Saturday, 23 December 2006

Nintendo Wii: first impressions

After a week of Nintendo Wii overindulgence, a bit of a ramble.

The Wii itself. Tiny! I mistook it for an external hard drive at first: “Is that really it?”. It's a small, flat white box with a slot at the front for discs. There's buttons for eject, reset and power, and the slot lights up when a disc goes in. The sockets in the back are sensibly positioned, and there's also a USB input; plus, a concealed slot at the front for SD cards from digital cameras.

The packaging in the box is also very un-console like. As Frans in Tampere noted when his arrived, it contains lots of little compartments with various things in them.

Overall, there is a distinctly Apple-Mac style to the whole system, with everything being streamlined, white, with soft corners and hidden sockets and wires. Maybe that's accidental, maybe deliberate, maybe (suspect strongly) it's a statement that this is not a huge, testosterone-fuelled souped-up Microsoft-Sony powerbox, but something very different.

The controllers in motion. The controllers are a neat piece of kit, containing no doubt some bedevilling electronic circuitry. Put your hand through the strap and hold it. There's various buttons on the front, and one button-pseudo-trigger on the back. The controller is quite light in the hand, with the weight increasing noticeably when batteries were inserted. However, thankfully, even after 9 hours of constant Wii play, the controller never started to feel heavy.

And the motion. It's all about the motion of the player. There's a Flickr pool of pictures of Wii players in motion that's worth a look. This is all pretty much the opposite of the old-style sit-still-and-press-buttons mode of game control. The 14 Wii Sports and Play games, between them, take you through a surprisingly large rota of possible motions, twists and turns. In a nutshell:

  • the motion is transferred immediately to the game. Swing the bat in baseball, and see it swing on the screen. No discernable lag (which was my main concern before playing the Wii).

  • in some games, you can plug in a different controller, the nunchuck, which is held in your other hand. This offers extra functionality e.g. move your character with the nunchuck, while targetting your opponent with the other.

  • the controller detects motion in any and every direction. Up, down, left, right, back and forth, sweep to the left or right, and so on. Games such as Laser Hockey and Table Tennis show that the speed of the motion also makes a difference.

Mii creation. Miis are little characters that you create, to be used in Wii games. The editor is simple to use but surprisingly powerful, enabling you to draw recognisable representations of people's heads.


You can either start "from scratch", or take a head from a gallery and adapt it.  There are now 14 Miis stored within my Wii, each based on a person on the island I live on. Librarians in particular have been adept at creating Mii representations of themselves and sharing them.

Where it gets really fun (haven't tried this yet myself) is that you can let Miis wander off around the net. As Michael Stevens notes:

One of the most exciting things for me about the Wii and it’s Mii characters is the ability to leave your Wii on and connected to the internet. You can set your Miis to “Mingle” and they’ll wander off and visit your friend’s consoles!

When you've got some Wiis, you can do various things within the Mii creation centre, such as arranging them in a variety of ways, making them line up or run around.

Wii Sports. Comes with the console; five games plus training and fitness options. You have to stand up for all of these.

Bowling is the most satisfying, and the one we've done more than the others. You bowl using normal bowling actions. You can add on various turns and spin if you wish, and either release the ball in a sensible manner or be a complete poser (I wish to stress; this is NOT me):


Unfortunately, there may be a flaw in the game, as one of the locals achieved a high score (three strikes in a row at one point, called a “Strike Turkey”) merely by hurling the ball in almost a cartwheel motion. [Update: no-one here has yet managed four strikes in a row, despite many people trying this over the last few weeks.] We'll be carrying out more tests to see if she fluked it. For the rest of us, scores were close, and figuring out turn and spin are involving activities. This is fairly physical, but unlike boxing you can play several games in a row without the need for a lie-down and a cup of tea.

Tennis. A likeable game, much better in multiplayer mode than in single player mode. You serve, and can do backhand and normal returns, plus other things we haven't yet figured. Note: you don't do the running about - your Mii does that for you on the screen. You just stand there and serve and/or return. We haven't tried four player mode in this, but suspect that it'll be a bit chaotic; we may need to do some furniture rearranging first so everyone has enough room to swing their racket/controller without decking an opponent.

Golf. I dislike golf in the real world for a whole load of reasons and cannot bring myself to play this with any enthusiasm. Ask Tiger for a review.

Baseball. This was good. You alternate between pitching and batting, holding the bat and throwing the ball as you would in the game.


The running and catching is done for you. Single player mode and two player mode available; in the latter, one player pitches for a bit while the other bats, then they swap over. However, as the game went on, my arms got progressively more tired. Batting is a good demonstrator of the response of the game to the motion of the controller.

Boxing. Blimey; tiring. You use both the controller and the nunchuck, holding them where your gloves would be. Guard your face and your body. Swerve left and right. Punch and hook. It's three rounds, with knockouts and countdowns. If you've got energetic kids, it's probably a good one to tire them out. It also acts as a good cardiovascular workout if you can manage to play two or three games in a row; the sweat was pouring off me, but that shows how unfit I am. Visually it's kinda cartoony in style - no blood or graphic violence, so it'll be more acceptable to concerned parents, and okay for public use in libraries. I can't stress enough - this game is physical:


Training. Ah, this is good. For each of the five sports, you are presented with three differents kinds of task. For example, with bowling, you have to bowl around an increasingly difficult set of obstacles; with golf, you have to hit the ball onto a target area (which made that game at least slightly interesting). Boxing was, as with the game, very strenuous, involving a workout with a punchbag, and also hitting your training partners pads without hitting the partner himself.

Fitness. The session picks three training routines at random for you to do. Similar to Brain Age on the DS, you are awarded a fitness age (mine is currently 25, which as a 38 year old I am very happy at), based on criteria such as balance and stamina.

Wii Play. Nine games; you can sit down for all of these. All the games have 1 or 2 player modes. The disc comes with a controller; as it adds just five pounds to the price of the controller on its own, it’s a no-brainer to buy this.

Non of the games have long-term appeal i.e. you won’t play them every day for a year, but there should be a few in there that you’ll like and keep coming back to. They also serve as an excellent introduction to using the controller. Though these are all simple games, visually (especially cow racing and fishing) they are often very imaginative in design.

Shooting Range. Shoot at balloons, clay pigeons, and flying ducks. Fire at cans to keep them in the air. All very fairground like, and a pleasant introduction to this set of games. As it progresses, you find yourself having to shoot UFOs which are trying to abduct Miis hiding in the long grass.

Find Mii. Simple, but mentally taxing. You have a number of Miis on the screen at the same time, and have to find a matching pair or trio, the odd one out, the fastest moving one, or whichever one is sleeping. Neat variations in display make it gradually harder. The Miis may be running, going down three sets of parallel elevators (hard), or swimming, watching tennis or floating around in space. On the higher levels, it's dark and you have to shine a torch around madly in order to see the odd Mii or two. Here's a picture of lots of Miis swimming towards you:


Good in both single and multiplayer mode; this game has obvious positive cognitive benefits e.g. pattern matching, search strategies, memory workout. It also helps tremendously if you've created some Miis before playing this game, as those will be easier for you to recognise as opposed to the computer-generated ones.

Table Tennis. Not sure about this. Very little movement of the controller required. One player mode was dull e.g. have a rally of 100 hits which get increasingly quicker. The game also is a little odd to watch, as the hands and bats are disembodied from the rest of the player.  

Pose Mii. Bubbles fall from the sky with the outline of your Mii - in a particular pose - in them. Twist the controller to line up your Mii to fit the outline in the bubble, and press the button to get the matching pose. Didn't grab me, possibly as I find twisting the controller clockwise or anti-clockwise the least natural (or most self-aware) of the movements possible.

Laser Hockey. Basically like the air hockey machines in arcades, but with a neon lit game area and controls. A simple game, the sound effects of which are a bit like Chu Chu Rocket on the Dreamcast. Most goals tend to be own-goals, with you or the console player accidentally knocking the ball back into your goal. Using the ends of your paddle to knock the puck back is a useful tactic for worrying the opponent. Looks both retro, and cleaned up and refined. A good game for post-party chilling out.


Billiards. A dull remake of various pool and billiards simulations, with plodding lounge music in the background. Topspin, backspin, select the direction, the usual. The one innovation is that the controller is the cue. Pull back on it and the cue pulls back on the screen; push it forward to hit the cue ball. Okay if you like this genre of game, but otherwise has little to offer.

Fishing. Not too keen on playing this myself, but others here really liked it. There's a fishing pond (excellently drawn in a cardboard cartoon-style) with some fish in it. Cast, move the float around, pull out a fish that's biting. Avoid the small fish (minus points) and aim for the bonus fish of the moment (double points). Similar to Sega Bass Fishing on the Dreamcast, but in a much more simplified way.

Charge!. A simple racing game, but instead of cars you use cows. For this game, you hold the controller horizontally between both hands:


Tilt to turn; roll forward to accelerate, backwards to brake, and push upwards to jump over hurdles. Collect scarecrows to get extra points. Fun to both play and watch – also everything in the game is knitted! Look closely at this screenshot:


The cows, the road, the grass, the sky and clouds; all knitted. From a visual point of view, brilliantly imaginative; one of those things you get only from Nintendo and Sega at their best. In two player mode, it can get hectic (you can make the cows rear up, and knock each other). Possibly the best game in Wii Play; worthy of expansion, with new courses, more cows, more sound effects, and possibly the odd weapon (cow pat?) into a full game.

Tanks! Move your miniature tank around a landscape, avoiding the shells and missiles from other tanks while blowing them up with shells and mines. It's an isometric view, with a neat laminate flooring effect for the playing area. This can be played with the controller alone, or with the nunchuck added on (easier). I quite enjoy this, as it has a good rate of difficulty increase.

Zelda: Twilight Princess. Yes, it looks great. The controls work fine, and very quickly I was fishing, running, jumping, riding a horse, calling a bird of prey and getting him/her/it to retrieve a cradle, and doing all manner of other things. Very enjoyable.

And the nostalgia is strong. I was an Ocarina of Time player, and spent much (far too much) of two months having fun with that particular game. When you start Zelda: Twilight princess, you immediately hear some of the music from that game. Other elements of the game immediately, and deliberately remind you of Ocarina. The reviews are universally good.

And the area to explore, do things in, and solve puzzles in to progress, looks huge. But this is my personal problem. The game obviously demands a very large time commitment, which I don't have to give (unless I can find some research funding that is based around playing Zelda for a few months). I could (try and) restrict myself to bite-sized chunks of the game, and spin it out over a year, but will that have the same degree of satisfaction as playing it for a significant part of each day ? And also; is the balance tipped too much towards the nostalgia of Ocarina as opposed to being a new and fresh title?

So, for me, a dilemma, and Zelda stays in its box for now. For other people - if you have the time commitment, and you haven't played Ocarina of Time, then it's a strong "buy".

Should you buy the Wii? Look, it’s cheap compared to the other consoles of this emerging generation. The fun per pound/dollar ratio therefore looks very good. If you have a group of people - of any age or demographic - you've got a much higher chance of everyone having a go than for most social activities. Think your grandparents or great-grandparents won't be interested, or can't play it? Wrong. Buy one; buy a copy of Wii Play (which comes with a controller) and two more controllers and a nunchuck. And a battery recharger with batteries (see next point). That’s still pretty cheap overall, and you have all the kit for up to 4 people to play at the same time, plus 14 games in total to work through.

A few other notes. Battery life. The controllers use two AA batteries each, and chew through them quickly when the Wii is turned on. Battery life lasts about 30 hours for the ones provided, so when the Wii is not being used, make sure it is turned off (especially if you are using multiple controllers). Even better, get a recharger that can take multiple batteries; otherwise, you may be spending more on batteries than games.

My to-do list: 

  1. I haven't touched on the Internet functionality yet, as I haven't plugged it online. Am intrigued by this, especially the concept of letting my Miis wander off into other people's Wii console areas. For another day. 

  2. We also haven't used the Photo Centre. This is where you can view photo's (and possibly do other things), which you can load in through the SD card port concealed on the front of the Wii.

  3. Also I've hardly touched Zelda (see above), and not yet got the Rayman Rabbits game. So, much to do over the next few weeks. The Rayman games in particular looks good, as it consists of around 70 mini-games where you do lots of very silly things, such as milking cows:


Research potential. The Wii is a machine that's also ideal for the facilities you get in academic institutions, such as lecture rooms kitted out with big screens. Here's an example, of what I suspect is tennis, being played in a lecture theatre (naughty player on the left is not strapped in):


And if that's not big enough, it turns out to be relatively easy to do your own Wii sensor set-up; some guys have developed their own sensor bar (cost: 20 dollars) so they can play the Wii on a 344 inch cinema screen.

I'm hearing on the ground that various academic research centres and forward-looking departments are getting a Wii, such as the DigiLab in the Open University. A few minutes of play, and ideas start popping into your head for research projects; I have a feeling this machine may be used a lot across academic disciplines such as game studies, psychology, medical research and sociology. From this perspective, here's a few quick research ideas for which the Wii is particularly suited: 

  • Game interface design; how it differs between traditional games and those playable through motion-actions.

  • First encounters with video games - using motion-input games - by elderly, non-playing or anti-games people. How do they get on? Is their gameplay helped by full instruction and training, as opposed to being left to figure it all out?

  • How gameplayer correlate the real physical motions they do to the onscreen action (but, taking this beyond previous overdone "hand-eye coordination" studies).

  • How gameplayers physically react to onscreen visual, offscreen visual (other players), and audio cues. For example, with the tennis game (which requires only hitting the ball and not running around), why do some people just hit the ball but others go into a "mimic" frame of mind and start (unnecessarily) running around the room as if playing real tennis? And note the previous "cow milking" picture, observing how players often gradually crouch in towards the screen, perhaps in some kind of subconcious hope this give them an edge.

  • Following on from the research and thesis of Dr Jonas Smith, are players behaviour towards each other:


...affected by the motion-nature of Wii gameplay, as opposed to old-style button-pressing sedentary gameplay?

  • Keyboard replacement: how far can motion-based controllers be taken in replacing the keyboard (and other methods of input) in game play and serious data entry?

  • Combining the motion-centric Wii with different kinds of visual display. There are a couple of intriguing pictures that someone has put on Flickr of their daughter apparently playing the Wii while wearing the Icuiti headset. This simulates having a "floating 42 inch widescreen TV" permanently in front of you. So to summarise; that's a gaming session with no television and using wireless motion controls - plus, the Icuiti removes the restriction of facing a fixed tv screen all the time. So if the Icuiti came down in price and lived up to it's publicity, this could become an intriguing combination?

  • Using Wii technology on other computing or gaming platforms. Judging from the number of "I made this" videos on YouTube, this looks relatively easy; for example, here a video of someone explaining how his Wii controller now functions for the game World of Warcraft.

  • Character representation and recognition as Miis; there's some applications in there for the psychology crowd.

  • Mii culture. It'll be interesting to see what people do with their Miis, especially as they can be "let loose" online and roam into other peoples Wiis.

  • Operating other stuff using the Wii remote. Seems like there is a constant stream of websites and videos where people have worked out how to program the controller to do something else, such as operating a vacuum cleaner. So what else, of use, can be more effectively controlled using Wii hardware?

There's also health and medical research potential, including:

  • Cardiovascular benefits from playing games demanding physical response and control. It looks like Nintendo may be actively developing some games with this in mind.

  • Mental, memory and cognitive stimulation through games such as Find Mii.

  • Rehabilitation from physical injury.

  • Gaming as pain management, or a distraction from pain and discomfort. There's been some research on this previously; the physical nature of Wii games opens up more research possibilities.

Because of the inspiring and thought-provoking nature of the games and gameplay, it's an absolute must-get for any decent games research centre or group. If, in a few months time, an academic games research centre doesn't have a Wii in a communal staff area, then it is questionable how serious they really are about video games and gameplay.

Library potential. Yes, it is suitable for use in a public library. The games are okay for people of all ages; the motion aspects of the game mean that it negates the criticism of gameplay being a sedentary activity. The games are very pro-social in nature, almost willing you to try them in multiplayer, as opposed to single player mode. Also, spectators get a lot more fun out of watching people play Wii games than last-generation button pushing titles. The difference now is that you aren't just watching a game on a tv screen, you are watching real people playing a game that is also represented on a tv screen.

Some libraries are moving quickly on this. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburg acquired a Wii at launch and are using it heavily, as has a public library in North Carolina, while the Rochester Hills Public Library lend out Wii games.

A few words of caution, though. You'll need a fair bit of space for this activity, especially for four-player games. Also, Wii gameplay, I suspect, is louder than games being played on other consoles - the noise coming from players and spectators. It's been pretty loud here with a few people playing and watching. The distraction of motion may also cause a problem in some libraries where that isn't the "done thing". But maybe that's a good thing. There's also an increased danger of equipment being damaged by people who don't use the strap, but this isn't a problem with anyone who sensibly "straps up".

For libraries: there's no question. If you've got a suitable corner where there's not a problem if it's a bit noisy, a tv and a couple of hundred pounds, then go for it.

Future potential. It didn't take long for people to start using the Wii in ways Nintendo hadn't intended, or even thought about. Making it web-compatible using the Opera browser was a start, as it means that Flash-based applications can be run through the Wii. And so, if you search around the web, you'll find an instant army of teccies, building Wii-centric stuff. Here's one example; someone who controls the lighting, heating, security and other house-based functions through his Wii.

Final word: for Nintendo. Kudos for providing a system that is genuinely fun to use, and makes people who have never been interested in games (or even repelled by them) want to "have a go". Now, please: more innovative, quirky, offbeat and unusual games that make good use of the controllers; and also a few that can tap into wireless DS use, so verbal input can be used.

Monday, 18 December 2006

Snow on the hills

A picture from my own collection on Flickr, for a change. Some snow on the hills of South Harris, as seen from the ferry across the sound on 9th April:


No sign of any snow so far this winter (way too warm; it's the middle of December and it's "shorts and t-shirt" weather out here).

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Snakes on a plane: the sequel

I see there is talk of a sequel to "Snakes on a plane". Well, Hollywood could do worse than a Hebridean version - otherwise known as "Cows on a beach". Flickr user Paddimir indicates that some early footage may already have been taken on the east beach of Vatersay:


On our second trip to Vatersay, we were forced to weave in and out of the cows to get to a desired spot on the beach. There was no bovine hassle - though we were monitored for the duration of our stay. The cows would go and munch on the machair for a while, then spend a few hours sitting on the warm sand, watching the fishing boats chug across the horizon.


It's always a good idea to keep an eye on them when sharing a beach. Silly mainlanders think they are just dumb animals that eat grass and end up being burgers. Locals know that they are far more intelligent; your average Hebridean cow can not only write, but also give directions to lost tourists:


So there you go. Cows on a beach. Rated 18 for bad language, extreme bovine violence, and images of udder gratification. Cue a shot of Samuel L. Jackson reprising his role from the film by barricading himself and the remaining local crofters on top of a sand dune, armed only with a black pudding from the butchers in Castlebay, while shouting "Enough is enough! I have had it with these **** cows on this **** beach!"  

Thursday, 7 December 2006

There goes winter…

This came into my inbox at 18:50 today:

+ + + + +

1The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess [Wii]
1Nintendo Wii Console [Wii]

We are pleased to advise that your order has been despatched via your chosen delivery method and will be with you shortly!

+ + + + +

A Nintendo console! At last - haven't felt this excited since I saw Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast in a window display, immediately went into the shop and bought said game and console.

Soon (depending on post to the Outer Hebrides) I will be back in Hyrule ... blog postings may become less frequent for the next few months ...

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Party time, Finland style

I've recently finished reading a cracking book, Popular Music from Vittula, which is a thinly-disguised autobiography of someone living in the rural Pajala region of Sweden, on the border with Finland. Woven through the narrative are comments and examples of local dialects, drinking habits, social events, and local gossip.


It's been a thoughtful exercise comparing it to The Stornoway Way, which is also about living in a rural place (in this case the nearby island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides). Both places share a lot in common: the long darkness of winter, the drinking culture, complex local social niceties, local dialects that people from further afield, in the same country, cannot understand, the urge to escape, and the urge to stay.


One of my favourite chapters in this, and any book, concerns a post-wedding party. The meal is described in often brillant detail:
The first course was local crispbread and salmon. Every single one of the men turned his piece of crispbread upside down, so that the holes were underneath. That way they would save butter, just as their impecunious parents had taught them.

The event degenerates into a series of contests between the families of the bride and groom (one group local, the other from over the border in Finland), including eating, drinking, fighting and sauna endurance. Yes, sauna endurance. I was thinking about this again when looking at the pictures from the pre-Christmas party at the games lab in Tampere University, the pictures from which are immersed in this blog entry.


Video games! Lots of running around dressed in sparkling Christmas lights! Eating a quite splendid looking buffet! This may be a bit knapsu for some people, but it sure looks fun to me. And then, erm, everyone gets into a hot tub and touches toes: 


At my previous place of work, before I (wisely) went self-employed, if this list of activities was suggested as the staff party, it would have been received with horrified silence. Followed by most people quickly booking leave, or being "ill", to avoid it.


Actually nowadays, such festivities would be banned under the draconian "Health and Safety" legislation that stifles the UK; out of the 12 pictures in the Finnish party collection, at least 8 contain activities that would either be banned, or require a "risk assessment" or expensive insurance cover, to take place in a UK university. Within 2 minutes of the party starting, some security guard would have run in, pulled all the wires out and turned off the hot tub.

The Scandinavians, on the other hand, seem to know how to always have a good time with no fuss or hassle. Heippa! 


Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Shed and taxi

A picture we recognised, as being part of the estate of some near-neighbours of ours. The picture is by Flickr user WynWhite and was taken in September:


They currently "have the builders in", who are doing a very impressive new extension (to avoid confusion: the green building in the picture is not said extension). The builders are slightly behind schedule (well, that's the reason we've been given for a lack of reciprocal luncheon event) though it all looks gleaming and finished to us.

As you can see from this picture, rust is a big problem out here, so ongoing maintenance can be pricier than on the mainland. Not surprising, as on Berneray, you are never more than half a mile from the sea. It's not just the larger-than-normal volume of rain, but also the salty sea spray that can get in anywhere.

The taxi isn't in use as a mode of transport anymore, alas.

Saturday, 2 December 2006

Traigh Mhor, Barra

Translates directly as "Beach big". And indeed it is; in the distance is where the plane lands at low tide. Pictures from Niall Corbet:


Take a left and you end up at the airport, which has an excellent little cafe where you can nibble away at chocolate cake. Take a right and you can follow the road to the circular Barra road, or peel off to the left and head towards the ferry that crosses over to Eriskay. Here's a picture of a plane coming in to land at the airport:


Speaking from experience, the person on the right may shortly regret standing there as they get a face full of sand, blasted up from the force of the propellors when the plane trundles up to Terminal erm One. And here's a textbook landing:


Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Better buy a brolly, Molly

Sitting here with a blank mind, wondering if there is anything to blog about. Then, from the TV comes the news that Misbah Rana, otherwise known as Molly or Molly Campbell, has been ordered by a judge to be returned to her mother. She has to be handed over to the British Consulate in Pakistan within 7 days, so it looks like she'll be returning back to Lewis in time for Christmas and the New Year.

Living in the Outer Hebrides means you get to hear some of the inside track on the story. It isn't so much "close knit" here as "densely knit", in terms of people being related to people and people knowing people - the archipelago of the Outer Hebrides is nearly 150 miles from end to end but is habited by only 26,000 people. So it turned out that various people around here knew, or are related to, people who went to school with Misbah/Molly, and it's been an on-off conversation piece for the three months that she's been away. Like if you buy a new sofa, then someone at the other end of the archipelago will often know what colour it is before you've unwrapped it.

It therefore made for interesting comparisons between what was said locally, what is/was written in the blogosphere and what was in the national and international press - and often, there were wide differences between all of these. As per usual in the muckier parts of the media, there was the mixture of just under-the-surface racism and bile, as well as the usual populist press swings at the Outer Hebrides (backwards, barren, uncivilised yadda yadda yadda*). Plus a shedload of inaccuracies (e.g. they reside in Tong, *not* Stornoway - message to press, stop assuming everyone here lives in Stornoway. Thank you.).

There is one point on which Misbah is disadvantaged by returning now; the weather. In Lahore this week it is 16 degrees centigrade and Sun! Sun! Sun! Here, the Met Office forecast for local inshore waters over the next two days is:

24 hour forecast 
Wind: Southerly 7 or gale 8, occasionally severe gale 9.
Weather: Rain or squally showers.
Visibility: Moderate or good.
Sea State: Rough or very rough.

Outlook for the following 24 hours
Wind: Southerly severe gale 9 to storm force 10, perhaps violent storm 11 in exposed areas.
Weather: Squally showers.
Visibility: Good.
Sea State: Very rough to high.

(* the reality is almost zero crime, no pollution, unspoilt scenery, friendly people, and ace beaches. But that doesn't make for a very interesting story in some parts of the press.)

Sunday, 26 November 2006

Big waves on a bigger beach

This morning was warm, considering it is near the end of November. And yet again, the weather forecast was spectacularly wrong. Quite a while ago, I came to the conclusion that the weather forecasters (and the BBC is notorious for this) have a default "permanent rain and cloud" symbol for the Outer Hebrides, which is only very occasionally and reluctantly changed. Consequently, I regularly get emails from concerned mainlanders a la "You must have suffered in all those storms over the last few days", when my suffering has usually been restricted to sunburn (I burn very easily, and therefore rarely travel south of Cambuslang).

Anyway, this morning was taken up with a pleasant stroll across the machair to the west beach. The waves crashing on which I could hear from the housie, over a mile (and the other side of a hill) away.



Unfortunately my rubbish photography skills do not show up the size of the waves in these pictures. You'll have to take it from me, in non-fisherman "it were this huge" way, that they were, indeed, large. The surprising thing is that it was a perfectly still day. Not a breath of wind, and not a cloud in the sky. But, to quote George in the best comedy series ever made, "The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli."



It's also rare to see surfers out here on Berneray, as they tend to prefer the wilder coasts of Lewis, or the flat shores of Tiree to the Uists and Berneray. The temperature of the water also varies substantially, from "Not tropical, but not bad" to "I've lost all sense of feeling in all my limbs".



Saturday, 25 November 2006

Island life: blogs and incomers

Disclaimer. I am a "serial incomer".

The BBC run a blogging service called Island Blogging. It's a little different from conventional blogs, in that the BBC website hosts the service, and they also administer it. So, they decide which postings and comments stay up, and which are removed. In many respects, it's more like a forum than a blog (or collection of blogs).

The topics in it range from the serious to the not serious, to the downright silly. One of the more serious posts is by a resident of Sanday; it's worth reading the thread and the comments (though will take a good 30 minutes):

Ah, deja vue. An incomer writes something, and someone - anonymously - flies in with comments about incomers taking over, making changes, making it more difficult for locals to stay as house prices go up. Other people retort, pointing out that without incomers the islands would die; the locals benefit from selling off houses at greater prices; the incomers are bringing in money to the local economy and doing stuff.

And here's the thing. I've heard it all before. These arguments aren't specific to Sanday. Nor the northern islands. Nor the Hebridean islands. Nor Berneray. Nor rural places on the mainland (I became bored by hearing these arguments in Lochwinnoch, where we lived before here). Nor even in the small rural farming village I grew up in nearly four decades ago.

Some observations and thoughts:

  1. People use the word "community" too much. "The community need this", or "the community thinks that". Sometimes, what they mean is "This would be good, and I'm right so the community does need it". Bottom line is that a community is a bunch of individual people living in roughly the same place. They cannot or do not all hold identical views.

  2. There will always be critical people. And the most critical and vocal ones I've found, time and time again, are the ones who do bugger all for their "community". The one's who are actually doing the stuff (whatever it is) are usually the quiet ones who prefer getting on with stuff, rather than boring everyone else to death with self-important opinions.

  3. Some of the quiet ones are a bit too quiet. For example, there are many good people in Berneray who do stuff, but hold their opinions, for a variety of reasons. It's a pity; there possibly needs to be ways (democratic ballots? better use of the net?) for the majority of residents, who are sensible and thoughtful, to confidently express their opinions and have their - equal - say.

  4. On a related point, I've got zero patience for people who try and "control" the media by shouting the most. No one individual speaks for me, for Berneray, or for any island. I have no time for people who say things such as "I speak for Berneray when...", nor for people (basically "book-burning fascists") who want reasonable stuff censored or removed from publications (print or online) because it doesn't fit with their point of view. Diddums.

  5. It doesn't matter what you do - or don't do - someone will criticise. Example: here in Berneray, there are tentative council plans for a major development. Support it, and you could be accused of "moving here and changing things". Oppose it, and you could be accused of being a "Nimby". Have no opinion, and you could be accused of "not participating in the community". But here's the thing - in these three cases, it'll probably be the same person who does the accusing. So you might as well ignore him/her/it and just do your thing.

People who have lived somewhere for 20 minutes or 20 generations are in many many ways the same. They all pay council tax (or should do) and thus all subsidise, and use, local services. They all (okay, nearly all) have two arms, legs, a head, and are complex-based life forms. They all breathe oxygen, eat, poo and will one day die. They all get an electric bill on the same day; you could hear the identical sharp intakes of both "incomer" and "local" breath as bills were opened in various households earlier this week...

In every rural or isolated community I've lived in, the same pattern presents itself. Some "locals" are positive and helpful, protecting things that need to be and improving things that need to be. Some "incomers" are also positive and helpful, protecting things that need to be and improving things that need to be. Some "locals" are negative, quick to criticise others (both "locals" and "incomers") but slow to help or "do", as opposed to "talk". And some "incomers" are negative, quick to criticise others (both "locals" and "incomers") but slow to help or "do", as opposed to "talk".

Thankfully, not all of the threads on Island Blogging get as personal and negative as the Sanday one. One of the things that shines through is the Hebridean humour, which is an interesting blend of dryness, self-mockery and in-jokes.

End of.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Ben Fogle, pods and castaways

This'll trigger off a few distant memories. One of the most ambitious "reality tv" programmes was Castaway 2000. Stick several dozen people (singles, couples, families, religiously devout, gays, alcoholics) onto a Hebridean island for a year; provide them with accommodation - specially designed wooden "pods" that would withstand the weather - and some food; see how they got on.


The programme ended up on the BBC. The production company picked Taransay, an island just off Harris. The filming and PR was slightly misleading, in that it was made out to be a very remote place. Erm, not quite; a very short boat ride takes you to harris, where you can get a bus to Stornoway, then a one hour flight to Glasgow or Edinburgh.


Castaway was widely mocked by the usual sneering reviewers, and various people (local and incomers) here. However, it wasn't as bad as is widely made out to be. The filming was for a reality TV show, so it was spiced up and edited in a way that the participants weren't too chuffed about. And most of those critics would be too terrified at the thought of leaving their cars, comfy houses and central heating behind for more than five minutes. Oddly, despite being a year long and in some of the best scenery of Europe, there were very few programmes shown; several months would go by without sight of it on TV, which was odd considering it was possibly the most expensive reality TV programme ever made.


After the programme, several of the participants went for a change of lifestyle. Some moved to other Scottish Islands. Others became well-known presenters. The island is now more well-used, having a couple of self-catering houses and providing a base for an annual fiddle event.

What of the pods? One of them ended up just a few miles away, on Harris. In fact, from its new home Taransay could be seen. I had a look around it (but not in it) during my last birthday, as I was in Luskentyre then. Alas, as you can see from the pictures on this blog posting, the place is gradually falling to bits as attempts at maintenance and making it habitable have stopped; shame.

Friday, 17 November 2006

Trees and surfing

Apart from round the sheltered bits of Stornoway, trees are rare in the Outer Hebrides, though there is much planting afoot which will change this over the coming decades. When wandering around, you'll occasionally see a Rowan tree. For centuries this was believed to protect the household, cattle and croft from witches and fairies and is present to this day on many crofts near the house. There was great fear about cutting down a Rowan: this belief can be traced back from the Celts to the druids.

Below is another cracking picture from Bluewave; this one of the tree at Ach Mor on Lewis.


This tree, which sits on its own, apparently has a number of stories surrounding it. It probably has several names in Gaelic, one of which I've been told by a local translates roughly as "The tree of knowledge" - why, I don't know but it's a safe bet there's a story or legend behind it. The slant of the tree is testament to the gales and occasional hurricane that blow through.

Judging from the number of comments, the picture is a popular one on Flickr; the original large size makes for an excellent screen background.

Here's one from Niall Corbet of someone windsurfing, or powergliding, or whatever this variation is called, off a beach of Barra:


Thursday, 16 November 2006

Two from each end

Trawling Flickr, looking for pictures of the Outer Hebrides, is a particularly pleasant activity. Do it for an hour or so and there's an irresistable urge to get on the next passing bus and go to a few of these places. I must get better organised this coming year. Here's two pictures each of Barra in the south, and Lewis in the north.

Here's Halaman Bay in Barra, picture by Paddimir:


Also in Barra, here's Stoung Mor. This picture is by Viche (a librarian, which is cool), who noted that here she "watched dolphins jump and play in the water":


Now zipping up to Lewis (possible on the same day if you time the two ferry connections right), we have a picture of the Callanish Stones by Schemie Radge:


And finally, a "light sabre" picture from the excellent Bluewave (every picture of his is superb) of a crofter and his sheep:


By the way, feel free to pass on the webbie address of this blog ( to anyone you think may be interested in pictures of the Outer Hebrides.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Dal Beg beach

Dal Beg beach on Lewis, taken towards the end of September 2006. Picture by Flickr user AndyShader:


Monday, 13 November 2006

Peas means whatever

A picture of some of this years crop of peas from the garden veggie patches:


There's something indefinably satisfying about growing your own food. It's perhaps because I'm from a family of market gardeners (though there's little chance of me replicating the orchards of my youth here on windy island). Or perhaps it's good to put something small in the ground, forget about it for a while, then come back to find its (a) got bigger and (b) is now edible. Or some kind of DNA "hunter gatherer" gene kicking in. "Me gardener." 

Sunday, 12 November 2006

Berneray in the papers

Blimey, we got a mention in the Guardian yesterday (overseas people: the Guardian is a left-leaning broadsheet UK-wide newspaper). And not just any old article, but in the daily editorial/leader column.

Under the title "In praise of ... Scottish islands", it's a short but positive piece about the benefits of this part of the world. It concludes with:

...No island can be singled out as the best: but Berneray, near North Uist, with its white-sand beach and simple thatched hostel by the sea, surely cannot be beaten as a place to sample island life.

So there. The article is online.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

Night and Day and Sea

Three pictures from the superb Flickr Outer Hebrides group pool. First, a sheiling in the evening light by Wiesmier. These buildings are often surprisingly comfortable inside, though it can be noisy when hard rain falls on a metal roof:


Next, a picture of the Callanish stones by Levelfather. These are a decent bus ride away on Lewis, but are worth the trip. If you go, don't restrict yourself to the main circle; there are several others within a mile. Oh, and the better tearoom is not the official one, but the one on the other side of the main circle (decent cake, too):


And finally a picture of a beach on the west coast of Harris (more because I haven't put many Outer Hebrides beach pictures up of late). This one from Shooderz:


Friday, 3 November 2006

How cool is this?

Video games.

If anyone, ever again, says any of these:

  • games are played just by teenage boys

  • games aren't designed for families or adults

  • games are sedentary; you just sit there and press buttons

  • games are isolating; no-one talks or communicates during gameplay

  • games don't elicit emotion

  • all games are violent

...then tell them to go away, watch the videos of people playing games on the Nintendo Wii here:

...then rethink what they've just said.

Now - how do we get every library to install one of these...

Thursday, 2 November 2006

The beach at Cnip

Here's one on Flickr from Stevie the B of the beach at Cnip on Lewis:


Cnip is one of the many communities in the Outer Hebrides which contain graves of vikings. If you do a Google search, you'll get various reports and news stories of digs and findings.

Norse/Viking and other historical happenings of that period don't get much of a look-in out here; there was a letter in the Gazette a few weeks ago from a Norwegian puzzling over the lack of local official interest in Viking heritage. He had a point; it may be because of the funding set-up here, where Viking history is well down any notional list of priorities.

Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Wear your tie neatly if you want to get on...

A picture from nearly 11 years ago, taken in Bath. This shows 12 of the 13 members of UKOLN (UK Office for Library Networking) at the time. I was the Information Officer, my first office job. Note the four shifty-looking blokes in the middle of the back row, all trying to out-cool each other and all failing badly.

 UKOLN in spring of 1997

Rachel - far right, back row - left UKOLN today. That leaves 4 people in the picture (Michael, back row left and Ruth, Ali and Rosemary in the three to the left, front row), still at UKOLN, plus one more who wasn't in the picture: Ann Chapman. She writes:
"...I'm actually the longest serving member of UKOLN staff, having started work with the unit in 1987 (then CBM) when the staff was much smaller - Philip Bryant, Lorcan Dempsey, Steve Prowse, and Jo Lye."
In an odd coincidence, out of the eight who have left since that picture was taken, all except one have Facebook profiles - only Hazel, back row left but one not having one. And of the five who are left, non are (unless disguised) on Facebook.

I have a vague recollection of the event where this picture took place. It was at a hotel near the centre of Bath, as part of a restructuring or team building exercise (I lived about 5 minutes walk away). The ducks were not that interested in eating crumbs thrown at them, and had even less interest at the odd whole scone lobbed their way.

Where are they now? Mostly, still in the UK. About half are still in that area; one is in Southampton; another in Manchester; I'm in the Outer Hebrides. Lorcan ended up being the furthest moved and having the largest career rise, now being the Vice President of OCLC in the US. Looking at the picture, the reason why is finally clear - he was the only male staff member who could neatly wear a tie. That's where the rest of us went wrong...

Monday, 30 October 2006

Solas (or Sollas)

This is about 10 miles from here on North Uist, and I'm usually there once a week to do a shop at the Co-op (door to door cheap bus service). There's not many houses there, and when I'm waiting outside the shop for the return bus, there are some good views of rolling fields and distant beaches.

Here's four pictures of some of the beaches there from a recent trip by Flickr user radarsmum67: