bow Street seemed remarkably colourful on Saturday morning. At one end, pan pipes were wafting out from just outside Easons. Futher up there was a street preacher and then the balloon seller. Another busker outside the Ulster Bank. And World War Two enthusiasts - the Wartime Living History Association - stretched out all the way up to the Linen Museum. (Turned out that last bit was a major part of Lisburn's Historic Quarter Festival over the weekend.)

I've always wonder just how difficult and fiddly it is to make a multi-picture video ... now I know! All the footage was filmed within ten minutes as we walked up the street. And all caught on the pocket-sized Flip Mino HD.

The sound seems very choppy? Is it just me, or is it the same for everyone? Might have to try and re-export tonight.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Weekend events - European Heritage Open Days, Proms in the Park, and Creation - something for everyone!

European Heritage Open Days 2009 - Northern Ireland

Quick reminder that this weekend sees the annual European Heritage Open Days with 260 venues across Northern Ireland opening up their doors for the public to come in and peer around.

Saturday night finds Proms in the Park coming from Hillsborough Castle - a venue not participating in the open day scheme. If you have a ticket, don’t forget that the free park and ride system will be in operation from Lisburn's Leisureplex Centre at 4.30pm and M&S and B&Q car parks at Sprucefiled at 5.30pm, with shuttle buses circling until midnight.

Alternatively from 7.30pm you can hear the concert live on Radio Ulster featuring James Galway’s fluting alongside Rebekah Coffey and Peter Corry’s singing, as well as the Ulster Orchestra and 1st Old Boys Silver Band. It’s also live on BBC Four and available via the Red Button if you have cable or satellite, starting at 8pm.

The Green Living Fair will be at WWT's Castle Espie Wetland Centre just outside Comber between 10.30am and 6pm on Saturday and Sunday. There will be all manner of indoor and outdoor entertainment: paper making, elk building, seed planting, walks, talks and face painting.

(Failing to avoid the temptation to write "And from green living to good living ...")

Creation trailer/roadshow in Lisburn

The "Creation trailer" was parked at the top of Lisburn’s Bow Street last Saturday, a reminder that Free Presbyterian Churches in Lisburn and Hillsborough are teaming up with Answers in Genesis for Creation Weekend events. There may or may not be photo opportunities with local political representatives!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Did you hear the one about the bloggers on the sofa?

Amidst the regular previews of upcoming festivals and events, book and film reviews, rants about tea bags, and a little gabbling about science fiction on TV, this blog sometimes ventures off into new areas.

And so it was last Thursday night when I joined two other bloggers in the NvTv studio in the Cathedral Quarter to record a pilot TV show for the Belfast Community Station. (Long time AiB readers will get extra points for remembering the last time NvTv was mentioned!)

The idea of Blogtalk NI was to get get some local bloggers to come out from behind their screens and keyboards to meet face-to-face and chew over some recent stories that have surfaced on local blogs.

Blogtalk NI from Northern Visions on Vimeo.

The "ABCD" pilot show featured Alan from Alan in Belfast, Brian from Burke's Corner, Conall from O'Conall Street and was hosted by Donal. All under the watchful eye of producer Carl.

We covered the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (not sure I've ever had a conversation about them in my life before!), the legacy of the NI Executive and Assembly as it reaches the 800 day mark for the second time, and the level of (im)maturity that political parties show in their use of social media.

Political, but quite calm! And nothing to say that every episode will be so politically dominated.

The show should be back in October, and if you're a blogger and you'd like to take part, get in touch with carl AT northernvisions DOT org. If you live in greater Belfast and have a good analogue aerial, you can tune your television into Channel 62/799.276MHz and check out the NvTv schedule pages.

Belfast Twestival - Thu 10 September

Belfast Twestival logo

Earlier on this year, local Twitter addicts gathered in Belfast for a Twestival to let their hair down, turn their smart phones off, and raise some money for charity. Back in February, they were supporting Charity: Water.

On Thursday evening - 10 September - they'll be meeting up at 7pm in the Bunatee Bar in QUB Students' Union. There'll be craic, a pub quiz, prizes and DJs. The organisers explain:

"Twestival is an event organised *by* twitterers *for* twitterers. We've an excellent team of volunteers together for this year's event, all currently scrambling to organise the events entertainment & raise money for Camphill."

So this time the chosen charity is Camphill Communities who are ...

"... home to over 130 very special children and adults. We provide care, support, education and work opportunities for children and adults with learning disabilities. The aim of Camphill Communities is to make sure that community members are given every possible chance to lead fulfilled and dignified lives. This is achieved through home life, meaningful work opportunities and a broad range of social and cultural experiences."

So if you're not averse to a bit of tweeting, and want to put some faces to names for a good cause, sign up and head down to QUBSU.

Robotics have come a long way ...

Worth watching right through to the end

via connormcc's recent post on 5enses

Bewildered by the buttons on your remote control?

Some of my favourite TV and video remote controls have been the ones with flaps that cover the more arcane and esoteric features.

But for remotes that insist on showing off a bewildering assortment of buttons, Andrea has a DIY solution over on More Stupid Than The Others.

Ice Rink unexpectedly hits the airwaves

Image of ice skates from Patrick Mayon on Flickr

There’s always the risk that something you blog or comment about online will be picked up and make it into the mainstream media. Listening to Good Morning Ulster on the car radio on the way into work, the subject of a Christmas ice rink in Lisburn and its cost unexpectedly cropped up.

Karen Patterson talked to the Lisburn Mayor Councillor Allan Ewart and Councillor Paul Butler about the plans and costs. Both were present at the Strategic Policy Committee when the ice rink idea was first mentioned on Monday night.

You can listen back to the short interview on iPlayer (starts at 1:20.43) until the programme expires early on 16 September.

Councillor Ewart (DUP) explained:

“Well it’s at an early stage yet. And a PR company have come to us with the idea of putting an ice rink under a marquee into Lisburn. It’s a very good idea I think, the traders will be happy. It will draw more people in to the city. And in a time of recession I think the traders would like as many people as possible to come. It’s the end of our 400th anniversary festival and it’s a good way to end and I think it should be welcomed by everyone.”

In terms of location, he went on to say:

“We haven’t agreed yet, but we hope that it will be in the newly refurbished Castle Gardens, which is really an icon of Lisburn at the minute. It’s been very popular and it draws people to that end of the city and we’re be very pleased if we get this to go ahead at that end of the city.”

Extensively renovated over the last few years, Castle Gardens is in behind the War memorial, opposite Lisburn Tech South Eastern Regional College. It’s currently home to the monthly Farmers’ Market. But tucked away right at the other end of the city from Bow Street Mall and the main retail area, there are relatively low levels of natural footfall, with a lot of empty shop units on Bridge Street. Though it would be handy for the DUP advice centre which is only across the road in the old town hall!

Councillor Butler (Sinn Féin) referred to the original request for £1m budget for the £400th anniversary celebrations, that was then cut back to half a million. He also mentioned the “failure” and cost of similar schemes in Belfast. Summing up his position he said:

“My fear is that people will end up paying for this on their rates bill”

Councillor Ewart responded:

“The cost [from the promotion’s company] that we’re thinking about is somewhere like £35,000 which will put point 3 of a penny on the ratepayer’s bill which I don’t think is going to break the bank in homes across Lisburn.”

This is significantly cheaper than previous Belfast schemes - between a third and a quarter of the cost - which must point to a much smaller rink, a very short period of opening, or an over-ambitious estimate! (And now to figure out what "point 3 of a penny" actually means in terms of a rates bill increase.)

It’ll be interesting to see if the local weekly paper - the Ulster Star - picks up on the story when they publish at the end of the week.

(Skating image from Patrick Mayon on Flickr under Creative Commons license)