Archive: Scotland

I recently learned about a Twitter account that campaigns against Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee’s excellent culture hub in the centre of the city.

Typical tweets include:

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I went to see Friends with Benefits a few weeks ago, and it was pretty awful. The highlight is one funny joke about iPads in the middle. The rest is just mush. No harm in that of course. But the great thing is that I saw it in Dundee, at the Odeon, which is about a ten minute drive away from the DCA.

It’s funny because I was only just thinking about how extraordinarily well-served by cinemas Dundee is. I live about a 40 minute walk away from three cinemas. Two are “mainstream”, and the other is the DCA, which usually shows films that the others wouldn’t. The DCA shows some films that I really like. While the two mainstream ones may not be in the “town centre”, at least they are there.

Where I used to live, in Kirkcaldy, no such luck. There is the Adam Smith Theatre, which shows a small selection of films that were on general release six months ago. Besides that, you had to go to Dunfermline, a half hour drive away, then drive to the outskirts of that to get to the nearest cinema.

Off the top of my head, I think I have seen six films at the cinema this year. Three of them were at the DCA; the other three were at the Odeon (one of these films was also shown at the DCA). Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe I’m just a snob. But the three I saw at the DCA were by far and away the better three.

I understand the arguments against the public subsidy for the DCA. But the idea that, if the DCA wasn’t there, a multiplex Odeon would magically sprout up in the city centre, is a tad fanciful.

Cinemas are rare beasts these days. It’s no conspiracy. It’s because commercially it doesn’t add up the way it used to because of changes in society (for the positive) over the past few decades. With this in mind, I have felt lucky to live somewhere with as many as three cinemas nearby.

After moving to Dundee a year ago, the DCA quickly became one of my favourite things about the city and I celebrate its existence. The great thing is that, for those who do not like what is shown at the DCA, there are two other cinemas that are just a stone’s throw away (even if they are not in the “town centre”).

I would hate for the most unique cinema of the three to go.

Last weekend my brother and I headed along to Scone Palace to witness the finish of this year’s Rally of Scotland, the penultimate round of this year’s Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Scone Palace is only about half an hour from where I live, and five minutes from where my brother lives. So it seemed silly not to go.

Neuville takes out a hay bale

I have a bit of an on–off relationship with rallying. I used to enjoy watching the World Rally Championship a decade ago, when Channel 4 had some excellent coverage. But even then, it was never as satisfying a television spectacle as watching circuit racing.

Often there is no footage of the major incidents in a rally, and you just have to take people’s word for what happened. Sometimes there is footage, but taken by a spectator at the quality of a You’ve Been Framed camcorder calamity.

This sketchy experience must be amplified if you are standing in the middle of a stage, somewhere remote, in the freezing cold, Thermos in hand, bobblehat on head. A car whizzes past, then you wait for a minute or so until the next one comes. All part of the experience I guess, and something I want to do in the future.

Another slight issue is the fact that the stage you attend is only a small fraction of the overall rally. If you attend a later stage, chances are that the rally has pretty much already been decided. Prior to Scone Palace, Andreas Mikkelsen had a 30 second lead. That is difficult to overcome in a couple of two minute long stages!

Andreas Mikkelsen drives to the podium

But Mikkelsen, driving for the Škoda UK team, was the chosen man for the win. So much was this the case that when we entered the area around Scone Palace we were approached by a girl handing out Škoda flags that said “Go Andreas!” She said that the flags were “for when he wins”.

I raised my eyebrows as there were still two stages to go, and anything can happen in rallying! But it must be said that as a PR exercise it worked out pretty well. Most people had these Skoda flags and were planting them in the grass. Couple this with the several representatives from Škoda staff, and you would be forgiven for thinking that Scone Palace is in the Czech Republic. Škoda had conquered Scone.

Thierry Neuville Supporters' Club

Having said that, the Thierry Neuville Supporters’ Club were also there to show their support for the Belgian Peugeot driver.

Škoda’s nice flags could have backfired. Guy Wilks was the perfect demonstration of the fact that anything can happen in rallying. He has had a pretty rotten season, and a pretty rotten Rally of Scotland. He hit a gatepost on the final stage and failed to finish.

As rally stages go, Scone Palace is compact and spectator-friendly. This stage was just two minutes long, and was repeated in quick succession. It also doubled up as the finish. So there was a reasonably large crowd, and commentary from Rally Radio on the loudspeakers.

Aside from the relatively sanitised main spectator area, there was a bit of scope to wander around and see further along the stage from a neighbouring field.

Guy Wilks blasts along the stage

Overall, I really enjoyed my trip to the rally. It was quite a different experience to the World Series by Renault, which I attended a couple of months ago.

The really striking thing was the sound of the cars, which is totally different to the TV. Something else, that I didn’t get so much at World Series by Renault, was the smell of the fuel wafting slowly up after a car has gone by. Worryingly, I felt myself starting to crave it!

After the rally had finished as the front-running drivers were preparing for the podium ceremony, the access was amazing. Top-class international rally drivers were just standing around chatting, and their cars were right there for all to see up close.

The top three at the finish

It is the first rally we have ever been to, and we certainly enjoyed ourselves. We plan on attending next year, perhaps even going to a stage further afield if we can plan ahead.

And congratulations to Andreas Mikkelsen. It may not have been clear from what I wrote above, but you cannot begrudge him this victory. He has come so close twice this year, only to be denied his first IRC victory. Then he came to Scotland and this time it was his rally.

Andreas and Ola, arms aloft

All my photos from the Rally of Scotland

There are lots of great things about the railway, but the industry’s use of language is not one of them.

I have often been amazed by the linguistic tangles conductors often find themselves in when they try to “talk posh” during announcements. Clearly they are not trained about the importance of plain English. This problem was covered excellently by the Guardian’s Mind Your Langauge blog calling for railspeak to be terminated.

Another recent article on the BBC News website looked over some of the dodgy phrasing of railway delay excuses. The cryptic but common explanations include “tanking train toilet” (the loos won’t flush) and “poor railhead adhesion” (the track is slippery).

On the ubiquitous “signalling problems”, the article notes that this is usually caused by cable theft.

I don’t know why they don’t say ‘It’s because some so-and-so has stolen 150 yards of cable.’ That’s going to get people on-side.

This evening my eyebrows were raised by a tweet I spotted from the National Rail Enquiries ScotRail Twitter feed.

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This “DISRUPTION CLEARED” is a dead body. It can’t just be me that feels that there could be a more sensitive way of describing this than “DISRUPTION CLEARED”.

Some television presentation is designed to tell you what programmes are coming up. Others might tell you the time.

This ident, on the other hand, tells you what country you are in — just in case you found yourself sitting in your front room and suddenly wondering where you are.

I was pretty excited to learn this week about Domesday Reloaded. The Domesday project aimed to take a snapshot of British life in 1986. 25 years on, the BBC are looking to update it to document the changes that have taken place since then.

I have been interested in the Domesday project for a while. The idea that a snapshot of Britain was taken, in the form of maps, photographs and text. Yet, the data was unavailable to most people.

The Domesday project was as much an ambitious experiment with technology as anything else. The technology was just about available, but a lot of pioneering work had to be done, and the hardware required for it was prohibitively expensive, leaving many of the contributors somewhat miffed.

Since then, it has become one of the most famous examples of digital obsolesence. This was due to a combination of the technology required to read the discs becoming increasingly rare, and idiosyncratic code.

The Domesday project came at a time when the technology was available, but the standards were not yet there to make it stable enough for long-term preservation, or even easy access in the short term. It’s a reminder that digital technologies are hugely enabling, yet frighteningly fragile.

Then there are the copyright issues surrounding both the content and the technology.

Joys of browsing Domesday Reloaded

The BBC should be applauded for finally managing to open up some of the data to the public on the web. The Domesday project was created before the web was invented. This isn’t how the content was designed to be viewed, so navigation is a bit cumbersome.

But aside from this gripe, the Domesday Reloaded website is turning out to be a fascinating resource.

I was born in 1986, the same year in which the Domesday project disc was published. So the Britain described here is a place that I don’t remember. But enough of it is familiar for it to feel incredibly relevant to me. It’s almost like being given a little upgrade to my memory, so that I can have snippets of knowledge from just before I was born.

Take the photographs for D-block GB-328000-690000 — the centre of Kirkcaldy, my hometown (D-block being one of the 4km by 3km areas the UK was divided into). It took me a little while to recognise “Kirkcaldy’s busy High Street”. But once I spotted British Home Stores, I was right there.

Yet, despite the familiarity, it is almost a completely different world. My memory of the High Street before it was pedestrianised is very limited. But it is just within touching distance of my memory for me to feel a strong connection with it.

The text entries are also fascinating. Most of the contributions were provided by primary schools. A decision was taken by the Domesday project not to edit the contributions, so the quality and style of writing varies from area to area.

As such, what strikes me the most is that it informs you as much about the prejudices of the school pupils and their teachers as it does about the area. It also retains their poor spelling and strange grammar.

For instance, an entry from Dundee (D-block GB-336000-732000) called ‘Traffic in and out’ is a basic survey of vehicles travelling on a road, with guesses as to where the vehicles are going and why. It lacks the academic rigour you would ideally want from a historical document.

But while some of the entries may seem banal, it was designed to be this way. The aim was to genuinely document society by capturing childrens’ curiosity with everything. This way it wouldn’t leave out what adults perceive as being obvious, when it wouldn’t necessarily be so obvious to someone in 1,000 years.

Missing D-blocks in Dundee on Domesday Reloaded

The really big shame is that not every part of Britain was documented. I could understand remote rural areas not being included. But sadly some highly populated areas have also been missed out. For instance, two D-blocks that cover the centre and east of Dundee lie blank, as does much of London.

But what exists is a joy. Even in the little amount of scanning I have done, I have already learned new information about the area I live in, which has set my mind racing and inspired me to investigate further.

Challenges for the modern day equivalents

What also struck me is how we actually already have readily-accessible modern-day equivalents of the Domesday project, almost by accident. The BBC is asking for users to update the content for D-blocks that were documented in 1986, to take an equivalent snapshot of 2011. I may go out and take some photographs for that.

But this sort of local information is staggeringly well documented already. We have Wikipedia, which can be edited by anyone but retains an academic approach that the Domesday project lacked. As such, it is a treasure trove of local information that can probably be relied on more.

Meanwhile, Google Earth and Google Maps provide masses of images of all corners of the country. It absolutely dwarfs what’s on Domesday Reloaded.

But the big question, which can’t be answered at the moment, is whether the wealth of information available on the web can be packaged up into a Domesday-style snapshot and preserved forever. The challenges of web preservation are massive.

Like the Domesday project, we could find the digital information almost slipping through our hands. The BBC know that themselves. With a stroke of a pen, it was decided that a significant chunk of British web heritage will be removed when the BBC removes some of its archived pages from the web.

Yes to fairer votes

It will come as little surprise to long-time readers of this blog that I will be voting yes in the alternative vote referendum on Thursday. But now that the focus of this blog is less on politics, I haven’t actually written much about it. With just a few days to go, until polling day, I have decided that now is the time.

The deceptive claims of the No to AV campaign have been comprehensively taken apart umpteen times elsewhere, I am sure. But one section of the No to AV leaflet particularly irritated me.

No to AV finish line

It shows a group of four runners crossing a finish line on a running track. A big arrow points to the trailing runner who appears to cross the finish line in fourth place: “The winner under AV”. The message? “Awooga! AV is unfair because the loser wins!”

I don’t know a great deal about athletics, but I am pretty sure that there is a fixed finish line. The first person to complete the set distance wins the race. It might be 100 metres. In this photograph here, it is the man in blue who ran 100 metres first.

But what is the distance in a voting system? I have tried to work out what it is under first past the post, but I cannot tell. Here are some examples from last year’s UK General Election. Can you see where the finish line is?

2010 UK parliamentary election result for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath

It is pretty clear in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, where I used to live. With 64.5% of the vote, a clear majority were in favour of the Labour candidate.

2010 UK parliamentary election result for Dundee East

In my neighbouring constituency of Dundee East it is somewhat less clear. No party received a majority of the votes. Second-placed Labour took 33.3% of the vote. But the winning SNP took 37.8%. It’s not very cool. The SNP might not be what the majority of voters wanted.

Anyway, we have narrowed the first past the post winning threshold down to something between 33.3% and 37.8%.

2010 UK parliamentary election result for Argyll and Bute

But looking at the results for Argyll and Bute, the “finish line” analogy becomes really confusing. The first-placed Lib Dems took only 31.6% of the votes. But Labour had 33.3% of the votes in Dundee East, and came only second there.

In first past the post, the finish line changes position. In fact, there is no finish line. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a majority of the votes. Theoretically you could get an extremely low share of the vote, far from a majority, yet still win under first past the post.

So which is the system where the loser can win?

Alternative vote sets a threshold where candidates must aim to gain the support of the majority of voters. A candidate is not deemed to be the winner until he crosses the finish line, which is unambiguously 50%.

(It is theoretically possible for a candidate to win under alternative vote without crossing that threshold — but only in unusual circumstances and after all other options have been exhausted.)

Alternative vote may not be perfect (although the perfect voting system doesn’t exist anyway). But it is a whole lot more desirable than the current rotten system.

According to the BBC News website, there has been a nasty outbreak of “man” in the Tayside and Central area.

Screenshot of the BBC News website with four headlines in a row beginning with the word 'man'

It has become de rigueur for every election to have at least one online quiz that tells you how you should vote. The 2011 Scottish Parliament electon has Scottish Vote Compass.

I have not exactly found myself becoming hooked on the Scottish Parliament election campaign. To be honest, I care much more about the alternative vote referendum. Nevertheless, I thought I would give it a go and see what it said.

On this chart, I am represented by the star icon towards the bottom-right.

My position on the Scottish Vote Compass

It is perhaps no real surprise to learn that the Liberal Democrats are my closest match. The Greens are second apparently, although it doesn’t really look like it from the graph to me.

While I was at it, I decided to once again take the daddy of all political quizzes, the original Political Compass.

This time my score was:
Economic Left/Right: 0.50
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.51

So I have moved a bit to the left, and have become slightly less libertarian, since the last time I took it in 2009 — a reversal of the trend.

What qualifications do you need to become a bouncer? I think it helps to be big, although I once witnessed a great spectacle in Kirkcaldy when a tiny woman strong-armed someone out the door when a fight was about to break out.

Beyond that, I am not sure. I only ask because so often they seem not to be very bright to say the least.

When I tried to enter a pub a few weeks ago, I was stopped and asked for my ID. There is nothing terribly unusual about that. But in this instance, the bouncer was strangely reluctant to let me in.

He peered at my driving license. He inspected my face.

“The guy on your ID isn’t wearing glasses — but you are.”

Err, correct.

“You’ve got a beard. The guy on your ID doesn’t have one.”

Err, yeah. That’s because I’ve grown a beard.

“The guy on your ID looks quite a bit younger than you.”

By now, I was exasperated. I said quite pointedly, “Well yes, that’s because it was taken when I was 17.”

And let’s not even start on the curious idea that I should not be allowed into a pub because I look older than the photograph on my perfectly valid ID.

I am writing to you direct from my new flat. It has been a hectic week, trying to move up here at the same time as a particularly nasty cold snap has hit the UK, and the east of Scotland in particular.

I was hoping to get the whole thing pretty much finished this week – I had even booked the week off work in order to get as much done as possible. Instead I am sitting here having not done very much, and even feel like it is a major achievement just to be sitting here.

I got the keys last Friday, and travelled up with some bits and pieces. There was loads of kitchen stuff that I bought two years ago at the Woolworths closing down sale! I had my staff discount on top of all the discounts that were going on anyway, so I got plenty of bargains.

Over the weekend, the snow worsened. A trip to Ikea was planned for Monday, but I decided to postpone it until Tuesday as the weather was looking like it was due to be a bit better. But the trip down was pretty hairy. I am pretty glad that my dad decided he would drive the van that we had hired. The conditions would probably have got the better of me – as they got the better of dad a few times.

We hadn’t been in Ikea for more than perhaps 15 minutes when an announcement was made that they would be closing the store in 60 minutes! That is not enough time to do Ikea properly, so the whole rest of the time was a completely mad stress-rush.

Considering the time constraints, I think I did a pretty good job, but there are still glaring gaps. I don’t have shelves for all my CDs. I don’t have a bed for the second bedroom. And most of all, I still don’t have a sofa. All there is to sit on is one office-type chair that I bought for the computer desk.

After taking it all up to Dundee, we had real trouble getting the van out of the snow. Luckily, the main roads between Kirkcaldy and Dundee have been largely okay whenever I have made the journey. But as soon as you turn off onto a side-street, the snow gets pretty bad.

I can’t get anywhere near my proper parking space, and it looks like all of my neighbours have their cars properly stranded. We made the mistake of being a bit too ambitious coming in, instead of parking on the street before (as I have done today!). Luckily, the neighbours seem really good and helped us get out!

There is still an awful lot to do. My bed has been built, so I am sleeping here tonight. Tomorrow, an engineer from Virgin Media is due to arrive to install my broadband, television and telephone line. Unfortunately, I still  haven’t got an HD television to test out the new HD Virgin Media box! I ordered it a week ago but it hasn’t arrived here yet – not that I’m surprised due to the snow. Hopefully it won’t be too much of a problem for Mr Virgin Media.

Meanwhile, I am kicking myself for some of the things I have forgotten to bring with me! Despite owning two phone chargers, I have neglected to bring either of them – so I have to keep remembering to go easy on my phone usage. That means that this little stay at my flat will be short-lived. I will go back to “old home” tomorrow afternoon, and I probably won’t return here until Monday evening.

I will get moved in one day…