Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Highlights of a long weekend in England

Snow bunny in a bushLast Friday, Norn Girl and I took to the sky, final destination, Yorkshire. This was the first time I'd been over to visit since my Stag Do and the first time we'd seen most folks there since the day after the wedding. Here are the highlights of our little trip:

Making a snow Bunny in a bush.

Discovering the recently revealed refurbishment at Belfast City Airport though the new bigger bar was about the only plus.

An anticlockwise random tour of some of Lancashire's and Yorkshire's train stations – rolling from Manchester to Sheffield, Sheffield to Wakefield, Wakefield to Leeds and Leeds to Manchester.
Sunset over Elland Road
Petting the kittehs even though they were well on their way to killing my wife due to her allergies.

Taking in another Leeds game at Elland Road in League One as Leeds took on Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday.

Cat in the snowWatching some of the curling and getting my dad and Norn Girl glued to it even though my dad stayed up past midnight for the first time in years only to see the USA beat the UK after playing the most negative tactics in a game of curling I've ever seen. Thankfully the men's team brought back the pride as they beat the USA the next day. Also watching the Ski cross... what a sport!

Punk snowman on car bonnetWaking up to a winter wonderland and watching Kelly the cat try to negotiate it.

Making a punk snowman on my sisters car bonnet because she left us waiting on her getting ready just that little too long. That long in fact that we had time to make our snowy friend with his Mohawk.

Hans and ugly naked guy dollsBeing in the audience for another gripping instalment of Hans the German & Evil Naked Man. A 2 ½ year saga direct from the imagination of a now 9 year old.

Bubble Tea Yorkshire Irish StyleBeing hit in the forehead with paper aeroplanes and sending them on return journey's back to the cranium's of their senders.

Noming some home-made Chocolate Biscuit pudding.

View from the Manchester Big WheelTrying bubble tea for the first time - Yorkshire style with a hint of Ireland thrown in for good measure – A mixture of Yorkshire tea, condensed milk, Tapioca and sugar.

A ride on the Manchester Big Wheel.

Flying home with a lovely sunset. A sunset which even turned the clouds to the east of us looking back over a snowy County Down, a nice hint of pinky red. If only the windows of the plane had been a little clearer.

Snow covered County Down

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Northern Ireland and the Winter Olympics

Footprint in the snowThe 2010 Winter Olympics being held in and around Vancouver are in full swing, the skaters are gliding around the ice, the skiers zipping over the snow and the other sports people doing their thing  in the search of a shiny medal. Its a fine sight, the speed, the balance, the skill and the colour of it all. So although I've never tried many of the sports, I really enjoy watching it. Thankfully the sense of occasion provides a reason for broadcasters to beam to us the footage of these cold sports. Sports that don't regularly compete for our attention the rest of the time. Well at least sports that don't get much airtime here in Northern Ireland. After all, we only have one public skating ice rink and one dry ski slope. So whilst many countries look on with eager anticipation, is there likely to be much local interest in the winter games from the folks in Northern Ireland sat in front of our TVs, radios and computers?

Well I think I can safely say that there isn't the sort of enthusiasm we're likely to see in the summer Olympics in 2 years time when London 2012 kicks off. The time difference of -8 hours between the Canadian West Coast and NI in these games, means if you were wanting to watch many of the events live then it would require being awake in the early hours of the morning. Most of the footage I've seen so far has been highlights. Good highlights though, the opening ceremony was amazing and amongst others I was engrossed by the footage on TV of the Nordic Combined's cross country event, where in final section it resulted in a nail biting sprint finish. Still, the inconvenience with the time difference isn't a good start and to add to it, a lot of the sports from the Winter Olympics don't appear to have much of a following in Northern Ireland. I say that based on the fact that a lot of the sports or activities do not have many or any facilities in place here for people to take part, especially at a competitive level. For instance, take the ice/snow based sports in Northern Ireland with the largest public followings. Without doing a survey, I'm taking for granted that these would be Skiing and Ice Hockey (sorry I know, a lot of assumptions but I can't find any data).

With Skiing, we have no real ski slopes and unlike mainland UK there isn't an indoor ski slope, the closest to the real thing in NI is the dry slope at Craigavon Golf and Ski Centre.  There are a few shops that sell ski and snowboarding equipment throughout NI but the majority who use these shops will put their expensive equipment to use on holidays abroad. It's just not a very accessible sport for those of us who don't have such disposable income. However there does seem to be enough interest to keep specialist shops afloat.

With Ice Hockey, we have a UK Elite League Ice Hockey team – The Belfast Giants. They are quite well supported, according to the Belfast Telegraph as many as 4000 go to some Giants games - a few thousand people have certainly seemed to be at the games I've been lucky enough to make it to. Unfortunately though the Odyssey arena doesn't keep the ice out there for public skating because its a multi-purpose arena. So access to skate, let alone the equipment and availability to learn the competitive sport are limited to one venue, the Dundonald Ice Bowl.

So even with the most popular snow and ice based sports, it would seem there is only a small minority in Northern Ireland who would, at least publicly, show an active interest.

We can look at this from a different angle though: For although the interest seems limited, if we go solely by the fact that these sports have some following here and we take into account that it only snows in Northern Ireland for an average of a few days a year and facilities are few and far between, with access to some of the sports not even available at all in this country, then it might seem to be a good indication that there might be latent interest. Northern Ireland might not be the best location for watching or taking part in snow and ice sport events but I would anticipate that many will be at least curious to watch the best of the best compete in many of the winter sports on offer in Canada this month. It will be interesting to see the viewing figures if and when they are released.

For anyone who does watch, Northern Ireland competes with Scotland, Wales and England as part of team GB but many here will likely be following the fortunes of both the GB and Irish teams and the individuals from those teams taking part. There is however one representative you may want to keep an eye out for if you are hoping for a chance to express some Cool Runnings-like pride towards a local representative performing on the world scale.

Jenna McCorkell, a figure skater from Coleraine, would appear to be Northern Ireland's sole competitor within team GB. She is due to skate on February the 23rd and 25th. I'm not an expert or to be really honest, all that interested in figure skating, but I reckon I'll give it a watch to see how she gets on. Good luck Jenna!

I hope this part makes sense, but I'm also not usually one for partaking in patriotic events or celebrating national pride, but when it comes to sports, the political, cultural and to some degree, monetary issues associated with national divides are somewhat diminished (the same way cup competitions with one off games can throw up surprises). I believe that locality or place of birth is something that will always be able to be used as a means to differentiate sides in sporting competition, even when nation states hopefully go the way of the dodo in favour of what I hope (perhaps naively) might one day become some pleasant form of a united planet. If you follow a sports team you'll probably know what I mean - we support our sides during the game, we have a single purpose, but win or lose, at least for the majority, we're united by the enjoyment of the sport. It's constructive rather than destructive. So a big good luck also to the whole of the Ireland and GB teams.

Personally, for those sports that our local nations are competing in, I'm really looking forward to the Bobsleigh and oddly the Curling (that I really got into at the last Winter Olympics). For those sports without a local Country to cheer on, I'm really looking forward to the Ice Hockey, so ermm “lets go Canada, lets go!”.

Monday, 15 February 2010

An abstract of abstraction. Dedicated to Sean Scully

After a recent trip to the Ulster Museum and a baffling face-to-face meeting with what appeared to be some simplistic large scale doodling, I thought I would give creating some abstract art a try. An attempt to see if there is more to the world of rather basic looking non-representational abstraction art (or whatever else you want to call it).

I immediately hit a problem. If I try to splatter some binary paint about in a manner that takes abstraction to a level used by Sean Scully, I would surely be taking and reducing ideas out of context and turning them into something simple like a block of colour. That is almost like creating a one off personal code of expression, the key to which is known only to myself. Therefore its unlikely to be very inclusive to a wider audience. Sadly, I wasn't helped much when I tried to dig deeper.

To help me describe what I found, I think this is most helpful, a YouTube video interview entitled: Sean Scully Reveals the Power of Abstract Art, where in response to the question, "Why did you choose abstraction?" Scully states:

 "Well it's quite simple really, I think if a representational painter wants to show the things in the picture, and with an abstract painting what in a sense you are trying to do is make everything happen at once". 

Besides making very little sense, this hinted to me, that whilst representational paintings mean something and are provided within an understandable context, non-representational abstract paintings likely mean nothing - much like the very words regularly branded about trying to describe them. This is because they can obviously mean whatever you want it to mean - it has little to no context.

He also goes on to mention an Abstract painting "should be, could be, possibly, a moment of revelation". Alas, if this is what this form of art is about, I've hit the spot because I had a revelation creating mine, and that revelation is that to me, its all a lot of water vapour. Maybe I'm not clever enough on the 'required level' to understand, but going by my logic, this form of art is nothing more than declaring simple and easily producible works as being a stimulus to provide a means to reflect. The whole existence of this art would therefore seem to be similar to the reason that I enjoy staring up at the clouds in the sky and day dreaming. Except its use seems confined to people who like to restrict their reflections to basic patterns and in confined spaces. Each to their own I suppose.  I'll not go on about it any longer.

With all this in mind, I decided to mess around, for about an hour in total, using Microsoft Paint to create something in a 'blocks and stripes' style, a style somewhat similar to Sean Scully's but with a hint of representational art thrown in. Feel free to reflect on them a while...

Mulder and Scully - the Cow Abduction



2 Man Scully

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Bits of Belfast - Part 5 - The Ulster Museum

Perhaps a little later than we had hoped, we finally took the opportunity to visit the Ulster Museum which had reopened last October after a multimillion pound refurbishment. So, on what was a a bright but cool Saturday, 5 of us met outside the Ulster Museum. We were eager to see what might have changed and what new things we might learn.

Ulster Museum FrontageAfter the traditional quick photos with the sculptures outside the building which included a new wobbly one. We entered into a bright area with the welcome zone ahead of us, a new shop to our right and the new café to the left. We headed left, we were very hungry and needed some sustenance to help us around the exhibits. The long café had two counters, one near the front serving snacks and the other towards the rear serving hot food. We headed to the hot food counter and took a look at the menu. The old café that was on the top floor has been relocated. It was helpful to now have it here on the ground floor and the size was a change for the better. Sadly though, the increase in floor space also seems to have resulted in an increase in prices and a reduction in drinks sizes. I have a pet hate with café's that think a 200ml glass bottle is fine to go with a meal and charge accordingly. On the plus side, they serve wine and beer so its not all bad. The food was also very good quality and I did see jugs of water availible.

After our food, which was very tasty, we headed to the welcome zone. My first impression was that it was a change for the better, it seemed more light, airy, modern and welcoming. We were kindly handed maps from a member of staff that depicted the 4 main areas that we were set to discover.
That discovery, even in such a public place, is at some level individual to yourself and what you choose to look at. To review every exhibit in close detail would take quite some time, so although some things aren't my cup of tea or maybe even the brew of choice for  my friends, it's still definitely worth a visit to see for yourself. So I'll not spoil the ins and outs of what we saw too much. However I'll quickly try and sum up what I thought were the best and the worst aspects of the experience.

In the history zone:
I thought that it was great to see that recent history being introduced. The troubles section is nice to see in a way. A positive sign that those times are hopefully just a part of history with a hangover. It was quite a simplistic display and although informative, it didn't really seem that accessible. Also, it probably wouldn't hurt to focus on some good news stories, of achievements in the face of adversity. It's not like life stopped during the latter half of the last century.

The History Interactive Area was fun and the kids in there seemed to be having a great time. On snaffling a computer terminal and viewing the list of videos and images that were available to watch. I tried to find something about Irish League Football. The only football related video I could find was some footage from Windsor Park of a Northern Ireland international – I'm not sure who picked the videos, but whoever did must have thought a lot about Motor Sports and Rugby. I'm sure a lot of other sports are feeling slightly neglected too. The choice and depth of information available regarding the past is maybe something that can be expanded and developed?

I really liked the other history sections. There was one exhibit in-particular which thought was great. It was within the Plantation to Power-sharing area and had touch buttons which lit up towns on a map showing the size of towns over time and allowing you to see stage by stage the increase in population of towns and city all across the island. In another room I also learnt that Larne aka Ulfreksfjord has a Viking heritage. Other than that the general theme was that lots of people had a habit of drowning. Swimming instructors must have been a rare commodity that were over looked in days of yore.

Further into the history zone can be found what is arguably the star exhibit. The 2500+ year old mummified remains of Takabuti. Now complete with a video and model of the resident ancient Egyptian lady's head. Sadly the intrigue and allure of this exhibit that could be used as a focal point of the entire museum is still understated and somewhat stuck away and I agree with the points expressed by Alan in Belfast who raised the a good question; why wasn't the film showing in an adjoining room with seating? On entrance to the room, the view of the glass box encasing the mummy is obscured by a large informational sign. The information and other artefacts displayed, as with most of the museum, are better presented in comparison to the old Ulster Museum but in this section compared to the likes of the Armagh Planetarium or W5 there still seems a discrepancy. The ability to wow and draw people to an exhibit isn't quite the same in this section, something that does seem to have been addressed a little better in other areas. It seems largely due to the fact there is still so much in such a small space. The exhibits were very much more interactive than the old though and much more like the standards set by other large museums elsewhere in Europe. A good change even if I might think there is still room to improve.

In the Nature zone:

Bird feeder at the Ulster MuseumThis section was a huge improvement on the old. The displays and information areas were much more interactive and in the fossil section the screen showing videos of prehistoric era's was well worth a watch. From learning of the history of the land we walk on and the changes that brought about the landscape we know well today, to the animals that inhabit that land. An area helpful to remind people that we, as humans, are a recent introduction to the mix Northern Ireland and the world has been subject to many guises. Some of those guises are beautifully brought to life within these exhibits.The Nature Interactive area seemed popular, located in the area where the café used to be, it had some comfy seats and like the other interactive areas, lots of books and other resources, plenty of hands on objects too.

The other highlights for me were the viewing area of the bird feeders and botanic gardens. With binoculars freely available to use and seats to rest your tired legs on it was a nice break. The other great area for me was the Earth's treasures. Set in a dark room are an array of spotlighted geological samples from of various crystals, gemstones and other pretty rocks. Some truly brilliant colours and shiny things that anyone with magpie like tendencies can get on-board with.

In the Art Zone:

View of Belfast from the Ulster MuseumFirst the positive... there is an Art Interactive Area and it has a brilliant view out over Belfast and of the cave hill, I managed to find an open window and took a couple of snaps. Also for the seemingly few arty fans of Sean Scully's work, you might have a field day.

Now the negative... 1 artist, 1 theme and more floor space than I believe is really warranted, dedicated to this egotistical indulgence of simplistic abstract art, at least when put in relation to the importance of those exhibits obviously not on display at its expense.

Don't get me wrong, a few pieces might have been interesting, but several huge rooms that contained only one form of expression, one basic style. Well, it was all too much of too little. We tried to get why so much of it was here - we looked at the paintings, we looked at their names, we looked at the painting sized photos of him painting, we watched the giant darkroom projection of a video where we got to see a life-size Scully paint and hold a cat and avoid talking about his painting. We looked at the painting's paint strokes and etchings up close, we looked at them far away and tried to envisage the concept behind the piece's names. We're not adverse to abstract art, but at some stage it reaches the point of the pointless and a feeling of 'ah now you're pushing it'. I felt that we might as well be cloud spotting and describing what we each see... except making such visual representations with simple blocks and stripes is like trying to see something in the pattern of a Metro bus seat. If its meant to portray an emotion or feeling other than confusion, every piece of the artwork we looked closely at for sure missed its point with us. So for me this really was just one step away from declaring a window as art. Because I can't see what people see in the work, to try and give some sort of balanced view, here are a few opinions of more art knowledgeable individuals who might convince you of a view contrary to my own:

You can probably tell that I'm not a fan of Sean Scully's work, or at least what I've seen so far. This blog is a two way medium, so if you disagree with me, please do let me know. Maybe a bit of education might spark an insight to his work which I was over looking. Thankfully, at least to me, 'Constantinople or the Sensual Concealed: The Imagery of Sean Scully' is due to give way to art that from my perspective would be more thought provoking, on the 20th February.

On the way out we called in at the gift shop and bought some funky drinks cups with in built swirly straws like you used to get as kids. The refurbished Museum is a huge improvement but for our visit yesterday it seems there is still a fair bit of room for improvement and soon that room will be available... at least in the art department. Except for the disappointment of the art section we had a nice time and learnt lots. I for one will most certainly be back again for another visit before long.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

My Belfast DAB radio mystery

After stepping foot out into the cold with my digital radio nestled in my pocket, I looked up at the sky. What I saw was a blanket of wispy edged, fast paced, grey clouds that were swimming in their lanes of air - from where I was standing, the main culprits of oxygen, hydrogen and light were providing the beautiful blue backdrop for the blanket of cloud. A backdrop that only ended at a human themed horizon of rooftops and street lights. The radio was fully charged with full signal and like the clouds and me, ready to get going.

It was a pretty sight but a little surreal because I was having a strange day before I had even emerged from behind the door. I hadn't been able to sleep very well due to a chesty cough and cold recently and I ended up waking up much earlier than normal with the need to remove some lovely green gloop from my airways. I had awoken abruptly at about 7.30, that mightn't sound early to most people, however I generally work a couple of hours later into the early evening than most people so it was early for me.

The extra time had given me a chance to say a fully conscious goodbye to Norn Girl for once which was nice. She's always an early bird due to the distance she has to travel to work. So normally she's jumping out of bed and I'll still either be fast asleep or only manage to give a semi unconscious farewell. It also gave me chance to take some cold relief tablets with a much needed glass of water and also a chance to take a long soak in the bath. Despite the relaxation and respite I was still feeling tired but as good as I could hope to be as I took in the first outdoor breaths of cold air. I was on my way to work.

It was from a sneaky layer of cloud that had snuck up on Belfast that a fine and sparse snow fell as I got closer to my destination. My ear phones in position, I was listening to my Digital Audio Broadcasting  radio, more specifically, I was listening, as per usual, to the fun and friendly Chris Moyles show. I really like my portable DAB radio, maybe more than is healthy but not as much as Stephen Fry and those Apple products. The item itself is a Philips DA1103 and was a present from my madre-in-law. It's one of those things I would use almost daily - well at least when my metaphorical batteries are recharged enough to remember to recharge the AAA batteries it takes. It's a good radio because it works really well even after being bashed around numerous times. Saying that it's also a sound recorder and 1GB MP3 player but I can't remember ever using those functions. I don't know if I have managed to kill those and am maybe using them as substitute padding. *checks*... Yay, still fully functional.

Back to yesterday morning and the traffic on the roads wasn't too bad for once. Unfortunately though, I had maybe spent too long in the bath because I wasn't quite yet in work as the Chris Moyles show was drawing to a close. Car park catch phrase ended and the hand over to Fearne Cotton approached. I usually listen to the radio most of the day if I have the chance to and at 10am, the Greenwich time signal PIP's or beeps sound out to keep us up to date with the time.

Now this is where, in the slightly snowy but bright light of day, an 'under the weather' and tired me, was subject to what has become a regular disorientating silence. The problem is, for some reason that eludes my searches of the web, then and only then, after those short pip sounds at 10am, my DAB radio will fall silent.

On the first occasion that this happened I thought it was likely it was just a coincidence - that I must have just lost signal. The second time I was a lot more suspicious. The only common factor was the time at which it had lost the sound after the pips / at 10am. Sporadically it continued to happen depending on which station I was listening to at that specific time. I found it only ever occurred when listening to BBC radio stations – Radio 1 and 4, and it only occurs directly after the pips. That morning I ended up yet again short of sound from my ear phones and needing to pay acute attention to my radio. The sudden cut in sound is slightly off putting as it's like having a sense suddenly go dead after my ears have become accustomed to the low level noise. In a movement I've done numerous times, I took my hands from my pockets and took the black and white machine into the palm of my hand. I performed the usual practice of pressing to the side to select another station. It's a choice between a quick visit to Radio1 Extra or BBC Asian Network because they're one press either side. On this occasion I opted with a flying visit to Radio 1 Extra. As always, once selected, the sound mysteriously returned. I then switched back to the station I was listening to originally and voilà - the sound has found its way back to my ears. On this occasion there was Fearne, Chris and their team's half way through a conversation.

It's not the end of the world I know, but it is baffling mystery to me. I suppose it could be my DAB and some sort of signal changing incompatibility between shows if the signal isn't continuous? But I've no access to another portable DAB to check it against. It might be my radio taking a huff at the PIPs?  I suppose it could just as easily be a coincidence of something interrupting certain digital signals at that time of day somewhere in Belfast. Whatever it is, something special happens at 10am each morning (well I guess slightly after due to the digital lag) that cuts off my radio in Belfast when I'm listening to certain BBC stations, no matter where I am and what the signal strength is. I must try to remember to see if it does the same when I'm elsewhere in the UK. On the plus side, its another mystery to work on solving - though I think I could live with this one forever holding its digital secret.

Answers on a postcard... alternatively, please do comment below with your best crazy scientist theories...


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