Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Democracy counts ... and thoughts about transparency

To me, democracy is important.

At one level people have fought for it. Fought to keep a style of government that may well be less than perfect but is better than a military state or dictatorship. Perhaps today’s politicians should reflect on the lives lost in various 20th century wars to keep the current system the next time they’re putting their receipts into the expenses envelopes.

Under the last BBC Charter and Agreement, six public purposes were set out. I like the phrasing of the first one when it talks about

"sustaining citizenship and civil society"

Democracy is only as good as the transparency and understanding of the process that surrounds it.

While an individual vote cast in the isolation of a polling booth is private, the process of registering to vote, candidates applying to get their name on the paper, absent/postal ballots being issued, votes being counted, should all be open and accessible. As should the process whereby elected politicians keep the hamster wheel of government spinning - whether in local councils, Stormont, Dublin, Westminster, or Brussels.

But sustaining citizenship and civil society is not just a role for a national public service broadcaster. Part of it has got to be about citizens taking an active interest in things that they’ve long taken for granted or hoped that someone else will look after.

Yesterday’s picamp was one example of mentally working through some of the issues and looking for next steps to improve accountability and engagement. But there are other practical ways to get involved.

While steering clear of public political comment is the norm for Alan in Belfast, for a while I did consider giving the European Election and the campaign shenanigans a bit of a focus on the blog: looking at the candidates, their ever-present posters, bizarre campaign strap lines and their near-complete avoidance of talking about the EU and European issues, not to mention the race to top the poll and the transfer conundrum.

After all, in an election characterised by election leaflets bearing logos for Facebook, Myspace, Bebo, Twitter, Flickr and Youtube, surely the new media coverage and opportunities would extend all the way to the count and the result declarations.

However, a polite enquiry to the Electoral Office about blogger’s access, subsequently passed onto the NIO Press Office who handle the media for these occasions came back with a polite but insistent response that new media can’t come to the party count! Apparently it’s still the domain of

“... holders of media credentials from, for example - NUJ/Broadcast/Print media”

explaining that

“I am sure you can appreciate we (NIO) don't work in isolation on matters such as this and our procedures and protocols are agreed with a number of different agencies.”

I wasn’t really that surprised. Northern Ireland’s civil institutions aren’t renowned for moving with the times - though the NI Assembly are trying hard. While it would clearly be impractical to throw open the doors to every Tom, Diana and Alan who wanted to turn up, other commercial organisations do have a policy of accrediting some applicants from non-traditional media to get the widest possible coverage of events. Not so the NIO!

Maybe it’s the parties that need to take note and request action. Perhaps they’re the ones that have started down the road of engagement leaving those supporting the democratic process still stuck in the car park?

But fear not. I’ll not have to resort to tea bag posts just yet! We’ve all had enough of that. The Electoral Commission encourages individuals and organisations to sign up as Election Observers to witness the electoral process in action and call out any problems with its operation. A process isn’t transparent unless someone’s looking at it.

It’s observing rather than reporting, and there are rules, so you’ll not find anything here that sounds like party political comment or bias, nothing that talks about voting intentions, votes cast, voting trends or turnout etc. However, over the next week and a bit there may be some posts about the smoothness of the polling process that conform to the guidelines:

Observers must ensure that all of their observations are accurate ... comprehensive, noting positive as well as negative factors, distinguishing between significant and insignificant factors and identifying patterns that could have an important impact on the integrity of the election process. Observers’ judgements must be based on the highest standards for accuracy of information and impartiality of analysis, distinguishing subjective factors from objective evidence. Observers must base all conclusions on factual and verifiable evidence and not draw conclusions prematurely.

There are three categories of observable proceedings that are specified under Section 6F of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA):

Now you’ll search a long time, but there is actually a published timetable of when the local Northern Ireland Electoral area offices will be carrying out postal ballot issuing and receipt - the key word to search for is “schedule”.

Most of the postal ballots will already be issued, though people with unexpected “late” illnesses have until tonight to register and if they qualify their ballot papers will be posted out first thing on Thursday morning. After that incoming postal votes will be processed every few days right up until late next Thursday night when the polls close.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Political Innovation Camp - putting the PI into pizza

picamp about to begin

As trailed in a post last week, this afternoon was a trip back to Queen’s University and Political Innovation Camp or picamp (pronounced “π camp”). Some sessions had been thought about and articulated beforehand, others were more ad hoc and flowed from the conversation on the day. Delegates came from all kinds of backgrounds: journalists, consultants, academics, bloggers, commenters, hangers on ... and I even spotted one award winning councillor.

Steve Lawson had set up a temple of geekery in one corner of the Institute of Governance kitchen up on the first floor. His live blog post along with the embedded audio clips (insert big plug for audioboo!) give a pretty good flavour of what was discussed.

Hearts and minds filming Mick standing on top of a chair - the first time of many this afternoon!

I started out thinking I’d pull together a quick video overview of the event, including voxpops from the organisers and session initiators - a bit like the BarCamp Belfast one - but the conversations were too good to pull back and stand on the other side of the screen. So instead you’ll have to suffice with whatever Julia edits together for inclusion in Thursday night’s Hearts and Minds on BBC Northern Ireland.

Some snippets and ideas to record before I forget.

There's a symbiotic relationship between journalists and bloggers/citizen journalists. One with the legal resources to deal with libel allegations, but the constraints of toeing the owner’s line (and desperately short of time and resource to run long investigations). The other needing some guidelines to help keep them on the right side of the law but having a lot more freedom to pick what they want to poke their noses into.

“Should there be a mechanism for bloggers to pass stories to msm [Main Stream Media] if they can't legally stand it up?”

When it comes to media accreditation to cover national/political events – eg, the NIO Press Office’s approach to the upcoming EU vote count in the Kings Hall – bloggers are often viewed as amateur and outside the club of NUJ-card holding professionals. It’s one way of controlling numbers and behaviour, but does it open up the democratic process for scrutiny?

“announcing the formation of NUB - National Union of Bloggers...”

Photographers too need to stand up for their rights. And a reminder that Freedom of Information requests can be raised by anybody, and can be a good starting point.

Steve Lawson in his Amplified techie corner

Thinking about the Slugger Awards (first run last Autumn) the sound quality of the venue was raised, along with the potential to recognise political flunkies aides and advisers who often supply the elbow grease behind political campaigns and improvements.

Other groups looked at how politicians are using online and social media.

“parties in NI still think of social media as a broadcast tool”

“conversation with constituent on doorstep: audience of 1. same conversation online - audience in the 100s”

Lurking in the kitchen, we later discussed ways that the current commenter behaviour on sites like Slugger O’Toole could become more welcoming to newbies and readers who are less obviously politically aligned.

Anonymity was a requirement for those working in the public and private sector, as well as for members of political parties that tend to constrain external debate and musing on party policies. Sounds like the democratic parties need to learn to apply their democracy internally too.

“positive dissent by blogging politicians a good thing”

Heavy handed commenting squashes the enthusiasm of new participants. Women can be particularly put off. One person suggested that it could amount to cyber bullying: an emotive, but – I suspect – not an entirely incorrect term.

Some of the practical suggestions included applying the existing house rules a bit more rigorously in order to keep comment threads more tightly bound to the original post. One person commented that you were only ever three comments away from an extreme political statement that could close down a conversation. There were differing views on whether a Digg-style thumbs up/down voting on comments would reset the balance or just promote extremist comments to the top above the more rational and conversational stuff below.

An animated Mick Fealty explains the upcoming sessions

Talk too of how Northern Ireland could use a grass roots policy based civic and political action movement like MoveOn. What kind of issues would galvanise support for action across the country? Could people be motivated to bring about change in the views of individual politicians and their parties?

“do voters in NI care enough to move past tribal politics?”

“years of keeping the head below the parapet has made a sustained grassroots movement in NI a challenge”

Lots more was discussed, but other people can fill in the gaps in their posts. I've peppered the post with various tweets and quotes from the day - though I've deliberately left them unattributed. Many thanks to Mick, Paul, the good folks from Amplified and the sponsors.

Update - added the clip from Hearts and Minds.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Je suis pantouflard

The French have a word for me. Someone who wants to stay at home with their slippers on all day. A homebird.

Je suis pantoufflard pantouflard. Et vous?

Update: Thanks to Declan for spotting the spell faux pas.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Belfast Mystery Play - starting in front of QUB main gates next Sat 30 May at 8pm

Belfast Mystery Plays/Players blog banner

Theatre – whether dramatic or musical (or both) – is often a great way to explore foreign situations to gain some insight into the atmosphere, emotion, and relationships.

Whether strictly historic or make believe, audiences can voyeuristically peer through the fourth wall before going home to mull over what they’ve experienced. Theatre has few special effects, no CGI. The characters are life sized. They visibly sweat. They can seem real in a way on-screen actors can rarely match.

[Mystery]plays originated as simple tropes, verbal embellishments of liturgical texts, and slowly became more elaborate. As these liturgical dramas increased in popularity, vernacular forms emerged, as traveling [sic] companies of actors and theatrical productions organised by local communities became more common in the later Middle Ages. (source: Wikipedia!)

You can read a longer essay on the development of medieval mystery, miracle and morality plays for even better background.

TV shows like Manchester Passion and the Liverpool Nativity embellished the biblical texts with modern songs and some contemporary twists to the characterisation. And a church in Shenley, England – with considerably fewer resources than the BBC – put on their own nativity last Christmas.

Poster for Belfast mystery play

But a group of students are putting on a mystery play next Saturday – 30 May – beginning at 8pm in front of the main gates at Queens University. The Belfast Mystery Players describe it as a “promenade performance ... moving around the Queen’s campus”.

“The Belfast Mystery Players are a collaboration between postgraduate and undergraduate students in the schools of English and Drama (QUB) dedicated(ish) to the re-interpretation of medieval drama in the modern urban setting of Belfast.” [source: Facebook]

It’ll be free. So if you’re intrigued, head down next Saturday night and follow the action.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

picamp - Political Innovation Camp - time to bring the lurkers into the conversation?

picamp logo

You’d think that the Scouts had taken over the world! What with BarCamp, Creative Camp, Tech Camp, Measurement Camp ... it’s a wonder that we’re all not permanently living under canvas.

Next Tuesday afternoon, it is the turn of picamp.

“[Political Innovation Camp] is a conversational event, designed to promote a more conversational politics. It is promoted by Slugger O'Toole. We're looking for people with clever 'gamechanging' ideas - disruptive suggestions that can change the political landscape in a small or a big way. Come along, pitch your idea, ask others to help you finesse it and take it forward with you.”

You can sign up over at their website, and find out more about the ideas that are brewing up for sessions:

  • What happens to politics when the mainsteam media stops doing journalism?
  • How citizen photographers and journalists can alter politics ie directly influence politicians and their policies
  • Removing the obstacles - getting government involved in the conversation

Personally, I wonder what it would take to empower the invisible band of politically interested to uncloak? What would allow us lurkers into the conversation?

“Don’t talk about politics or religion.”

For a long time, local society seems to have been divided into those who breached this rule, and those who stuck by it. Even on a site like Slugger O’Toole that has done much to lower the entry bar to talk about politics, there are many more lurkers than commenters!

I suspect few people are truly “politically neutral”. I sometimes use that phrase to describe myself, but the reality is that while my views cannot be represented by one single party, I am an avid follower of politics, the political system and individual politicians. I’m politically interested, and keen on the idea of sustaining civil society, but shy of practising that hobby in public.

But it’s pretty rare for me to poke my head above the parapet and get stuck into a comment thread on Slugger. It’s feels like being in P5 and trying to join in the P7’s breaktime football match in the school playground. It’s a bit rough, my moves aren’t as mature and well though out as the big boys, and being that bit taller they look over my head and don’t really know I’m there. (Notethat it’s a perception, not the whole story, and not peculiar to Slugger ... so no ranting about it!)

And while a political event or milestone may occasionally feature in a blog post over on Alan in Belfast, “politics” is one of the lesser used tags, even below “religion”, and I never nail my colours to the mast(s).

But do I really want someone - my employer, a future employer, a neighbour - to google my name and discover that I believe this, that I wonder why that happened, that I’m critical of her saying that, and that I wish the following would happen? (Might be too late!) Somehow political comment is more raw and dangerous than complaining about airlines and the price of tea bags!

So structurally, how can we make the online world more welcoming and accommodating for those who are political, but currently keep it hidden? How can we widen out the conversation to listen to more voices? What can be done to forums and blogs and meetups to allow us wishy washy liberal scaredy cats to feel safe to join in? Never mind what can be done to encourage engagement in the real-life world.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Overtures and search engines

Church of Scotland burnig bush logo

You can catch the back story to the Church of Scotland’s latest deliberations about the presence and role of gay and lesbian Christians within churches over on Will and Testament. Given the number of Northern Ireland church goers (including ministers) signing a related online petition, it’s taken on a local dimension too.

There’s some debate on whether or not the motion will end up getting much floor time at the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly next Saturday evening ... but I pondered whether the Presbytery of Lochcarron-Skye (in a spirit of completeness) would like to consider a series of follow-up overtures in order to help wrest focus away from a single contentious issue and better refine how the public perceive their denomination’s values and its views on identity and marginalisation?

Overture: this is a method by which one court of the Church (for example a presbytery) brings a matter before another (e.g. the Assembly). [Source: Church of Scotland Guide to the General Assembly]

In a spirit of (mischief and) generosity, I exclusively offer an additional overture for their consideration. Maybe you’ll suggest some more by adding a comment below.

From the Presbytery of Lochcarron-Skye


1. the Church’s historic understanding of the Biblical teaching on homosexual practice coveting has not been questioned much in recent years.

2. a lengthy period of reflection has elapsed without a resolution of the issue.

3. it is undesirable that the courts of the church should be asked to judge on individual cases in advance of any such resolution.

It is humbly overtured by the Reverend the Presbytery of Lochcarron-Skye to the Venerable the General Assembly to receive the Overture set out below,

“That this Church shall not accept for training, ordain, admit, re-admit, induct or introduce to any ministry of the Church anyone involved in a sexual relationship outside of faithful marriage between a man and a woman who has coveted anything that belongs to his/her neighbour (including, but not restricted to, partners, vehicles and animals)”.

Just so I don’t completely lose techie readers, the new Wolfram Alpha search engine isn’t too sure about the Ten Commandments! Google finds the question a lot easier to answer.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Torchwood back on Radio 4 | Primeval on the big screen

Torchwood logo

Two bits of sci-fi news.

Torchwood popped up with Lost Souls, an Afternoon Play on Radio 4 back in September on the day the Large Hadron Collider was switched on at CERN – shortly before it went offline for unplanned maintenance!

And now there’s news that three more 45-minute radio plays have been recorded for airing on R4 this summer before the show’s third series returns to BBC Three Two One over five consecutive nights.

Asylum by Anita Sullivan. The story of a teen runaway called Freda who is brought to the attention of Torchwood by PC Andy. As Gwen, Jack and Ianto investigate where this troubled girl has come from, Andy finds himself drawn closer than ever before into the world of Torchwood.

Golden Age by James Goss. Torchwood go to India to investigate the disappearance of hundreds of people. The trail leads them to an old colonial club which seems strangely stuck in the past as does its young and beautiful owner, the Duchess.

The Dead Line by Phil Ford. A series of mysterious phone calls lead Jack into danger, and result in 'a very emotional moment for Ianto'.

Primeval logo

Secondly, it’s been announced that the screen rights to ITV’s Saturday evening show Primeval have been picked up Warner Bros. Broadcast magazine explains that Akiva Goldsman will write the screenplay (recently worked on the new Angels and Demons film) while Kerry Foster will produce the movie.

“There is a solid mythology to the series, but the movie has the dinosaur element of Jurassic Park and the time travel element of Lost, and it just feels like the kind of big movie that Warner Bros. does well,” Foster said.

Now all we need is some news about Sky’s revival of Blake’s 7!

Vodafone gave stuff away in Belfast

Vodafone logo

Having given them a bad time over a previous UK promotion that missed out Northern Ireland, it’s only fair that I should applaud Vodafone for bringing their HTC Magic hunt to Belfast yesterday.

They’ve been issuing daily clues on Twitter to lead people to a particular Vodafone store and giving a password to utter to an identified member of staff. As I was getting on the train to head up to the Balmoral Show, a clue was posted including the word “Best” ... a pretty big hint that it would be Belfast.

Of course, it would have to be the one day I was heading out of town, as opposed to sitting ten minutes away from the store! Looks like the trust Sony Ericsson P900 will survive a while longer. On the bright side, the Vodafone-branded rock sweets on their Balmoral Show stand were just the chewy sugar rush I needed.

But two Belfastians will now be the proud owners of HTC Magic phones. Thanks for listening Vodafone.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sammy and Jeffrey - the (modern) odd couple?

Commenting on Stormont Live about MP expenses, Sammy Wilson explained that he shares an apartment near Westminster with Jeffrey Donaldson. Which in my mind begs the question ...

Does Sammy leave lights on and the television sitting on standby, while Jeffrey goes around switching them all off?

Monday, May 11, 2009

A future facing the past? Lesley Carroll in conversation on Tuesday night

Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland logo

If you’ve ploughed through the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past or wished that you had, you might be interested in the open event being run by the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland on Tuesday night.

In Conversation with Lesley Carroll discussing “A future facing the past?”

Tuesday 12 May at 7.30pm up on the 3rd Floor, 21 Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, BT2 8HD

A member of the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past, Lesley has seen and heard more from behind the scenes than most, and wrestles with our apparent political inability to deal with the report, let alone the past!

It’s the first in a series of conversations. Next month on June 9, In Conversation with Mike Wardlow will focus on “Education - a middle class value or a fundamental human need?” asking whether “the Christian church have anything distinctive to bring to current local education debates and institutions? A space to explore biblical values concerning education, and bringing them to bear on current local educational issues.”

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rem Koolhaas - A Kind of Architect

My Thursday night arty activities as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival started with another architectural opportunity. Todd Architects practice, responsible for the Black Box’s design, was sponsoring a showing of Rem Koolhaas - A Kind of Architect. Such was the interest that the event outgrew the Black Box café and spilled over into the main performance area.

Watching Rem Koolhaas - A Kind of Architect in Belfast's Black Box venue

A lifestyle journalist who started to write screenplays, Rem Koolhaas helped made the most expensive film (at that time) in the Netherlands. It closed two weeks after its release! A fairly erotic art house film noire if the clips were representative of the while thing. But architecture ran in the family.

In the early 1970s as a student at architecture school in London, Koolhaas had to make a documentary about a building. He chose the Berlin wall. And the theme of walls dividing continued later when he investigated the potential effect of building an enormous enclosed area in the middle of a city. A walled garden that would become the cramped central space where people would flock to live in the fashionable place, emptying the no-longer fashionable suburbs and opening up their possible regeneration ... or “regurgitation” as Tuesday‘s Waiting for Ikea play might have put it!

Seattle library, designed by Rem Koolhaas

As usual, sitting in the audience as an IT architect, my mind wanders to the parallels between built-environment and computer-based architecture.

The film brought out the idea of architecture being teamwork. Never alone in his OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) practice. Never quite clear where ideas came from or how options were refined. A multi-disciplinary pursuit, architects, graphic designers, technicians, all collaborating. No surprise that the best moments of IT architecture mirror this kind of group effort.

Koolhaas also viewed his architectural solutions as interventions to “fix the programming” of existing spaces: in other words, to improve their use and usability beyond baseline measurements and metrics taken before the start of the project. Sounds familiar too.

By spinning off AMO (OMA spelt backwards) as a think tank to inform their architecture, Koolhaas found a way to build in the thinking that is necessary for proper design.

Koolhaas aims to understand the client in their totality. It’s not just about the fancy HQ that they want designed and built, but for him it requires a wider appreciation of a client’s factories, stores, product lines, business, culture and processes.

CCTV headquarters in Beijing designed by AMO/Rem Koolhaas

A Koolhaas trait is that he favours multi-level constructions. Rarely skyscrapers - though circumference (2H+2W) of the Central China Television (CCTV) headquarters in Beijing does equal the height of New York’s old Twin Towers.

But getting away from isolated homes on flat streets to form covered communities, maximising the urban spaces and their usefulness. But fitting in with the surroundings, matching the existing architectural style of the area, isn’t a prime constraint.

From what I saw during the film, Koolhaas likes floating buildings, raised structures, rooms that stick out into the air several floors up the side of buildings, and ramps which can sometimes double as drawbridges.

“You rarely leave a building by Koolhaas without bruises”

said one commentator in the film, pointing to Koolhaas’ tendency to make floor lines disappear from under your feet, placing unexpected views and conceiving surprising revelations about the layout.

original 15 state version of Rem Koolhaas' EU barcode flag

As well as “normal” building projects, Koolhaas has taken on less traditional creative missions. One such venture was the development of a visual language to better unite member EU countries than the EU flag with its fixed number of ten stars.

25 state version of Rem Koolhaas' EU barcode flag

In its place he envisioned a barcode pattern - sometimes compared to pyjamas. It starts with the colours of the Irish flag (far west), and originally finished with those of the Greek flag (far east). It was later extended when the EU expanded.

On reflection, I found Sketches of Frank Gehry a much better film profiling another prolific architect, using the cinematic media to better effect to showcase the subject, his process and the built designs. And while there were moments of invention in Thursday night’s Rem Koolhaas film, personally, I felt it was more like a TV documentary. Though I’m still very glad I went along and learnt more.

The UUP think the DUP Pants Are On Fire!

DUP Pants on Fire website

Looks like the UUP Conservatives and Unionists are warming up their European Election campaign to get Jim Nicholson re-elected with a daily jab at the DUP on their new DUP Pants on Fire website and Twitter account.

Interview with Shaun Davey

Shaun Davey - composer

Having attended a concert of Shaun Davey's music in the Waterfront on St Patrick's Day in 2008, I was fascinated to discover an extended interview with the composer on Arts Extra last Monday. The recording will expire on Listen Again on Monday evening, so you don't have long to catch it if you're interested.

Not classically trained in music, Davey brings a different set of rules to his music. Perhaps a greater understanding of drama and emotion than other who are more focussed on the layer complexity between the parts.

Brilliant, brilliant music ... and interesting commentary from Marie-Louise Muir in conversation with Shaun Davey.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Waiting For Ikea

Is all Dublin drama sweary? Two out of two that I’ve seen this year have been. And they’ve both been lunchtime plays. There’s something very unnatural about lots of swearing at lunchtime. If you turn on Channel 4 after ten o’clock (an hour after the UK TV watershed begins) then you half expect to find the odd F - and nowadays the occasional C - floating out towards your eardrums. But at lunchtime, it’s different.

Performing at the Out to Lunch festival in January, comedienne Shappi Khorsandi stopped at one point mid-joke to reconsider how she’d phrase something for a lunchtime audience. Society seems to adopt different rules at different times of the day.

Waiting for Ikea - play - Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival

Waiting for Ikea was written and performed by Georgina McKevitt and Jacinta Sheerin. It wowed the Dublin Fringe Festival back in 2007, and was sold out as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in the Black Box on Tuesday lunchtime.

Chrissie and Jade were childhood friends. They shared their big life experiences with each other: practicing dance routines and doing pregnancy tests together,

Chrissie: “Are they the same pyjamas you were wearing yesterday?”

Jade: “No ... (pause) … I’ve got two pairs of these.”

Years later, still living in Pimlico, they are to Dublin what Millies are to Belfast: pyjamas are for living in! Community is tight and gossipy. Friendship involves as much crying and falling out as hugging and making up. Boyfriends can be recycled. There’s a lot of sitting, standing and talking in the street.

As one online review phrased it:

The Celtic tiger has been and gone and they never even stroked it.

But behind the friendship, there is pain. As a young mother, Chrissie needed help with baby Dean. And Jade dropped her plans for college and became a second parent. Eight year’s later, Jade still gives Chrissie’s son a goodnight kiss each evening, and has a better understanding of Dean’s problems and life than his mother. But it’s time for Jade to flee the nest she unexpectedly became trapped in. Time to live life for herself.

Waiting for Ikea - play - Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival

Waiting for Ikea is well named, in that you will spend much of the performance waiting for Ikea to be mentioned. It’s not a central plot point - but it must help tempt the audience to buy tickets to see the show!

With flashbacks and some rather professionally produced amateur video footage, the audience explore the friendship and the imminent transition. There’s a lot of humour. A lot of earthy language. And insights into sun beds, first communion and Dublin community that made for a lunchtime experience that won’t quickly be forgotten.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Flip Mino HD review

Flip Mino HD connected up to a USB hub

So I’ve been living with a little Flip Mono HD for the last week and a bit. It’s just the size of a candy bar phone, slips in your jacket pocket weighs only 3.3oz (around 95g) and can capture an hour of HD quality footage.

At the flick of a button on the side, the USB plug flips out from the top ready to download your video onto PC/Mac and recharge the built in battery. Being the latest model available in Europe (the US have just launched the Flip Ultra HD which I guess will hit these shores before Christmas) it comes with the latest simple editing software already on the internal drive – for both PC and Mac, so you can install without downloading.

Technically it’s capturing HD at 720p resolution, 30 frames per second, 16:9 widescreen (1280 x 720) onto it’s built in 4GB flash memory. The battery powers the unit for around two hours, and it takes three hours to fully recharge via USB.

Apple mouse sitting beside a Flip Mino HD

I loved its handy form factor. It’s smaller and lighter than it’s main rival, the Kodak Zi6. From the point you hold in the power button, it’s ready to record inside a couple of seconds. The screen on the back is never going to be clear enough to check if an HD image is in focus! But it’s good enough to browse through clips and delete the dud ones.

Let’s look at a real life application. I used the Mino HD to capture footage at BarCamp Belfast.

Snippets of talks, voxpops with attendees and speakers, general background footage of the venue and surroundings. It coped well. It’s discrete enough that its presence isn’t as off-putting as a camcorder or professional broadcast camera.

I’d half expected that I'd be able to hook the Mino HD up to a computer with a USB extension lead to power it, and allow me to beat the two hour battery life. But no: once hooked up to a computer, it switches over to being a USB drive, and the camera function is disabled.

The audio it captured was of good quality (mono), but at a very low level. So you’ll have to boost the level in your editing software if combining with louder footage from other sources.

It’s a small, lightweight handheld (fingerheld) camera – so it wobbles. It doesn’t have built in image stabilisation, so unless you jam yourself against a wall, or mount the Mino HD on a camera tripod (it does have a standard tripod mount on the bottom) expect the pictures to be a little shaky. But packages like iMovie 09 can come to the rescue offering video stabilisation of imported clips.

The BarCamp Belfast video was shot entirely on the Flip Mino HD, and edited in the older iMovie HD. Nothing fancier required.

I was surprised when I paused the imported content just how sharp a still from a clip could be. I pointed the Flip out a train window on a sunny day in London and realised that I’d be able to use a still from the footage as a background image (at 1280 x 720 anyway). Good vibrant colour. If you pan around from a very bright scene to much darker scene, you’ll notice the white balance correcting and adjusting. And I was impressed with the quality of lower light shots.

To transfer the images off the camera and onto your computer, just plug it into a USB2 socket. The built in FlipShare software allows you transfer clips on and off the camera, trim clips and then sequence them, before adding a title and credit, and exporting the finished movie as a .MOV (H.264, AAC). It can upload directly to Youtube and MySpace, though doesn’t have the settings for Flickr yet! The software ran quite happily on my Atom-powered Dell Mini 9 (running XP) and Mac Mini. For more sophisticated productions, just import the clips into iMovie, Final Cut Pro, Pinnacle etc.

Part of me would love the Mino HD to boost its gain and capture audio at a louder level – or offer a jack to plug in an external mic. It takes a surprisingly long time to transfer footage off the Flip and onto your computer. Even using USB2, 1GB is a lot of storage to shift around. If pushed for time, popping out an SD card and replacing it with a fresh one would have been faster. Given that the camera recording HD, it’s a shame that the video out (cable supplied) is only a Component video feed.

But for most of the scenarios that you’d want to use a pocket sized HD camera ... you can live without those features.

It’s not really intended for shooting a feature film – though some enterprising filmmaker will try! It would be ideal for voxpopping – short head shots, no need for zoom and close enough to the subject to use the built-in mic and not get too much background nose. Would love to have a go in the summer with Tech Camp and send out one group with the normal shoulder-mounted DV camera, the other with a Flip, and then compare the results.

An hour of footage is normally plenty. And I quickly got used to the shake and the audio. Years ago, people took perfectly good photos with Kodak Brownie cameras. And today, it’s possible to capture excellent video footage with a Flip. While I found that it did reduce the number of photos I took, the size and usability of the Mino HD balanced out some of its constraints and downsides. Retailing for £169.99, it seems pretty good value.

Any bigger or any heavier, and I don’t think I’d carry it around! So for me the Kodak Zi6 and even the promised Ultra HD (with its AA batteries, stereo mic and two hours recording) would be too big and heavy for my pocket.

But for now, the Flip Mino HD is back in its box, wrapped up, and speeding back to London in a padded envelope. I’ve never owned a camcorder – no embarrassing home movies for Littl’un to worry about! – but I’d seriously think about getting a Flip. It appealed to my (normally well hidden) inner filmmaker.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Radio 4's iPM, the East Belfast Herald, and the rights issues that mean podcasts are shorter than the original radio programmes

iPM logo

I've been listening to Radio 4's iPM for ages, and I usually resist the temptation to participate by commenting on their blog or emailing in a sentence to describe an event in my week. But their trail a couple of weeks ago for an upcoming piece on the demise of the local newspaper trade came right on the back of meeting Fiona Rutherford, editor of the recently launched East Belfast Herald (mentioned on AiB).

So I popped a comment on the iPM blog and thought nothing more about it until I listed to Saturday's podcast - and was ever so slightly disappointed that they hadn't picked up the story of a local paper launching in the face of an industry trend that favoured closure.

East Belfast Herald logo

Then Fiona emailed this evening to say that she'd been interviewed on Saturday for iPM.

Did I sleep through that bit of the podcast?

No. Sure enough, on Listen Again/iPlayer (the one week catch up service for the radio programme) the interview is there just before the 8 minute mark, tucked in-between the end of the Andy Burnham interview and listeners' news. But because the item was overlaid with some scene-setting Van Morrison music, it had been stripped out of the podcast.

Unlike the Listen Again version, the podcast doesn't spontaneously combust after a week, but lives on on your hard drive until you delete it, so the rights payments for using the music would presumably be higher.

The upshot? BBC podcasts are usually shorter than the original radio programmes, with any significant music (and the words spoken over the music) removed. And in this case, about two minutes shorter: Fiona's interview - the one item in the programme I was looking out for was completely missing. Edited out.

May the Fourth be with you

... for all those misguided Star Wars fans out there.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival now up and running

Really just a quick reminder that while the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival is now in full swing, it's not too late to browse through the programme and secure some tickets. (Though the online booking page does suggest that around half the events have sold out!)

Zoe Conway playing in CQAF in The John Hewitt

This afternoon, Zoë Conway wowed the packed crowd in The John Hewitt as she fiddled alongside accomplished guitarist and husband John McIntyre. Once again, their chemistry was on show as they worked through their impressive set. One friend in the audience described it as:

"Possibly most erotically charged and sweet performance I've heard. Her partner completely fixated on her. Beautiful voice."

Well worth going back to hear after her great performance in the January Out to Lunch festival. And a cultural first as it was Littl'un's inaugural attendance at a concert.

Chemistry between Zoe Conway (fiddle) and John McIntyre (guitar)

While waiting for Argos to rummage around their storeroom for some flat pack units yesterday lunchtime, I caught some of the Junior Circus from Belfast Community Circus School's performance in Arthur Street - part of the Festival of Fools that runs until Monday 4th. Excellent stuff.

Pizza Hut not immune from the current financial crisis

Seagull sitting on the sign above a closed Pizza Hut branch at Connswater, Belfast

I can no longer count on the fingers (and thumbs) of one hand the number of outlets in Victoria Square that have switched off their lights and locked their doors permanently. Every week, there seem to be more stories of well-known and respected brands and outlets facing financial trouble. Not to mention the continual shrinkage of Northern Ireland's remaining manufacturing industry.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the last week was the news that five of Northern Ireland's fourteen Pizza Hut franchises were closed with immediate effect on Friday morning: Coleraine, Dungannon as well as Belfast's Dublin Road, Connswater and Yorkgate outlets.

The Dublin Road branch has been there since my student days, outlasting the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory around the corner, and serving as a venue for QUB Radio Club (no, not the Queens Radio station ... way before that) Christmas Dinners that were rarely ever held in December! And I remember a run-in with the Yorkgate branch for its miserly Chicken Supreme which had a really meagre sprinkling of chicken bits spread thinly across the pizza. They'd apparently been told off for being too generous with the toppings.

While the administrator is confident that the four branches in Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Glengormley and Lisburn can stay open, the remaining five branches are trading with a cloud over their heads while more sums are done. Over the years, I've eaten in all five!

  • The branch at Carryduff memorably allowed one of our Youth Fellowship who didn't like pizza to go outside to the KFC and bring back a gourmet chicken meal to eat alongside the rest of us may not survive. Now that is customer service.
  • The Odyssey was more prone to long queues - managing to delay my pizza longer than the time it took my wife to eat hers one night.
  • Bangor was good.
  • Castlecourt's Pizza Hut Express serves up tasty lunchtime-sized snacks (even tried the salad side order once ... just once).
  • And the Victoria Square branch has barely had time for the purple paint to dry.
Connswater Pizza Hut branch - now closed

But sitting in the Connswater car park on Saturday lunchtime, it was still shocking to see the East Belfast branch - that had hosted memorable family lunches - closed for ever. Now just a perch for breathless sea gulls.

Throwing pearls before swine?

I gave you pearls and this is how you repay me

When Reverend Fun is on form, he's hard to beat!

(Copyright Gospel Communications International, Inc -

Friday, May 01, 2009

Spirit of Belfast - coming to a Cornmarket near you

Back in November 2007, the steel squiggle Spirit of Belfast came top in the public poll to chose which piece of public art should adorn the space in Belfast’s Cornmarket Arthur Square.

Since the announcement, the pedestrian area has been paved, Victoria Square has opened, the pedestrian area has been thoroughly dug up … but another set of streets has commenced.

Preparations for the Spirit of Belfast

In front of Carphone Warehouse, in the spot where the bandstand used to be, they’re making preparations for Dan George’s sculpture to be erected. In case you’ve forgotten ...

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.

Update - September 2009 - It's finally being installed.