Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Exploring Belfast City Airport // Part Two

Rainbow behind Flybe plane parked on apron at Belfast City Airport

September was a good month for rainbows in and around Belfast. The afternoon I visited the Belfast City Airport was no exception.

It’s difficult to beat the magic of the journey hold luggage takes between the check-in desk and the aeroplane. Some of the technology around the airport is craftily simple.

Parking alignment indicator at stands at Belfast City Airport

As planes taxi in across the apron to their stand, how do they know when they’re lined up straight? There are a set of lights underneath the stand number. When the plane is correctly aligned, from the captain’s (left hand) seat in the cockpit, the two lines will be green. Veer to one side, and they’ll turn red.

Parking alignment indicator at stands at Belfast City Airport

The airport’s three yellow fire tenders are due for replacement in the next year or so. They serve the wider harbour estate, so don’t be surprised if you see them responding to an emergency in the local area.

Fire tender at Belfast City Airport

I’m not sure why – it is a fire station after all – but I was quite surprised to see a fireman’s pole! It’s still the fastest method of getting downstairs from the mess to the vehicles. There’s a cushion on the ground to protect your ankles when you reach the bottom

Looking up fireman's pole at Belfast City Airport fire stationLooking down fireman's pole in Belfast City Airport fire station

Air Traffic Control lives above the fire station, with a clear view of the airport stands and the up the runway towards Ikea and beyond.

View from Air Traffic Control tower at Belfast City Airport

The relatively low volume of aircraft movements means that flights can be tracked on paper strips.

Air Traffic Control at Belfast City AirportAir Traffic Control at Belfast City Airport

Belfast City Airport is like a village, with a couple of big thoroughfares that visitors walk along, and a whole series of hidden short cuts and narrow back alleys that the locals use to go about their business. Touring the airport gave me a fascinating insight into the behind the scenes activity that keeps the airport running. Thanks again to the staff at the airport for offering the tour.

Empty corridor leading to the gates at Belfast City Airport

There’s little doubt that between the announcements of carriers moving out and in, the plans for runway extension, the public enquiry and the inevitable love/hate relationship between local residents and the airport, Belfast City Airport will continue to be in the news.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Boat Factory – free tickets for blog readers to the world première on 5 October

Update - my tickets have all gone for now! There may be more available if you contact 028 9045 1512.

Poster for The Boat Factory

2nd of July 1945. The sun shines down on a post-war world. A 16 year-old boy walks through the gates of Belfast’s Harland & Wolff Titanic Shipyard.

1700 ships built between here and the Clyde, 67 different Trades, 300 acres of land and 35,000 men employed at its height. Regarded as the biggest and best there is, if you can dream it – they can build it.

This is history - this is his story - this is The Boat Factory.

Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church – better known in East Belfast as The Shipyard Church – is celebrating its 130th anniversary in October 2010. As part of a programme of activities, they’re staging the world première of Dan Gordon’s play The Boat Factory in the church at 7.30pm on Tuesday 5 October. (You can be assured that Dan Gordon's character Red Hand Luke from Give My Head Peace won't be appearing in the play!)

I’ve a number of free tickets for the first night, available to blog readers who get in touch (email address is up in the top right hand corner of the blog) and can guarantee they’ll be able to attend. (The theatre company and church are both keen that the first staging plays to a full house … and free tickets sometimes get discarded!)

Drop me your details and how many people you're bringing and I’ll post out (snail mail) the tickets. Think of it as an AiB cultural meet-up! Some folk might even want a bite to eat beforehand ...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Culture Night Belfast - a three minute look back

Parked on Wellington Place, just up from Belfast City Hall, I captured some of the sights and sounds of Friday's Culture Night as I walked down into the Cathedral Quarter and Stormont Teacup Stories in the hard-to-find-the-entrance Ramada Encore hotel.

Compressed into three minutes (above), there was outdoor tango dancing, kids crafts, street theatre, bands, films, photography, a dinosaur out for a walk, samba drumming and dancing, architects talking about Titanic Quarter, as well as political stories and laughs about Stormont. High above the War Memorial building, a trumpeter stood at an open balcony door, his magical tooting floating over the buzz of Talbot Street below. And it was all free!

But there was one crazy sight that I never quite got to the bottom of. A troupe of musicians wearing upturned wicker baskets on their heads wandered up beside an elegant harpist sitting on the pavement. (Check out the video below.) They joined in, accompanying her melody. But I couldn't figure out whether they were meant to be together, or whether the crazy wicker men would soon walk away and butt into another musical performance on another street.

Update - Conall suggests that the basket men "are Armagh Rhymers. Also known as mummers. An ancient rural folk tradition." Now I've a whole lot more questions!

Checking in to your final (Foursquare) destination ...

For all those addicted to foursquare - or even just for people who know what it is!

Reverend Fun cartoon - DESCRIPTION: People with phones buzzing at funeral.  Message on phones is that 'Wilbur has checked in at Pearly Gates'

(Copyright Gospel Communications International, Inc -

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday’s Culture Night & Paper Boat Building (Something for the Weekend)

Culture Night Belfast logo

Last year, 15,000 people descended on Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter on one night for a free arts festival. Tonight it’s back. More events, wider set of locations right across the city. Derry’s joining in too.

Update - quick three minute video of the sights and sounds of Culture Night Belfast now uploaded.

There are hundreds of events detailed at the Culture Night Belfast website. Tours, hands on creative arts, music, film, dance and photography. Parking is free in St Anne’s Square car park – you just need to bring your car parking ticket to the reception in the Ramada Encore hotel to get it validated.

Moochin Photoman (John Baucher) is taking Through the Viewfinder portraits in The Dark Horse (Commercial Court) between 6pm and 9pm. The results will be will be printed and displayed in the The Dark Horse on 15 October, when you’ll be able to go along, see the range of faces and snaps, and take your photo home for free.

On Saturday W5 will be donning its pirate cap and rediscovering the lost mariners art of Paper Boat building between 2pm and 4pm. Included in the normal entrance charge.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

East Belfast Speaks Out - postponed until November

East Belfast Speaks Out poster

Update - Note that 2010 East Belfast Speaks Out has been postponed from 20 October until November due to panellist unavailability. The new date will be announced shortly.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Exploring Belfast City Airport // Five minutes in the life of a piece of hold baggage

View up apron at Belfast City Airport
Ever wondered what happens to your suitcase after you set it down on the scales and it judders onto the conveyor belt behind the check-in desk?

I remember travelling home through Sheffield Airport one evening about five or six years ago. The conveyor belt at the side of the check-in desk didn’t move. Instead a man in overalls appeared and lifted my small case and carried it over to a door, went outside and loaded it by hand into the hold of the small aircraft. Later, he held the same door open as a handful of us walked out to board the aircraft. And before the plane taxied back from its stand, he had changed into a fireman’s uniform and was heading towards the airfield’s fire truck. A one man operation.

At Belfast City Airport, it’s a bit bigger, busier and more sophisticated. In fact, each bag goes on quite a magical adventure. And late one afternoon last week, I got a chance to discover what happened.

Shunting past the check in desk and rolling onto the conveyor belt running along the back of all the check-in desks, your bag vanishes through the wall into the baggage handling area behind.

Passengers and their hand luggage go through the scanners and X-ray machines in the main security hall before being allowed to go airside and wait to board their flights. In a parallel operation, each item of hold baggage is checked before it can join its owner on-board the flight.
The spiral conveyor belt that brings bags upstairs to be scanned in the dark
Shunted through the wall, your bag will move onto a spiral conveyor belt and corkscrew its way upstairs.
Looking down the spiral conveyor belt that brings bags upstairs to be scanned in the dark
It’ll spend the next minute travelling through an eerily dark upper floor.
Unmanned bag scanning floor
A floor filled with belts, gates, blinking lights, and – crucially – an X-ray machine. (Obviously the lights were switched on while we were up there, otherwise the rest of the photographs would look similarly gloomy.)
Bag heading into an X-ray machine
Your bag will move from belt to belt, passing through a scanner which can detect a range of suspect and unwanted materials. The imaging of many bags will show nothing untoward and they will continue to travel through the channels of belt.

If the scanner sniffs certain substances it can automatically raise the alarm without further human intervention. Silent alarms go off, commandos descend on ropes from the ceiling, and miniature robotic helicopters hover around your suspect bag and use high powered lasers to neutralise the threat inside. (Disclaimer – I may have made that last sentence up.)

My suitcase with its 4-way coiled extension lead, spare laptop batteries, network cables and phone chargers may be flagged for closer inspection. Images of bags whose contents warrant human eyes to check the X-ray image (and verify what’s inside) are beamed to security staff downstairs.

While the your suspect bag sails on out the far side of the X-ray machine, the staff have 15 seconds or so to look at the X-ray images and make a decision about the bag’s contents. If it’s ok, it’ll continue down the happy path, inching closer to the plane.
A maze of conveyor belts
If security don’t like what they see – or if they’re busy and don’t get time to make a decision – the system will automatically block your bag from following the safe route, and will instead divert it downstairs for manual scanning. Ultimately, you may be called back to open the back and allow the contents to be searched properly.

All the while it’s travelling through the dark maze of belts and machinery, infrared scanners read the barcodes affixed to the sides of your bag, tracking its progress to make sure it doesn’t get stuck or end up in the wrong place.

Finally, once your bag has passed through security and been deemed safe, it moves back down to ground level. Baggage handlers look at flight numbers on the labels and lift the bags off the belt and place them into the trailer destined for your flight. “Bingo cards” display the flight number prominently on each trailer ...
Putting bags onto trailers, labelled with bingo cards
From there it’s a short trip out to the side of the aircraft. Your bag still hasn’t travel anywhere near as far as you will, snaking your way through security, up to the shops, cafes and airline lounges, before returning downstairs and making your way along the cold, long corridor to your gate and out to your plane.

I’ll explore outside in a later post. Thanks to the staff at Belfast City Airport for offering the tour.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mini Countryman - it's always a great day for an ice cream!

Update - They also had a Scalextric track set up in one corner of the showroom. Unfortunately, the cars racing around the track weren't Minis (like my thirty year old set), but they did speed under a bridge constructed from two soft Mini toys (priced at around £25 each).

Bavarian were showing off the new Mini Countryman this afternoon.

Red Mini Countryman

Basically, it's like a souped-up cartoon version of a Mini ... much, much larger and very rounded. And with a price tag (starting at £16,000) to match.

Interior of Mini Countryman

The interior hasn't diverted too much from that of previous Minis. While it's possible to fit three people across the back seat, there's also an option for just two proper seats in the rear.

Centre rail extending through to rear seats in Mini Countryman

In that configuration I like the way the centre rail continues back past the hand brake and into the back. You can clip on cup holders and sunglass holders, as well as mobile and iPod chargers!

Back rail in Mini Countryman

Did I mention how large it looks from the outside!

White Mini Countryman

Bavarian had a couple of the normal-sized Minis (including the slightly elongated Clubman) in the showroom, parked behind the new Countryman models. They looked so small and practical ... made me feel nostalgic for the wee yellow Mini I used to drive (from the company car scheme).

Ice cream cones and Mini Countrymen

Despite the weather - the rain was tipping down in south Belfast all afternoon - Bavarian's decision to hire in a Hoy's Farmhouse ice cream stall for the afternoon was a popular decision.

A view through a Mini Countryman

I wonder if Mini's next model will be a full-sized 4x4 complete with bull bars?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Something for the weekend – food, DIY and WWII in Belfast and Lisburn

Taste Northern Ireland Garden Party

Taste Northern Ireland Garden Party is running between 11am-6pm on Saturday and Sunday in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. As well as food galore, there will be nine hole crazy golf, live music, face painting and glitter tattooists, and storytelling on the half hour.

The Institute of Physics will be doing physics tricks – expect lots balloons and liquid nitrogen! The programme on Belfast City Council’s website also points to Lord of the Bins:

“Gandalf the Garbage and Frodo Bin-Baggins are two very special puppets perched on their very own bins, with a mission to save Middle Earth with their recycling message.”

Decorate & Improve Your Home exhibition

Up the road in the Kings Hall, the Decorate & Improve Your Home exhibition is running on Saturday and Sunday between 10am-6pm.

Architects, builders, designers, suppliers all under the one roof with the promise of competitions, consultations and DIY demonstrations. Full details on the organiser’s brochure.

Lisburn City Centre Management

Lisburn Heritage Festival starts on Saturday 18. Between 10am and 4pm Market Square will be hosting a Second World War vehicle display along with a chance to get dressed up on WWII uniforms.

Up the street in Castle Gardens, a living history group will have set up their tents and field hospital and showing off personal kit from WWII. Children can join in an organised craft activity to make their own small paper planes, tying in with the Ulster Aviation Society display.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Talking to Tom Elliott and Basil McCrea as they battle it out to be UUP leader

New UUP banner logo - cropped

In case you hadn't noticed, there's an election on. The Ulster Unionist Party - of which I'm not a member (nor any other party) - are in the process of electing a new leader to replace the outgoing Sir Reg Empey. Two very different candidates - Tom Elliott and Basil McCrea - are battling it out to win the votes of UUP members who get to vote online by post in person in the Waterfront Hall next Wednesday.

I did a quick interview with both candidates during the last few days. The videoed conversations are embedded below and you can head across to Slugger O'Toole if you feel inclined to find out what I made of it all and what Basil and Tom suggested during their 60 second leadership pitches as well as what they thought about the Tory link-up, changes they'd make inside the party, respect for leaders, unity following a divisive campaign as well as highlighting practical differences the wider community would notice as a result of their party leadership and Tom's U-turn on community engagement.

Both Tom and Basil were asked common questions in an attempt to expose any differences in substance as well as style. An experiment to see if new media could shine a different light on the process and the candidates.

In the end, it was their answers to one of the more flippant, rapid fire questions at the end that perhaps explained their differentiation the best.

[Alan] Mac or PC?

[Elliott] Oh, PC.

Tom is traditional, conservative, low key and low risk. There used to be a phrase in industry that said “no one ever got sacked for buying IBM”. And Tom fits that space. I doubt whether as leader he would change much of the party structures or its appeal, and if I was a UUP member I’d worry that his profile outside the party would be lower than Margaret Ritchie and David Ford. He comes across as steady rather than inspirational. A good man to have on your team, but does he have the right strengths to be coach and leader?

[McCrea] “Undecided. Dithering with a Mac, but probably PC.”

Basil comfortably lives life on the edge. He can make decisions, but he’ll postpone making the commitment as long as possible. While he projects the image that if he wins he’ll turn the party upside down, the reality might be more nuanced. He’s media savvy and comfortable talking. At Proms in the Park – on his Hillsborough constituency doorstep – he managed to appear on the big screen at the side of the stage twice by standing in the right place striking the right pose when the producer needed a fun crowd shot. While a (very) small number of MLAs and councillors might walk away from the party if Basil is elected leader, he’d be well shot of them, even if it means his chance of winning back lots of Assembly seats for the UUP is even more remote. He sounds like a leader, and projects a mood of hope: growing the vote, beating the DUP. But he’ll need all the hope he can muster along with asbestos underwear if the UUP members vote him in as leader in the Waterfront next Wednesday.

Cat's Budgies go on air

Catherine Roberts at the launch of Budgie Butlins

Budgie Butlins made it onto Arts Extra on Tuesday night (11 minutes 24 seconds in, though the link should auto-start at the right place).

You can catch my original post and interview with artist Catherine Roberts last week.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Caption competition: complete the side of this bus ...

Alpha poster on the side of a Metro bus asking - The Meaning of Life is _______

I'm sure you'll have fun with the teaser advert for Alpha Courses which is pasted on the side of some Metro buses at the moment to promote local Alpha Courses.

No prizes ... but later in the week I'll close comments and choose my favourite and repost it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rural digital divide ... and sales of ties and lunchboxes during a recession

Ofcom released their 2010 Communications Market Report for Northern Ireland back in August. On Thursday, they followed up the report with a panel discussion that looked at the some of the issues raised in the report.

Ofcom panel looking at the 2010 Communications Market Report for Northern Ireland

One of the people attending the event was Sinn Féin’s Phil Flanagan, a district councillor in Fermanagh. He asked a brace of questions that articulated the rural digital divide as clearly as I’ve ever heard it described. I caught up with Phil afterwards and he explained some (though not all!) of the issues he’d earlier raised.

Rural homes tend to be a long way from their telephone exchange, which results in low broadband speeds. Lying far away from transmitters, often with trees or hills in the way, television reception can be poor, and some areas have weak FM radio reception … and certainly no DAB.

Mobile reception tends to be patchy in areas of low population density, with a greater distance between mobile masts, and no incentive for mobile operators to upgrade to offer 3G. In border areas, there’s the additional hassle and cost of roaming as mobile handsets seek out the strongest signal no matter where it comes from.

It’s the worst of all worlds: the infrastructure is light, yet the isolation demands good communication, entertainment in the home, ways of ordering and trading online.

One of the other learning points came from panellist Neil Gibson (Oxford Economics) who gave a thorough layman’s explanation of the curious recession we are living through and pointed to the likely problems we’ll face as the economy recovers. With low interest rates, many people are still spending. Yet interest rates will rise, and at the same time jobs will be cut and salaries/overtime reduced.

But Neil’s take home observation was that sales of ties and lunchboxes goes up during a recession! Discuss ...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

European Heritage Open Days 2010 - a dander around Belfast

On Saturday morning I visited a number of buildings in Belfast that were participating in the programme of European Heritage Open Days.

Librarian John Killen outlining the history of the Linen Hall Library

The Linen Hall Library tour somewhat disappointingly turned into a prolonged talk about the library’s history rather than an exploration of the deeper recesses of the library building and its collections. Not that the history wasn’t interesting and librarian John Killen was certainly worth listening to. I imagine that coming up to the library’s 225th anniversary in 2013 we’ll hear a lot more about its historic narrative and plans for the future.

If I ever retire and decide to devote myself to self-education through the medium of Radio 3 and Radio 4, I’ll consider membership of the Linen Hall Library (pension-permitting) as a bonus pastime!

The oldest surviving edition of the Belfast Newsletter

While Littl’un sat downstairs enjoying the monthly Children’s Storytime, I followed the crowd upstairs to the Grosvenor’s Room.

Some of the library’s most treasured artefacts are stored in a large wooden chest, including the earliest known surviving edition of the Belfast Newsletter - itself the oldest English language daily newspaper still in publication in the world (which first went to print in 1737).

Freemasons Hall in Arthur Square (formerly known as Cornmarket) beside the Squiggle

Freemasons’ Hall in Cornmarket Arthur Square was open.

Members of Masonic lodges welcomed members of the public in to view the building.

Every room and broom cupboard in the building was on display.

Masonic symbols on a chair

Heraldry and icons were everywhere, from the patterns of the carpet, to the cut-outs in the banisters and the designs on the wooden chairs.

Masonic symbols on the carpet

To me it felt oppressive and claustrophobic. A tall room was dominated by multiple sets of thick curtains hanging from the ceiling and guiding visitors’ eyes to the front stage.

There were two highlights – both on the third floor. A cup of tea/coffee and a chocolate biscuit for £1 was probably the best bargain in Belfast on Saturday morning. Even better, children got their orange juice and biscuit for free. Freemasonary generosity and charity in action.

South westerly view across the Belfast city centre skyline from a third floor window of Freemasons Hall

But even better was the view out of the window. Looking south west, there was a fascinating view across the city centre roof tops. Different levels and different styles formed a collage of materials and shapes. And by standing on your chair (ahem) it was possible to get a birds eye view of the Squiggle.

View down onto the Squiggle in Arthur Square from a third floor window of Freemasons Hall
Cyclist heading into First Presbyterian Church in Belfast

Sitting on Rosemary Street, First Presbyterian Church is the oldest church in Belfast.

It is now home to a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian congregation.

First Presbyterian Church has an unusual elliptical shape

It lacks the normal straight lines of most old church buildings.

Instead it is unusually elliptical in shape with tall box pews downstairs - though a wider angle lens would do it more justice! (Update - Steve Barnes got the shot!)

Memorial plaque to R.A. Megraw - organist

Tucked in behind the pulpit I unexpectedly noticed a plaque remembering one of their previous organists – R.A. McGraw – my music teacher in first form at school.

Organ pipes in First Presbyterian Church, Belfast

The organ pipes were fascinating!

Calling in to show Littl'un the budgies and stumbling across the Hare Krishna parade (marking Jagannath Rathayatra) completed our mini-tour!

You can see other photos from the morning over on Flickr.

Proms in the Park - Hillsborough 2010

The weather could have been worse last night. We were up at Hillsborough Castle for Proms in the Park.

Duke Special was wonderful - though the network Last Night of the Proms show which used part of his performance from the first half of the programme missed out on his theatrical Digging An Early Grace.

Violinist Alexandra Soumm showed that she could attack her instrument in a vigorous performance of Waxman's Carmen Fantasie, but followed it with such a gentle and beautiful rendition of Massenet's Meditation from Thais.

The Priests showed their gentle humour and understated talent as they performed four songs in the second half, replacing Russell Watson who pulled out of the event at short notice through illness.

Liverpool FC fans must have been in short supply (or just depressed) as the singing along to You'll Never Walk Alone lacked the commitment it deserved.

Like previous years, it's hard to beat an orchestra playing in tandem with overhead fireworks.

Hare Krishna icebreaking float navigates narrow Belfast Streets

I’m still trying to track down the name of the actual event, but walking past Writers’ Square on Saturday morning, Littl’un and I stumbled across an enormous wooden float. Update - Commenter Steve Barnes reveals that it was Jagannath Rathayatra, the Hindu festival when Krishna, Balarama and Subhadra are taken onto the streets. Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Pat Convery was sporting a colourful garland as he offered the council’s blessings on the Hare Krishna festivities.

Later as we walked back to the car, the muscle-powered float caught up with us. As you can see from the video below, with its upper sections wider than its wheelbase, the expression “you could fit a bus through there” took on new meanings as the organisers and the PSNI attempted to steer a path through the red and white plastic barriers that mark out the narrow bus lane up Royal Avenue during the Streets Ahead works. Some of the metal fencing fitted to the barriers had to be lifted out to allow the float to pass.

A bit like an ice-breaker ship, the float eventually just used its side walls and momentum to push the walls out when they constrained its path. With traffic backing up behind, there was no turning back. The police escort looked relieved that every time the float was able to restart its journey towards the City Hall and wider roads.

A hierarchy of vocations - an inverse prayer pyramid?

A hierarchy of vocations, (c) Dave Walker

Does this ring any bells? Dave Walker's cartoons gently point out the weaknesses and silliness in church traditions and processes. Ever been bemused by the choreography of communion? Or wondered why everyone processes in at the start of a service in a specific order? Then there's the division of labour in congregations, which definitely follows the 80/20 rule!

By the way, this cartoon could be a description of my desk!

Cartoon above (c) Dave Walker

Saturday, September 11, 2010

7th Son: Descent by J.C. Hutchins

Good science fiction often involves just tinkering with one or two aspects of the normal laws of nature. In 7th Son: Descent,7th Son: Descent by J.C. Hutchins author J.C. Hutchins imagines that the US government have made huge advances in human cloning , though not entirely perfected it.

But the cloning programme is out of control. Seven men are abducted and taken to the government cloning site. All the same age. Similar appearance. Identical childhood memories. A priest, a hacker, a musician, a marine, a researcher, a UN human rights agent, and a TV psychologist.

A four year old child has assassinated the US president. The seven clones are charged with tracking down the donor of their DNA and the mastermind behind the president’s death. Working together, are the seven more powerful than the original one?

Confusion and fear. Black ops. Computer hacking. Half truths and complicated emotions as parents motives turn out to have been driven by grooming rather than nurture.

It’s a good page turning thriller with echoes of Dean Koontz and none of the waffle of Dan Brown. If I’m critical, it’s too US-centric. Some of the plot devices are a bit artificial: the new arrivals go on an extensive tour of the underground facility, as much for the reader’s benefit as the characters. On the upside, the technology described is very up to date.

Turns out that the book is an early example of a new fiction genre – podcast novel. It’s a new twist on self publishing, with authors releasing chapters online and building momentum, reputation and the chance that a publisher will agree to print the completed book.

Whatever the process of creation and review, 7th Son: Descent7th Son: Descent by J.C. Hutchins is plausible science fiction and well worth a read ... or a listen!