On Torches and Jubilees


Today was a seriously early start and the sheer amount of patriotism was utterly exhausting. When a person spends most of his life being told that he should absolutely not be proud to be British, being confronted with an entire day (and more to come) when such behaviour is positively encouraged, a person can become quite fatigued.

The day started with a scamper down the road to see the Olympic Torch Relay gallop through Ards, en route to the thriving metropolis of Comber and thereafter Belfast.

The crowds were more than respectable at a time when all God-fearing people ought to be rolling over in their beds. After the Coca-Cola lorry and the Samsung big screen truck had trundled through, a pasty teen sprinted past the crowd with nary a wave. Several of the crowd had been engaged in the slow blinking beloved of the just-awake and in fact missed the whole thing.

Undaunted, we decided to hunt down further glimpses of the ancient Olympic stick of fire and high-tailed it to the seat of government at Stormont.

There we shivered and muttered through an hour or so of foot-shuffling unpleasantness before the torch re-appeared, this time in the custody of a lady of rather more mature years. She seemed to determined to enjoy her five minutes of fame - indeed, it appeared that she was keen to stretch it out to a half hour or so - thus providing many more opportunities for photographs.

With St John's Ambulance presumably on a high state of alert, she began to clamber the steps at the front of Parliament Buildings, only to find herself suddenly in the clutches of our never-popular Culture Minister, who I think is probably really called Carol Cullen. I like to imagine that there then followed a brief scuffle which resulted in the Minister's bouffant "do" catching light, but it was not to be.

Pausing only to gurn towards the cameras and raise her hands aloft five or six more times, our intrepid standard bearer finally surmounted the steps and the flame was promptly "escorted" from the torch into a lantern (of which Wee Willie Winkie would be proud) before being removed from public view and presumably debriefed by MI5 on what the Minister had said to it.

A brief hiatus followed, during which the next bearer was photographed endlessly in the presence of various local politicians and Mike Nesbitt.

Then it was just a matter of wrestling the lantern from Wee Willie, transferring the flame, and pelting down the steps towards Belfast, where the flame would see service later in the day to light the ceremonial tower of 1000 tyres, piled slightly too close to someone's house.

I'm guessing this pattern is the same all over the UK? Right?

After a light breakfast of lard and exhaustion, we settled to watch the main event of the day, which was in no way Olympic focussed - the Thames River Pageant. Much has already been written and tweeted about the lamentable BBC coverage of Sunday's centrepiece of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. I agree with most of the criticism, but cannot quite grasp the surprise that the Beeb should have got it wrong. Have we really forgotten the travesty of broadcasting that was the "William and Kate Wedding". Broadcasters no longer have any faith in the attention span of viewers and insist on short segments of genuine coverage interspersed with inane nonsense presented by a random blonde.

One would have thought that the authorities would catch on that television viewers might be rather more interested in watching the actual spectacle rather than watching the people who have come to watch the spectacle. Rumours that the European Football Championships coverage will now consist of Gary Lineker interviewing a man who is watching the match are, thus far, apocryphal.

The thing that has gladdened my heart about the events of the long weekend is the explosion of national pride. Rather than the usual sneering unpleasantness which the media reserves for public displays of loyalism and royalism, we have been treated to a picture of a truly United Kingdom - united under the Crown and under our national colours.

In recent years, the UK (and its liberal media) has become obsessed with the notion of multi-culturalism to an extent which has become stifling. It has not been a true multi-culturalism anyway - rather, we have been cowed into believing that we cannot express anything of our own British identity for fear of offending our immigrant neighbours. We must tolerate their peculiar beliefs, even if they are anathema to the British way of life, but heaven help us if we dare express even a hint of pleasure or pride in being subjects of the Queen.

For a few days at least, that seems to have been swept away. The country is draped in red, white and blue. The television is filled with Palaces and corgis. Yet there has been no revolt by the forces of Islam. There has been no uprising of the people against their former Colonial Masters. The sky has not fallen.

I fear it will not last - but I very much hope that it does. I am enjoying being proud to be British.

Panoramic Portrush

I have waxed lyrical on recent occasions about the merits of Photosynth - and in particular the App for the iPhone which Microsoft makes available for free. I have a couple of posts linking to Photosynths of Donaghadee and from Scrabo, and the obsession has not yet come to an end.

In our recent sojourn in Portrush, I could again be seen, spinning like a top, around the beaches and hills, manfully composing Panoramic photos using the phone. Although all the Photosynth versions are uploaded to my site, I also collected the "flat" panoramas on the PC and have set them out below for your consideration. Of course, even the "burling round" ones are not true Synths as they lack depth.

You can see quite clearly in a number of the photos that the process is far from perfect - there are anomalies created by the confusion when the software sees a very similar background or foreground item - it can lead to duplication of pieces of the scenery - but the overall effect remains pleasing.

The image above doesn't truly fit in with the set - as it is of the wee park at the side of the Bann in Coleraine, but it was all done the same weekend, so I'm posting it anyway.

If you are not a native of these parts and are struggling to recognise the locations, you'll find the links to the various Bing Maps on the Photosynth site.

As all these images are presented (on the Posterous iteration of Aiblins) as thumbnails, you may care to hover your mouse over them, expand them to full size and then play the Slideshow for the full effect.

Portrush Tourist Board

I was up in the Port over the end of the Bank Holiday enhanced weekend and, as tends to be the way when I am up there, ended up taking endless shots with the iPhone camera. The limitations of the camera mean that these are not exactly the finest examples of the photographic art that you will ever see, but the fine weather and the beautiful scenery meant that even a ham-fisted buffoon such as myself couldn't get it completely wrong.

Dandering round the town (to the extent that Mrs Ulsterscot believes is suggestive of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and seeing all the lobster-red Ulstermen exposing their portions reminded me of many happy holidays when we used to decant as a family to Mrs Palmer's Mount Royal for our fortnight's holiday. Although the financial situation is making a lot more people consider the option of a "stay-cation" - awful word - I suspect that the days of the imperious Landlady/Hotelier are gone and that the influx in trade that towns such as Portrush and Newcastle can expect to see is much more of a "caravan crowd". Whether that sort of trade will do the town much good remains to be seen. Staying in a caravan may mean meals being cooked on site and trade for chippies and "offies" rather than the guest houses and restaurants. The character of the town has changed a lot since the days of my early family holidays - and probably not for the better - but no matter how down-market some of the shops may have become, you simply can't beat the scenery.

In fairness, lest I be accused of being "down" on Portrush, there have been some notable improvements about the place. 55 North is a massive improvement on the tatty old Health Centre that used to block the view of the Ladies' Bathing place and the Arcadia regeneration has been broadly successful, although a suitable use for the building itself seems to elude us at this point. The influx of coffee shops provide a more cosmopolitan feel to the main street - but they sit amongst the tatty pound shops which do the place no favours.

The jewel in the shopping crown remains The White House - the "big shop in Portrush", to quote Crawford Howard. It now stands as the only proper shop in the town and at the weekend the crowds were still in evidence - although perhaps browsing more than buying. It would be a disaster for Portrush if the regular rumours of the shop closing were ever to come to pass.

So, drink in the pictures and realise that Northern Ireland isn't such a bad place after all. Load your screaming weans into the car and take the drive to the coast. Take them to Barry's and feed the Candy Floss until it emerges from their noses. You'll not regret it.

Fun with Photosynth - Part 2

The above is another attempt at Photosynth which you may recall has already fascinated me a little. This time the unassuming and utterly blameless victim of my attention is Donaghadee Harbour. Having frittered away a good part of the Easter break, trying to tidy the house a little and recharging the depleted batteries which still seem to be slightly faulty following last year's not entirely forgotten brush with BPPV, we decided to take a quick scoot to Donaghadee in the faltering light of yesterday evening.

Mrs Ulsterscot had packed the car with all manner of cold weather gear, being unconvinced that the anaemic Northern Ireland sun would provide sufficient warming power to negate the need for a duffel coat in the early evening. Her concerns proved well founded as we shivered our way along the front and towards the lighthouse. There, she uncovered the nefarious nature of my plan, as I clambered inexpertly up the side of the Harbour wall and proceed to spin round like a top, mobile phone held aloft after the fashion of some bizarre natve ceremony (involving a mobile phone?)

The purpose of the burling became clear when I showed my suffering spouse the quite delightful Photosynth app on the iPhone. To produce results which should be better than those above, all you need to do is download the free App, forsake your dignity, embrace the inevitable dizziness, and there you go... The App makes it really easy to create your panorama by automatically taking pictures as you spin round and prompting you to realign yourself if it all goes a bit squiffy.

It's fair to say that the quality of the images produced can be a little variable - and you will see a few blemishes in the Synth above, but it is still a really nice was to create a memory of a location which goes a little further than the traditional snapshot.

So enamoured was I of the first attempt that I left Mrs Ulsterscot quivering in the car, bemoaning unspeakably cold ears and took to the Harbour steps for this second effort.

The one downside to the full Photosynthy experience is that it requires a person to install Silverlight which has all the hallmarks of a technology doomed to eventual redundancy. Meh.

For those who use older Macs and those who simply refuse to install anything Microsofty on their machines, the "flat" panoramas are reproduced below. It is possible to see more clearly the rifts in the space time continuum in these pictures - of course it is entirely possible that these anomalies are where my rotating and snapping let me down but I prefer the rift thing.

In a vain effort to make this post seem a little more worthwhile, I seem to recall a rather splendid plan for the carving of the names of Scottish settlers into the walls of the harbour at Donaghadee which was sadly thwarted by the listed status of the Harbour. My best efforts to resurrect the scheme with a marker pen under the cover of darkness have been positively forbidden by Mrs Ulsterscot.

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.

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.

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 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....

Leaden Skies

I was once again plagued by incredibly bad cell reception yesterday and a further foray into Live Blogging from a contest was thus thwarted. Consequently, the post from yesterday morning has only appeared today - once we had returned home!

For anyone interested, FMMPB took the honours in Grade One, pursued by Ballycoan and Cullybackey, in that order. The rest of the Grades threw up few surprises, although it was interesting to see Seven Towers performing strongly in Grade Two - one to watch in that Grade next year, with Ravara safely out of the way in the Premier Division.

The town was packed to the gills and by noon today, we could still count some 35 or so Camper vans in the Lansdowne Crescent carpark. Proof that at least some of them were bandsmen came in the form of a football shirted youngster diligently practising with his Mace Pole - clearly keen to ensure that he doesn't become ring-rusty over the off-season!

The only contest of note which remains is the Cowal Games in Dunoon - beloved by many bandsmen - by me - not so much. It has always struck me as an excuse to go on the tear for a full weekend when most of the important competition business is out of the way. Alcohol fueled tomfoolery results. Not my kind of thing.

In any event, I took a dander round Portrush with my father this morning and took a few shots of the town and the coast - although the skies were less kind than yesterday, some of the shots still pleased me, so I have uploaded the gallery. Sobering to note that my favourite shot of the weekend was probably the lead picture from the post yesterday - which was again taken on the iPhone! Today's efforts are with the trusty SLR - and I don't see the equal of the phone picture!