Thursday, 22 December 2005

Flickr: review

I submitted images to Flickr for the first time today. Flickr is an image-sharing system where you can upload and "tag" images. People can then search or browse across images in a number of ways.

I liked it. Flickr doesn't seem to do anything revolutionary that hasn't been done elsewhere - it's popularity, I suspect, is due to simplicity. Creating an account is done largely through Yahoo. Once that's done, you use a standard browse system to find images and upload them. Add the tags and optional descriptions, and, well, that's it.

The quality of the final images seems acceptable, with some compression happening; you can view pictures in a range of sizes. The "cool", friendly and laid-back style of writing, in the support and instructions, does get a bit grating after a while. The other annoying thing is the lack of a progress bar, which would be useful when batch-uploading images.

There does appear to be lots of value-added functions and options, some of which are free and some of which you'd need a paid-for pro account. I did like the way I could link my Typepad blog and Flickr to make it easier to embed pictures from the latter into entries of the former. There's also an area where independent developers can provide Flickr-compatible applications that you can use your image collection in (how very Web 2.0!).

This morning, I took five pictures in and around the mobile library van that visits us every three weeks. Not the best pictures I've taken, but the van does rock in the wind and it was pelting down at the time. Here are the pictures:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/silversprite/

Wednesday, 21 December 2005

Civil partnerships, the Western Isles, and perceptions of society

Unfortunately, the Western Isles often makes an appearance in some sections of the media for negative reasons. This week it’s no exception.

Civil partnerships.

Here, the registrars are refusing to carry out the ceremonies associated with registering a civil partnership. Though, the partnership legalistics are still being carried out for anyone who wants them. Cue the black hats / white hats approach in select media: "They're all an extreme bunch of people living on some islands in an extreme location". Do a google search and a whole mass of articles and websites appear, though most appear to reference the same article in The Scotsman.

The truth, not surprisingly, is a lot more complex.

The various strands of Christian faith do have a stronger "influence" here than in any other part of the UK, though this "influence" is comparable to some parts of rural Scandinavia. "Influence" itself is probably not the right word. To put it another way; the relationship between the churches, the perceived and actual "traditional" ways of life and the social structure is more fuzzy, complex and less clear-cut than it is on the mainland.

However, the implication that "everyone is of one mind and that mind is closed" is twaddle. Example. Recently, a spiritualist healer on Berneray held a healing event on the island. A lot of people turned up, creating possibly the first traffic jam ever on the island. Was there a protest or a picket outside? No. Hence, no report in the media. Lack of controversy = lack of sales of newspapers.

Yes, there were a few letters in a local newspaper. However, these were swiftly rebutted by other people. Some churchgoers didn't like it but they didn’t interfere, and were and are still friendly, sociable and helpful to the spiritualist healer.

Back to those letters – this is the problem, which plays into the hands of lazy journalism. State an extreme position, and it is easy to rent-a-bigot who is happy to be interviewed spouting extremist stuff, thus giving the position extra gravitas. My experience of living in a number of communities around the UK is that bigots and extremists aren't found in just the Western Isles – every community, without exception, has a few. They usually pop up in parish or community council meetings, or writing letters to local newspapers that wouldn’t be accepted in more mainstream publications. In Scotland, after much (too much) experience, I've come to believe that well-meaning community councils in particular unfortunately attract these people, like iron filings to a magnet.

On the mainland, these tend to be isolated individuals. Here, they are a bit more organised, and can use social and family networks to achieve a higher profile. That still doesn't mean that their views are representative of the population as a whole; far from it.

In addition, the relative ecumenical profile of the Outer Hebrides does attract people who think it will be a more 'fertile' ground for their brand of fundamentalism. An example was the last general election, where one of the candidates here was a charismatic chap called James George Hargreaves. I found him an okay and friendly chap to speak to on the phone, though we didn’t really touch on fundamental issues. The point was – he chose this particular parliamentary seat to contest because it had the best chance of success - as you can see, it's not exactly the closest seat to his home location. And, this kind of person are more media-savvy.

It is here that a perception problem may lie. There is a stronger peer-pressure amongst some parts of local society to conform more to the traditional or "no change" line. This is quite possibly what is happening with some of the registrars and council people; they don't mind the concept of civil partnerships and quite possibly welcome it, but within their social or work network there can be problems in saying this.

Some balance. Most (in fact, nearly all) of the churchgoers here – that I've spoken to – are open minded, moderate, friendly, sociable and helpful people. The Scotsman quote:

Work which may be done on Sunday must fall into the "works of necessity and mercy" definition, which allows churchgoers to be nurses, firefighters or coastguards, but not to open shops, play football or watch television.



...is a prime example of taking an unusual situation and exaggerating it till it becomes untrue. Most people – and that includes churchgoers – watch TV on a Sunday. Contrary to popular belief, many people (including churchgoers) do hang out their washing on a Sunday, socialise with other people, and do various fun things. The Internet is heavily used then; the peaks and troughs from hourly hit charts for Sundays indicate that churchgoers are looking at our website between services on the Sabbath. (And on that point, the church elders have been very supportive and helpful with things Internet and website here on Berneray).

A few blogs have concluded that this must be a miserable place to live because of the civil partnership issue. Extrapolating something absurd from a misrepresentative article, without checking out the facts or even visiting the place, is particularly weak. I live here, and can tell you that it's anything but miserable. Yes, it isn't perfect, and there are a few miserable buggers here, but that goes for everywhere. But I live on an island that has no pollution, no crime, no traffic, a high standard of living, stunning scenery that pictures don't do justice to, and a real community where people – even with very different beliefs and practises – are friendly, sociable and helpful. The locals often have a very self-deprecating humour that is possibly lost without local knowledge.

And that, I suspect, is a prime reason why this area is often slagged off in a few specific parts of the media: jealousy and resentment. Some people cannot stand the fact that someone else lives in a better place than them, and they can't handle it. I've met a few of these people; best summed up by "bitter and boring".

Don't take my word for it – or that of anyone else, or any story you've read in the press. Visit for yourself. See the islands. Speak to the people. Socialise. Form your own opinion from your own experience. Or just read the odd article or watch the odd news report featuring rent-a-bigot, be happy to be misinformed, and stay ignorant. It's your choice.

So here's the challenge to the wider media. Carry out a survey of the views of Western Isles residents. Do it on a one-to-one, rather than group, basis in order to protect privacy and remove any social peer pressure. See what residents really, honestly, think about issues such as civil partnerships, equality, religious and spiritual issues, society, the family and the like. And I'll bet my last bag of peat that the overall picture is a lot closer to that of the mainland and other western European countries than the "Everyone's a miserable bigot" model.

Tuesday, 6 December 2005

All is quiet...

One noticeable aspect of the weather for most of the last few weeks has been the lack of wind. Today was yet another glorious day, with a blazing red sunset and mostly blue skies. The lack of stormy winds mean that we can concentrate on looking at the views, when going for a walk, rather than focusing on not being blown into the sea.

Speaking of colourful skies; I've just updated the Isle of Berneray community website. Here's a couple [1] [2] of excellent photographs taken by our Marxist friends (they ride a Siberian motorbike and sidecar and go to Cuba for their holidays) a few weeks ago.

Sunday, 4 December 2005

"Disgusted of Berneray" writes...

Finally, after more than a year here, I've plucked up the courage to write a letter to the Stornoway Gazette. It's on the subject of road tunnels (in that, it would be a good idea if we had a few to connect up the Outer Hebrides to the mainland). Refreshingly, the newspaper website links to a copy of the full letter. I wonder what replies it will generate. I suspect there will be a few along the lines of "Daft idea, as no-one will pay for it" - which misses the point. But we will see.

The Gazette is possibly the only newspaper in the UK - or even the world - where you can write a letter of essay length and have it published, unedited. It's one of the highlights of our week. Many of the letters are of epic length, quoting biblical scripture and obscure religious reference that tax the most knowledgeable church goer. Most of the rest concern the applications to cover much of north and west Lewis in wind turbines. So mine might make a refreshing change; the editorial for this week encourages debate on the "tunnel" issue. I await next weeks edition with interest.

Saturday, 26 November 2005

Creeping towards Broadband

On the radio a few weeks ago, it was quoted that "99.63% of the UK population have access to Broadband". Guess who live in the remaining 0.37% percent...


Thus is the trade-off for living in a genuinely remote place. Here, we are going to get the Connected Communities (CC) broadband service. BT converted some of the exchanges in the  Outer Hebrides - namely the ones with the largest number of lines - but left the smaller exchanges alone.


CC will be a wireless broadband service that uses a diamond-shaped dish on the side of your house and a number of relays. All of the hospitals and schools are signed up, and have 6Mb Broadband access through it. Homes, when they get it, have a range of packages. These start at 19.99 for a 1Mb package, which CC have cheekily described in their e-spam today as "attractive". How this is "attractive" when most other people in the UK can get 8Mb, free calls, and a bundle of other goodies for 15 quid a month is beyond me.


Anyway, they've been talking about it for nigh on three years; when they started, it was "state of the art". Now it's about a generation behind contemporary mainland broadband. Maybe it'll be good/reliable. The latest is that from December 7th we can sign up through the website at http://www.hebrides.net/, following which we'll be given a date for installation.


Watch this space...

Friday, 25 November 2005

No rush for the deckchairs

I like travelling on Calmac ferries - well, except when it's anything above a force 6 on the open sea. With predicted bad weather, their website is disarmingly honest about the probability of sailings. Here's a couple of snippets from their website at the moment:
Due to the weather forecast for the next couple of days, the Master of the vessel has indicated that the following sailing may be affected from Stornoway and Ullapool; Thursday p.m - doubtful Friday a.m - extremely doubtful Friday p.m - extremely doubtful Saturday a.m - doubtful.

Here's another:
M V Isle of Lewis will attempt a crossing from Ullapool to Stornoway at approximately 1130.

I like this. Kind of "Well, we might get there. Or we might not. And you might want to avoid a full fried breakfast before boarding."

Thursday, 24 November 2005

Indoors

It hasn't been too bad here. Windy all day - from the north, with the occasional snow flurry. Unfortunately the only weather combination that forces me to stay indoors - high winds and hail (ouch!) is currently rapping away at my windows.

The weather forecasts from the met office are becoming more entertaining:

Severe Gales, Blizzards & Heavy Snow
Affecting Eilean Siar, Highland & Orkney Islands
Heavy snow showers and gale force northerly winds will give blizzard conditions at times for the rest of today. The wind will gust to 70mph in association with heavy snow showers at low levels in coastal areas exposed to the northerly gales, and more generally over ground above 600m. The public are advised to take extra care (Really? Damn; I thought I'd go out in shorts and t-shirt and mow the lawn). 

Inshore forecast
Ardnamurchan Point to Cape Wrath including the Outer Hebrides.

24 hour forecast:
Wind: northwest veering north 7 to severe gale 9, perhaps storm 10 later around the Outer Hebrides.
Weather: showers becoming wintry.
Visibility: good.
Sea State: rough or very rough becoming high in north and west.
Outlook for the following 24 hours:
Wind: north 7 to severe gale 9, possibly storm 10 at first near the Outer Hebrides.
Weather: squally wintry showers.
Visibility: good.
Sea State: rough or very rough, but high or very high in north and west.

Shipping Forecast (I do wish they'd stop putting it in CAPITALS):

ROCKALL MALIN HEBRIDES BAILEY FAIR ISLE FAEROES
NORTHWEST VEERING NORTH GALE 8 TO STORM 10, PERHAPS VIOLENT STORM 11 LATER IN FAIR ISLE. SQUALLY WINTRY SHOWERS. MODERATE OR GOOD.

A bit of white stuff

After the sunny weather of last week and weekend, the weather forecasts have been getting steadily ominous. For tomorrow and friday, the met office currently say:

Tomorrow
Frequent showers in the north with snow to low levels. Strong northwesterly winds and blizzards on mountains. Maximum temperature 4 deg C (39 deg F).


Outlook for Friday
Gale force northerlies and wintry showers gradually turning to rain.


The problem with these forecasts is that the "region" they cover is a huge chunk of Scotland, from Barra to the Orkney islands. Weather forecasts like these tend to be a bit general.

Still, on the upside, it may mean that I finally get some pictures of Berneray in the snow. On the downside, it doesn't look good for the Friday visit of the mobile bank...

Saturday, 12 November 2005

Nice weather for a boat trip

The current Met Office inshore waters forecast for our area. Pass the sickbag...

Ardnamurchan Point to Cape Wrath including the Outer Hebrides.

24 hour forecast:
Wind: south or southwest severe gale 9 to violent storm 11, veering northwest and decreasing 6 to gale 8.
Weather: rain then showers.
Visibility: moderate or poor, becoming mainly good.
Sea State: very rough or high.
Outlook for the following 24 hours:
Wind: northwest 6 to gale 8 decreasing 4, then backing southwest 5 or 6, occasionally 7 later.
Weather: showers, rain later.
Visibility: moderate or good.
Sea State: rough or very rough, but high in open waters at first.

...and the met office shipping forecast for the Hebrides area is (their capitals)...

HEBRIDES
SOUTHWEST BECOMING CYCLONIC THEN NORTHWEST, SEVERE GALE 9 TO VIOLENT STORM 11, OCCASIONALLY HURRICANE FORCE 12 AT FIRST, DECREASING 6 TO GALE 8. RAIN THEN SHOWERS. MODERATE OR POOR.

Friday, 11 November 2005

No school

Another day of "interesting weather". The schools have shut early, so the kids have got a long weekend. The Sale of Work for the Community Christmas dinner has been postponed, as the wind is forecast to reach 80mph or so by early evening. It looks like it will be bad enough for me to unilaterally declare it our second hurricane of the week.

As I type this, we lose mains electricity. Hurrah for laptop batteries!

Lesson for the day. Remember to make the fire (emptying out the ashes; getting peat and coal in) *before* it starts blowing a hoolie and the rain is horizontal.

Wednesday, 9 November 2005

Sunny


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As is the way after a bout of stormy weather, the day or two afterwards are bright and fresh.

At this time of the year, the sun rises above the hills of Skye, illuminating fishing boats chugging out of the harbour to take full advantage of the shorter days.