Thursday, 30 August 2007

Berneray opportunity

If you fancy moving to Berneray, but are put off by not having employment, then there may be a solution. Berneray Historical Society are advertising for a paid position, salary circa £18,000 a year. Here's the advert:

"Our successful island Historical Society is looking for a multi-talented individual to work as a project worker on a two-year fixed-term contract.

Based in the community-owned Nurses’ Cottage on the Isle of Berneray, this position will involve digitising, archiving and presenting a wide range of historical material already in the possession of the Historical Society. It will also involve overseeing the return of Berneray-related material held offisland, as well as sourcing new material from island residents and others.

The project worker will be responsible for inputting material to the online Hebridean Connections database, and providing training in this to Historical Society members.


The successful candidate will be educated to at least Highers/A-level and probably to degree level or equivalent, and will be able to demonstrate a strong research background, preferably with information management and
presentation experience. 

Knowledge of Gaelic is preferred, but not essential, while an appreciation of Gaelic culture and the historical issues affecting small island communities will be expected.

This position will suit a motivated and enthusiastic individual with verbal and written communication skills and good computer literacy. The opportunity to work as a lead team member on an exciting community historical project on the beautiful Isle of Berneray awaits the successful candidate.

This project is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. We can offer a salary of circa £18,000 to the right candidate. Further details about this position are available on the Berneray website. If you wish to apply please send your CV with a covering letter, which sets out your suitability for this post, by 24 September to The Secretary, Berneray Historical Society, The Nurses’ Cottage, Berneray, Isle of North Uist, HS6 5BD."

Saturday, 25 August 2007

The biting season

This last week has seen the midges in full biting mode here in Berneray. From experience over the last seven years, Berneray usually gets off lightly. However, a combination of:

  • there being no flies around to eat the midges

  • there being no wind

  • a mild winter

  • ...and it being that time of the year

...means that the blighters are in full swarming mode this morning. After less than 2 minutes outside, I've accumulated another dozen spreading red patches to add to the collection - those from last tuesday are now turning into joined-up miniature bruises.

Here's an archive picture by Lhoon of what appears to be a synchronised attack by a platoon of them (my bite marks are unfortunately larger):


I've recently taken up kick boxing again, having been a bit good at it several years ago and remembering it's a way of losing weight (it's working!) and keeping various muscle groups in shape (or, in my case, getting them someway back to pre-flab days). However, it's an utterly useless form of defence against a swarm of tiny attackers such as the midge. A roundhouse kick leaves them unconcerned and still hovering around, looking for a patch of bare skin to land on. Though it provided a brief moment of amuseument for a pair of passing hikers with flailing arms.

There is a midge forecast service online. It isn't accurate for here, certainly not for today anyway (1 and 2 mean negligible or low levels of midge activity):


There's a wide range of "treatments" and ways of allegedly avoiding the midge, from nets to creams, potions and eating marmite with every meal for 2 weeks before (midges apparently hate the odour of vitamin B12). But the best way of all seems to be a two-pronged approach:

  • Is it windy?: safe to go outside

  • Is it not windy?: stay indoors

And what exactly is the point of the midge, anyway?

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Island life

Here's a few random pictures from the archive am trying to sort out. First up, a flock of black sheep being shepherded along the road (note the crofter on a quad bike) in Grenitote, North Uist. Taken in May 2006 while waiting for a bus:


Next, a cat with unusual markings. This was spotted in Port Charlotte on the Inner Hebridean island of Islay, where I stuffed myself full of quite spectacular seafood at the Port Charlotte hotel for five days:


Finally, a picture of the sunset over Taransay, also in the summer of 2003. Taken from Luskentyre beach; no special software or colour filters or whatnot used. Just one heck of a dusk, looking west:


Monday, 20 August 2007

Californian adventures, 2004 (2 of 2)

Fresh from several days of the artificial world that was E3, I emerged blinking into the Californian sunshine to explore LA, Santa Monica and a few bits beyond.

The most surprising thing was how downright pretty the whole region is. The view from the hotel room (cheap, after doing a bit of hunting around online for a bargain) in Santa Monica, looking out to the Pacific:


It's not just the trees and the beaches, but many of the buildings, gardens and flowers that are well-tended and attractive. Then again, many of the people who live in areas such as Bel Air and Hollywood can afford to have expensive, colourful gardens filled with exotic plants. It's just a pity I couldn't get near many of them to take pictures due to the ubiquitous "Armed Response Patrol: have a nice day!" signs everywhere. An absence of sidewalks in some of the more expensive neighbourhoods didn't help with wandering explorations; neither was being followed by a patrol car for part of one afternoon and wondering if I was going to end up in some LA celebrity jail for jaywalking.

Santa Monica itself was a great place to stay in. It's a laid-back, seemingly permanently sunny place, with an eclectic range of shops and a huge Apple store (free net access) and plenty of eating places. It's the end of Route 66 and the start of the Pacific Highway; our gang of games researchers ate at an excellent Italian restaurant at the corner of those two roads. The pier and wheel are a focal point of strolling life; we discovered some good seafood bars on the pier where you could much away at a platter while watching the waves and the fitness fanatics on the beach below. Star-spotting was disappointingly fruitless, though I did sit in the next booth to Clint Eastwood (old but tall) in a diner for breakfast, and see one ex-pop star elsewhere. Which reminds me ...

Santa Monica and the coast are about 15 miles from downtown LA. Consequently, beach life is important here. There's lots of it, and the water is a lot warmer than that around Scotland - though noticeably not as pure and clean as we get here. Surfing is a big thing in the daytime for many people:



I had my first, and to date only, surfing lesson near Malibu. During the hour of chaos, I managed to impress the instructor by falling off the board more quickly, and frequently, than anyone he'd ever seen. Depressingly, I was even worse than any of the people in the "Special visually-impaired class" he'd instructed the previous day. Surrealy, during one of my many flounderings in the water, I noticed a much older, somewhat wrinkly man surfing nearby with some skill and who looked strangely familiar. "Oh, that's Sting. Got a house up there; sometimes comes down with Tom [Hanks? Cruise?] to ride some waves." informed the patient instructor, waving at some impossibly rich-looking buildings off the beach.

In the evenings, there's a different group of people on the beach at Santa Monica, mainly Hispanics. The beach is free, and as many of these are in low-paid service industry jobs, it's a good entertainment option:


One of the myths about LA is that it's all cars. Despite the nose-to-tail freeways - it isn't, and it's these same people on the beach who have indirectly helped LA and Santa Monica have an impressive public transport system. I travelled a lot on the Big Blue bus routes, as it cost just a dollar or so to get from anywhere to anywhere. A tip - rather than pay 40-50 dollars to go from LAX to Santa Monica, take the shuttlebus at the airport to the bus-stop and pay 1 dollar to get to the same destination.

The bus services were cheap, frequent, clean and fast. Which baffled me, in the city of freeways. But the driver of one bus explained; the people in the service industries, on low pay, couldn't afford things such as rent, cars and so forth. Without a cheap and frequent bus service to get them from places where rent was affordable to the plush gated communities where they worked, the entire city would ground to a halt; lawns would go uncut, restaurants would be short of staff and so forth.

Much of LA is also recognisable from films and TV. "Oh, that's ... hmmm" was a phrase frequently uttered by our posse of wandering tourists. (btw the Hollywood sign on the hill is tiny and disappointing). And, like Chicago, the residents have extremes of health, fitness and weight. Some of those jogging, rollerblading or otherwise being manic on the beachwalks looked just a bit too sculpted and perfect to the eye.

The cultural highlight of the trip was the Getty Center (3 buses through a cross-section of LA), built in the hills above the LA basin. It's made of Italian Marble, carefully constructed to stay standing in all but the strongest earthquake, and is just awesome. And at 1.2 billion dollars construction costs, so it should be.


The place is quiet; with no roads nearby, visitors are taken to the top of the hill on a long tram system. As well as the museum, there's a research institute, outdoor cafe's, and lots of gardens and waterfalls. It's also a great place to look over Santa Monica and to the Pacific:


...downtown LA and beyond:


...and the Hollywood hills, where various movie and tv stars lurked in palatial, high security, houses (the further up the hills your eye went, the more expensive the property):


The Getty is my favourite museum because it's a lot more than just a museum. As well as the collection, the building itself and the location make for a special afternoon out. I came back again for a few hours on the last evening of my trip, to watch the sun set over the Pacific while drinking iced lemonade.

And that was LA. I'll gladly go back - it's probably my favourite city. For various reasons - the insane wealth gap, property prices, strange laws, millions of residents, and the fact that one day it'll all slide into the sea when the "big one" hits - I wouldn't move there, but for a visit of probably the most filmed city on earth, it's well worth it.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Californian adventures, 2004 (1 of 2)

I'm currently going through my pictures of the last four years, trying to get them into a reasonable order, and it's turning into an epic exercise. A few, of trips to Scottish islands and further afield, will put on here. If you have no interest in video games, then skip this post altogether.

May of 2004 obliged me to go to California for the first time, to visit the E3 event. This was, at the time, the largest video game event in the world, consisting of academic events and a massive exhibition of games. As usual I front-loaded it i.e. get the work-part out of the way so can enjoy the rest of the trip. So a couple of days after getting through immigration control at LAX (a surprisingly downheel airport considering it serves Hollywood and the richest parts of California), I ended up at the conference centre in downtown LA:


Registration was quick, despite there being several hundred people in the queues. The conference centre itself was absurdly huge, and I suspect not much smaller than the island I now live on in square footage. And it needed to be, with the number of floors, conference rooms, huge lecture theatres, and above all, this:


What the picture utterly fails to convey is that:

  • the Nintendo stand, huge though it was, was only a small part of the exhibition. Microsoft and Sony had equally massive stands, as did a variety of game developers and publishers.

  • the room was very, very, noisy. Imagine a rave, but with (in Spinal Tap mode) the volume pushed up to 11 and the lasers in overdrive. That's pretty much the floor of the E3 exhibition.

  • there were many thousands of people in this one room, from all countries, demographics and ages.

Being a borderline Nintendo fanboy, I spent most of the time in that area of the exhibition space. Part of this was spent patiently queuing to go into a back room where groups of people would have their first go on the Nintendo DS. Under the strict eyes of security guards ensuring no-one took pictures or sneaked out a device, I had a few minutes in the middle of a group of around 100 near-hysterical, and mainly Japanese, video game obsessives oooh-ing and aaaah-ing at their first go.

And then it's back outside to the main floor for more sampling of soon-to-be-released games:


One of the best was Donkey Kong on the Gamecube. It's one of those that you watch other people playing for about 5 seconds, and you just know it's going to be popular. Bang on the drums in the correct way to control your character on the screen. Good marketing; people were drawn in by haphazard drumming sound of several people playing Donkey Kong:


The conference (variable quality) and the exhibition (heart-pumping stuff) made for an engrossing few days. When they finished, it was time to get out into the Californian sunshine and explore a bit - see next posting...

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Outer Hebrides sunrises

A winter sunrise on Lewis, taken by the dad of IslandBoy:



One of the Leurbost valley, taken by IslandBoy himself:


From August last year, dawn over the hills of Harris by Redshift27:


A brace from Berneray. Here's one from June 26th, nearly the longest day of the year, from Tom Gardner:


...and finally one from a nearby spot taken a few Septembers ago by Niall Corbet:


Friday, 10 August 2007

Stornoway: the Monaco of the Outer Hebrides?

Looks like there's money in the IT industry in the Outer Hebrides.

This is a great picture by Bluewave, on several different levels. It's taken in Stornoway, the largest town in the Outer Hebrides (and the only place where you can sometimes have to wait to cross the road). Truly the cosmopolitan capital of our islands.


Some things to note:

  • The youth of the town admiring the car. She's looking excited ("It's big and red and looks really powerful"), he's looking nervous because she's excited and because his souped-up 1983 Ford Escort which he drives around and around Stornoway every friday night just cannot compete. Maybe he'll lose her to "Ferrari man", he worries.

  • The personalised number plate.

  • The symbol on the car (above the right exhaust) - does the owner roars up to church in it every Sunday?

Good luck to the owner for "making it". The car goes against ingrained assumptions about these islands. (Remembering one particular tourist from last year who asked, in all seriousness, if "Passing places were built for horse and carts to take a rest in").

Cue such people visiting the islands, assuming it's a backwards, "so last century" backwater, with everyone doffing their tweed caps, growing potatos and herding sheep, then being overtaken by a red blur of a Ferrari while waiting in one of those passing places. "Who's that?" asks the shaken tourist. "Och, he's local, works in IT" replies the passing crofter, while using wireless broadband on his laptop to calibrate the GPS coordinates of his flock. 

Perhaps - like Monaco - all those boats in the harbour in Stornoway are not fishing-related, and some of the more palatial yachts belong to the increasing "Lewis millionaire society"? (How long till there is a gated community in Plasterfield?) Will have to have a closer look next time I visit the big city. Perhaps Stornoway, if it attracts - or generates - wealth such as this, should consider a bid to go onto the F1 Grand Prix calendar? 

In the meantime, where's my Ferrari?

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

My first video game "dealer" goes under...

The recent turbulent events at Evesham Technology have stirred up some memories from childhood and teen years.

Evesham is a small place - about 23,000 people - and was (when I was young) a very agricultural town with big markets for trade in local fruit and vegetables. Like the home county Worcestershire it's a forgotten place (most people have heard of it, though they can't place where it is). The Wikipedia entry damns it with faint praise: "Evesham could reasonably be described as a pleasant rather than an exciting place to visit."

And it's the kind of place where some things don't change; the barber is still a place where he offers you "Something for the weekend, sir?" - as hinted by the sign (which am sure has not changed in decades) outside:


It's when I was young, and bored in town one day, that I noticed a tiny one room shop being opened in the Crown Courtyard. The shop sold mainly games computers, and various games software (mostly cassette tapes).

"Evesham Micros" it was called. During several years of geekily (nerdily?) hanging out there, I got to test and buy a lot of games, and also do some probably not-that-legal work for the owners. They didn't mind me hanging around, as I had geek status and it tended to attract other geeks to the shop. I remember (just) Richard Austin the now high-profile owner, when he was poorer, and had a tiny and rubbish car that customers sniggered at.

I'd already purchased a Binatone games console a few years previously, which made me top geek of my home village (until Neil's rich parents bought him an Atari 2600 and all the games he wanted, overnight resulting in all the geeks switching their allegiance).

But it was from Evesham Micros that I bought my first four programmable games machines. First, the ZX81, which made me feel like a scientist on the cutting edge of technology (this was a computer advertised as being powerful enough to run a nuclear power station):


A week after purchasing the ZX81 I returned to buy the 16Kb RAM pack ("Sixteen times the memory! Infinite possibilities!") that fitted badly into the back. A day later I returned to buy some sellotape to keep said RAM pack in place. This was my brief foray into video game design and production, managing to programme two games which Evesham Micros sold in their shop (I think it was about 20 copies sold in the end). Dreams of being the next Atari abounded, but work on that summers harvest pushed them to one side.

A year later, the 48K ZX Spectrum. This one was my breakthrough business venture (aged 13), as with my double tape deck recorder I was able to run off copies of various games, selling on C30 tapes at school. The Hobbit and Trader were particularly popular, as was anything by Ultimate (e.g. Jetpac, Lunar Jetman, Cookie). Ah for the rubber keyboard, and the printer that sparkled (text being burnt into the silver paper) in the dark: 


Having spent rather too much of my ZX Spectrum earnings in video arcades in South Wales, I wasn't able to afford a BBC Micro B, but instead got the "chopped off" version, the Acorn Electron. It was okay, though the lack of a "BBC micro mode 7" meant gameplay was usually inferior to the Beeb computer:


And finally from this shop, and in a strange parallel to the winner of this years Apprentice, one of Alan Sugars earlier products, the Amstrad 6128. This strange hybrid of gaming machine (being particularly heavy on text adventures), small business computer and home PC still has its uses, and I usually tap away on it when I return to the old country for visits:


I moved away to University in 1988 (nearly 20 years ago now), and the shop moved to larger premises several times, changing its way along the way to and finally Evesham Technology. Over time it ditched the games side of thing and specialised in it's own brand of PCs, gaining a high reputation for quality. 

I mainly forgot about video games (apart from PC ones), discovered Usenet and Newsgroups, and started messing about on the emerging Internet until 1997 when Nintendo released the N64 and my second period of video game playing began.

+ + + + +  

I started getting emails from Evesham contacts which sounded like things were going wrong there a while back. Less than 18 months ago, the home computing initiative that the company had put much of its resource into was stopped (by a Mr G. Brown, now of 10 Downing Street). Since then, the company has been struggling, and last week it seems to have gone into a pre-planned administration, followed immediately by a buy-out.

Though reports are a little confusing, what is clear is that most of the staff are redundant. In a small town of Eveshams size, that's pretty bad. On top of this, the company now appears to be controlled by people previously behind Time Computers, a brand not exactly known for high standards of quality. Time are past masters at the art of going under, then reappearing immediately shorn of debt.

So it doesn't bode well for Evesham or Evesham Technology. Ironically, the tiny shop it was launched in is now the home of a good solicitor I use, so every once in a while I'm back in there, trying to imagine how the place used to be. It's probably a sign of aging, but everything always seems to come full circle.

(nb non of the pictures in this article are by me. Unfortunately I never took pictures of my own consoles - wish I had)

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Summer over?

August 7th, 2:12pm. Put on jumper for the first time this summer to continue working at home.


Monday, 6 August 2007

Office view

In the previous four buildings I've lived in, the view from my office has been:

  • a war memorial, cherry blossom trees, and neds trying to hide buckfast in flower beds when the police car was patrolling the village

  • a school being repaired

  • the tops of buses on Maryhill Road in Glasgow (bad mistake, that accommodation) 

  • snow and streetlights - here's one I took of then:



However, this is the first house I've lived in where the view from my office consists of people paddling by the bottom of my garden in canoes and kayaks (I still don't know the difference between the two). Here's a snap from a couple of days ago:


Sunday, 5 August 2007

Baseball: first attempt at YouTube upload

Kinda spurred on by the fact that several other residents of Berneray are now uploading videos to YouTube, Bebo and other sites (this island is so Web 2.0), I've finally decided to have a go myself before I look like some kind of techno-luddite.

So here's a video I took at the Sox vs Blue Jays baseball match in Chicago a week or so ago. Note this was taken on a digital picture camera (the Sony DSC-P120), not a proper movie camera, so I wasn't expecting anything great in terms of quality:


It seems to have come out okay. On the PC, the movie (as downloaded straight from the camera) is a reasonable quality mpeg movie. It's lost something in uploading to YouTube in that the picture has become blockier (possibly a sharp reduction in the colour palette) and the lighting isn't as great. But as a first attempt, and doing a straight upload (without looking at any help stuff), it's not bad.

YouTube is pretty much simplicity itself to upload to (one of the key foundations of a successful Web 2.0 site), and the camera - which produces nearly all my blog pics - is a good one. Heck, with a proper digital movie camera, some editing software and a bit of time experimenting, I wonder what could be produced. Which reminds me ...

... on a related point, it's worth pointing out ( I was initially tempted to refer to it as "The Gaelic YouTube", but it's rather different in several ways. Best go have a look yourself; they've already got an interesting stash of some good quality local content up there. The Stornoway Canoe Club one is great - now that's how you really test if a piece of kit is waterproof or not ...