Pretending to be Posh

A client was nice enough to give me a voucher for the Merchant Hotel a few months ago. Rather than just going for a slap up feed, we decided to spend a couple of nights in the Hotel (we had to add to the voucher) and live in the lap of luxury for a day or two.

I have been messing about with Instagram on the iPhone and took a few pictures as we went along - reflecting a couple of lazy days, rather than being a faithful documenting of the time we spent there. The filters and effects you can generate using the iPhone app are pretty pleasing and make me look like much more of an artist that I can truly profess to be. I hope you enjoy.

Fun with Photosynth

As I have blogged before, I like taking the odd picture - and I'm also a bit of a sucker for technology and gadgetry.

As a consequence, the new toys from Microsoft Research are right up my street. Firstly, their ICE tool - or Image Composite Editor - just requires you to upload a series of adjacent images and it lovingly stitches them together to form a panoramic view. Most people probably have a similar tool in their photo editing software, but I have found the results from ICE fairly impressive, neatly blending the edges and smoothing the joins. It reacts better to more detailed images, where it can clearly detect and line up the joins -  had a couple of more variable results with scenic views. Nevertheless, it rewards a bit of persistence. It would be nice to have the ability to manually tweak the results but at the "free" price point, it seems somehow churlish to be whinging.

The embedded thing above is the result of a combination of using ICE and also the MS Photosynth site - it requires Silverlight if you are having trouble seeing it.

Photosynth allows you to take your ICE creations and to upload them (and link to Bing Maps) to allow all and sundry to whizz round your photos in a manner reminiscent of Google Streetview. All very flashy and rather pleasing when you have a nice picture to start with.

I have used a few old pictures I took last year from Scrabo to illustrate but I also have a notion to take a series of pictures from the inside of a competition circle of pipers and drummer which I think might prove very effective (doubtless it has been done before, but don't shatter my illusions).

There seem to be relatively few Photosynth images uploaded from Northern Ireland onto Bing, so get out there and get snapping and stitching.

Piping Into the Mainstream

More years ago than I really care to remember at this point, a document came into being, styled From the Margins to the Mainstream - it laid out a vision of where Ulster-Scots needed to go, and how it needed to get there. Although the document itself seems to have long since disappeared, its principles (or indeed just the title) keep bouncing into my head. The whole notiion was that for Ulster-Scots to be really accepted, it had to be mainstreamed. I would like to think that this concept shouldn't require much by way of explanation. Nevertheless, I will needlessly point out that the idea is that Ulster-Scots should not merely be "tacked on" in various areas of society, but should be an integral part of life in all its aspects.

Unfortunately, mainstreaming is still notable more in absence than observation. Sometimes people are inclined to act like Ulster-Scots is the story of some odd handful of people who dandered (or perhaps swam) over from Scotland and who stubbornly refuse to vacate a couple of areas of the Peninsula or the Greater Ballymena metropolis. To think that way is to wilfully ignore the fact that the story of the Ulster-Scots is largely the story of Ulster. To ignore Ulster-Scots history is to be ignorant of the history of Ulster.

Thus, there should be no such thing as Ulster-Scots history - simply "history", a full understanding of which includes much that is Ulster-Scots. History is perhaps one of the most obvious areas for this sort of argument, but it applies pretty much across the board.

Thankfully, that delivers me neatly to where this post was supposed to be heading.


Specifically, piping (and drumming).

We have had a bit of good news in Northern Ireland, but a bit which I suspect may have passed many of us by due to a pretty shameful lack of publicity, so I'll tell you what I'm talking about:

Bradley Parker, a gifted piper from Portavogie is Northern Ireland’s Young Musician of the Year for 2011.

Bradley is fourteen years old and attends Regent House School in Newtownards. He achieved the 2011 Crown in the Harty Room at Queen’s University on Saturday, March 5 against competition from 14 other finalists.

The winning performance was a selection of jigs. Bradley has been playing since he was five-years-old, and he has an already established reputation as an outstanding performer. He is tutored by John Wilson in Paisley and travels regularly to Scotland for his piping lessons. The Young Musician title is scarcely his first - he has been competing and winning at local and national level for several years and holds a world record by virtue of winning best overall under-18 piper at the London Piping Society Championships.

Now in its 19th year, the Northern Ireland Young Musician of the Year contest is run by the Rotary Club of Comber.

Great news and well done, Bradley.

The most encouraging thing about all of this for me is the mainstreaming effect. A lot of years ago, a piper from my band used the bagpipe as his instrument for GCSE music at his local secondary school. As far as I can recall, Monkstown Mossley Band also had a number of members who did the same thing (not surprising for what was essentially a school band). However, it still seems that the bulk of children at schools here are condemned to scratch away at violins and honk soulessly on French Horns when parents insist that "learning an instrument would be good for you".

There is no reason at all for that.

Bradley has shown that there is no reason at all why the pipes cannot be considered the equal (at least) of the piano, the clarinet, or the mighty kazoo. Prizes can be won. Parents can be made proud. Neighbours can be irritated.

Certainly, it can be done.

More than that.

It must be done.

The RSPBA NI has done fine work over the years with its Education Committee (latterly the Northern Ireland Piping and Drumming School) but relegating piping and drumming to a position as simply an afterschool activity or hobby is to leave it forever on the margins. Although piping in Ulster remains strong, the highland pipes are hard to master. Learning needs plenty of practice - just as the fiddle does, or the piano. When a child learns the piano, they may have lessons after school but I suspect that most of them also toil under the tutelage of a school music instructor. There is no reason why the ranks of bands in Northern Ireland could not supply a healthy number of peripatetic teachers.

From there would grow a number of school bands - the same system as persists in Scotland, which has resulted in some very impressive outfits.

Methodist College Pipe Band, Regent House PIpe Band, RBAI Pipe Band, Portora Pipe Band, Grosvenor Grammar Pipe Band and Ashfield Pipe Band could all join Campbell College Pipe Band to create a healthy Novice Juvenile Grade in Ulster and serve as a great breeding ground for pipers for senior bands in the future.

If you have offspring who are of school age and are thinking of forcing them to take up a musical instrument (almost certainly against their will), why not approach your school and see whether they will allow the pipes (or snare drum) to be options? Let's jump right into the middle of the mainstream.

Happy Burns Day/Night

As will doubtless be well known to most Aiblins readers, Robert Burns was born on this day in 1759. To celebrate the anniversary of this happy event, even Google has jumped on the bandwagon and adopted the above Doodle in honour of the great man. If you click on the Doodle on Google's homepage, it takes you to a search for Robert Burns and to an interesting timeline.

Celebration of all things Burns has really taken off over the past few years and even those who would have been hard pushed to get through a couple of lines of Auld Lang Syne are now happily munching on haggis, neeps and tatties and toasting eachother with Irn Bru.

Scotland's First Minister is urging all local schools to visit the Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway and the BBC seems to be maintaining the Burns 250 material online at this point, notwithstanding the recent curtailing of Corporation web activities. It is well worth a visit, with plenty of audio and visual material to keep both the Burns scholar and casual visitor entertained.

Burns still generates interest in modern times. The above letter was recently discovered at Floors Castle in the Borders and has been authenticated. With it was an early copy of the poem, On Seeing a Wounded Hare - Burns was inviting comment from James Gregory, who was then the Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University.

The full story is again on the BBC.

The Burns connection in Ulster is strong, with a vibrant Burns Club scene - many, if not most, of which will be well employed this evening. The Belfast News Letter was the first paper in the United Kingdom to publish extracts of Burns' work. The Ulster Scots poet, Samuel Thomson travelled to Scotland to visit with Burns and it is believed that Burns himself may have been to Ulster at least twice - visiting Antrim and Down.

The Burns & Burnsiana Collection was gifted to the Linenhall Library in Belfast by Burns' Grand-daughter Eliza Burns Everett, who had herself settled in Ulster.

So, whatever celebration you are involved in tonight, enjoy it. If you have nothing planned, why not nip out to M&S or Tesco, where you will readily find haggis on sale this time of year (or make your own) and organise your own Hamely Burns Nicht....?

Resolutions and Such

It's that time of year when all Bloggers are obliged to write a post about their New Year's Resolutions and I don't feel able to buck that trend.

Resolutions are strange things. The very word, "resolution", somehow seems to invite failure. At what other time of the year do we set ourselves impossible goals, possibly compiling a formal list, in the expectation that failure will have utterly engulfed them within hours?

Realistically, what we are talking about could more properly be styled "goals", "aims", "aspirations", or "hopes". If you have been trying to lose weight for the last twenty years, it seems somehow unlikely that resolving to do it at the end of December is going to have more effect this year than it did in either of the last two decades. Better to take the view that you hope to lose weight, than to burden yourself with all that unnecessary resolving. Either that, or get a gastric band.

So, what are my hopes for the forthcoming twelve months?

When I rhetorically pose that question, I am clearly setting aside my desires for weight loss, dancing ability and wealth beyond imagination. This is a blog. Blog related resolutions are the utterly unsalacious limits of my pondering.

What I would like to do over the year is to get a handle on the various aspects of the technology which is at my disposal in a more consistent manner. When I started Aiblins up again, it was with the assistance of Posterous - a remarkable and remarkably straightforward blogging platform. Through its easy systems everything from the most simplistic blog (just take a look around you) to podcasting, via clipping and sharing becomes incredibly easy. As a result, I actually have a suite of sites including Aiblins itself, a link sharing site, The Aiblins Pulse and now a sort of email list site, The Aiblins Connection.  My aspiration for 2011 is therefore to try to bring some sort of order to my digital life and to use my (limited) powers only for good. There is a lot of technology out there and I have spectacularly failed to use it properly. The couple of regular readers will recall that I threatened to start an Ulster-Scots podcast last year and it never quite happened. I'm not promising that it will make the cut this year, but who knows.

The problem with all of this stuff - and with resolutions in general - is time.

There just don't seem to be enough hours in the day. I can't quite understand how that could possibly be the case. As the years have gone by and our houses have become ever more crammed with labour saving technology and gadgetry, we have all seemingly become "time poor". Perhaps we are now spending much more time reading instruction manuals.

When growing up I clearly recall my mother holding down a demanding job, dealing with my brother and me (and my father, of course) and running the household pretty much single-handed. This was in the days when the height of domestic labour saving was the twin tub which has long since passed into history. If she could manage, how can our generation possibly be giving off about being rushed off our feet?

And yet we do.

So is formed the secondary resolution.

Stop moaning about being really busy and try to remember that, recession permitting, things really aren't so bad.

If that one lasts past week one, I'll be surprised. And my wife will be delighted.

So, dear reader, Happy New Year to you and your family. May 2011 bring you all that you hope for, within the confines of that which is both legal and moral.

A Day at the Beach

On one of the coldest and most un-road-friendly days of the year, the obvious thing to do was to take a road trip with my brother to the North Coast.

The reasons for this act of supreme foolishness are too mundane to repeat but it did give us the opportunity to catch up over a cuppa in 55 North and gave me a chance to frustrate yet another family member by (as he observed) "stopping every 10 paces to take another picture".

I think they turned out nicely though.

Just Desserts

They say we get the politicians we deserve.

They are probably right. Indeed, there is fair chance that an awful lot of what we get is precisely what we deserve.

The human condition seems to involve a lot of whinging about things which are substantially our own stupid fault. That includes everything from hitting your thumb with a hammer and blaming Ikea, to watching your culture flounder and blaming Republicans.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy to blame Republicans for quite a lot of things. It is also entirely correct to say that the ranks of nationalists, republicans, unionist apologists and culture snobs have massively held back development of all things Ulster-Scots, but sometimes we need to look a little closer to home when we are dishing out criticism.

It used to be said that in the Maze Prison, on the Republican wings, there was an atmosphere of studious intensity as inmates quietly flicked through books and took Open University Courses. On the Loyalist wings, flutes and drums were fashioned out of anything handy and parades were organised. The Republicans steeped themselves in their history and emerged as advocates for their cause. Loyalists painted murals on the Block walls.

Don't get me wrong, This is not some sneering rant against loyalists, loyalism or prisoners on any side. The problem isn't peculiar to the prisons or to the working classes. No. This problem seems to extend through every aspect of unionist society.

We lack a strategy. We don't see the big picture.

In my earlier post on a similar theme, I discussed what was the best way to spend money in a tightening economy. Scarce resources mean hard choices. Sometimes I wonder if we are fit to make those choices.

The picture for Ulster-Scots has improved massively over the past decade. For many years, with little or no thanks, a dedicated group of enthusiasts slaved away to secure recognition for the language which was finally achieved under the auspices of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In tandem with that effort, funding was secured for all manner of worthy Ulster-Scots projects, including the various schemes for marching band support and publication of some entirely worthy tomes.

The development was sometimes slow, sometimes rapid and mostly chaotic.

There was a strong sense that there was a massive "catch up" to be done and strategic thinking was often forsaken, in favour of a reactive approach. When an opportunity arose, it was grabbed with both hands and projects which were already on the go were set aside, to be resumed "when things quieten down".

But they never really did.

Although the funding would dry up from time to time and the media kept up a fairly constant attack on the community, there was always another battle to fight, another storm to weather.

So the culture has developed in "pockets". In some geographical areas is has been massively strengthened, in others it remains a private past-time. Some bands and musical groups have flourished, others have folded. The funding has been higgledy-piggeldy at best. It has not been underpinned by any philosophy or agenda. Rather, it has been seen that securing money for your local band ought to be its own reward.

I'm not suggesting for one minute that there is no merit in the funding of the bands. To do so would be exceptionally hypocritical. Nor am I even hinting at the notion that a huge deal of greatly worthwhile work has not been done.

The issue is that it can be very hard to discern the underlying ideology. The lack of that sense of direction makes us easier to distract. When we are distracted, we end up with Fitba days and Santa Hats.

We need a clear agenda. We need a strategy. A clear ideology. Every project then needs to be tested against the strategy. If it fits, it flies. If not, it dies. Simple as that.

This is where the "poliiticians we deserve" remark hopefully starts to make sense. Our fate lies in our own hands. We are going to have hard choices to make and must make sure that we have the right people in place to take those decisions. It is our responsibility to select the right people - if we don't, we can't blame "the others" when it all collapses around us.

The press has, in recent times, carried many stories about a high profile sporting organisation which has been criticised roundly for the behaviour of its committee and office bearers. Whether rightly or wrongly, the allegation seems to be of people being elevated to office through long service or popularity rather than ability or aptitude. I'm in no position to judge whether any of those allegations are well-founded.

However, I have certainly been in many organisations where that would be the norm. Actually, in most circumstances it makes little odds. If your Band has a clampet for a Chairman, an able Secretary can usually hold the unit together. If your rugby club committee can neither read nor write, a couple of ex-players with time on their hands can deal with the fixture list and keep things ticking over.

Fifteen years ago, the Ulster-Scots community, unfunded and unloved could get away with that model too. No longer.

What we need now is professionalism. We must make sure that our organisations and structures are professional in their outlook and in every decision they take. That is not to say that the answer is to have committees full of lawyers, doctors and architects. It doesn't take a professional to act professionally - and merely a degree or qualification is no guarantee of good sense.

So, the picture I think we need to see is a professional movement, implementing a clear strategy. If we can't deliver that, then no amount of money or government support can save us. In fact, if we can't deliver that, I'm not sure we deserve to be saved.

Down at the 'Dee

A Bank Holiday.

A rare creature. It is to be cherished and nurtured. They come along infrequently and must be treated with loving care - certainly not wasted.

As a result, today we went to Starbucks and then to Donaghadee for a Poke.

No-one would ever claim that our August Bank Holiday was wasted when confronted with such a sparkling itinerary.

Donaghadee was full to bursting and the play park was getting thoroughly used by locals and visitors alike. Mostly children. Spoilsports.

The summer pastime beloved of children - which seems to involving hurling oneself from the edge of the harbour towards the murky and litter-laden waters - was in evidence here, as it had been in Portrush last weekend. However, when some massive jellyfish were spotted lying in wait, discretion became the better part of valour and a strategic retreat was called in the diirection of the Chippy. This was a very great pity, as I was bare to the waist at the time and Mrs Ulsterscot was liberally applying goosefat to my pasty pelt. Maybe next time.

It was good to see Donaghadee so busy - a combination of the stunningly pleasant weather and the Bank Holiday, no doubt.

However, it did put me in mind of a proposal I heard some time ago for the etching of the names of those early Scottish pioneers into the harbour wall which was quickly frustrated by the listing status of the seafront. I have never been able to fully resolve in my own mind whether I come down in favour of the project or the preservation on that one - but I do think that there is room for some significant marking of the link with Scotland (which can be seen clearly in some of the photos).

Once you have inhaled your ice-cream and marvelled at the jellyfish, a bit of culture might be nice...

The Pipe Band Vault

At the outset, I have to accept that my timing really couldn't be worse.

It is the end of Pipe Band Competition season and most pipers and drummers are looking forward to a bit of a break in the schedule before having to think about sets for next year. The frantic pace of transfers in the off-season also means that you can pretty much guarantee that at least three or four of the bands you were following last year won't exist next year and the players will turn up unexpectedly in the ranks of their sworn enemies by Easter time.

There will be rumours of drums corps walking out. There will be tales of bust-ups amongst the pipers. There will be one improbable story about a Bass Dummer, a tenor drummer and a trip to Casualty.

Anyway, the rumours do not concern me.

What has been piquing my curiosity is the vast number of people at contests with Digital cameras - both still picture and video varieties.

There must be a huge amount of, for want of a better description, "media" out there which is never really seeing the light of day. There is a fairly healthy amount of footage posted on YouTube but the still pictures seem to go nowhere - with the occasional exception of Flickr.

So, what I have done is to start a site called The Pipe Band Vault. The notion is to try to collect together pictures (and possibly a bit of video) of the bands and to allow anyone and everyone to use the pictures as they see fit. The Posterous system allows for galleries to be downloaded with the minimum of fuss, so if you can see youself in a picture and you fancy adorning the wall with your image, go ahead. If you want to use it on a website, feel free (attribution would be polite, but we'll not fall out). The one proviso would be that commercial use of any images wouldn't be permitted without the passing of a hefty bag of monies - but I think we can safely cross that bridge when we come to it.

This season has been a bit of a disaster for me, with the crippling nonsense that is BPPV to contend with - but next should be better. I would hope to have my own camera out with me and to start to populate the site a little. In the meantime, there must be some people out there with images languishing on memory cards or hard drives. Why not give them a home? If you have any interest, leave a comment and I'll sort out the practicalities of how it might all function over the next few weeks.

The Colours of Disappointment

Unusually, I took a notion today and decided to go out to take a picture that I knew I had seen whilst driving about earlier in the week. This erratic behaviour was duly rewarded with not being able to find where I had seen it - and I ended up with these efforts, all of which I regard as unsatisfactory for various reasons.

However, undaunted by this failure, I post these snaphots and caution all readers to TAKE THE PICTURE WHEN YOU SEE IT - you may never see it again....