Monday, 29 October 2007

Fish cages

A picture from my wander around the east beach of Berneray yesterday:


Media_httpfarm3static_nepap



That's a fish-cage thingie. Six of them. The giant things are being constructed on the machair, close to the beach. They are then dragged by large machine onto the beach, and into the sea.

And there's more still under construction on the machair. They'll eventually hold, at a safe guess, a lot of fish.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Light over Berneray

This picture from Andrew Midgley shows the light over the north east corner of Berneray:


Media_httpfarm3static_coxqg



The white building in the centre right is the old manse, which is currently being restored by the owner. It was designed by Thomas Telford, who also designed the old church, the ruin of which is just behind and to the left of it.

There's a larger version of this picture which gives more detail.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

"When I graduate ...

... I will probably have a job that doesn't exist today."

Interesting viewing about digital culture and education:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o]

(Cheers TTW)

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Two shots of Luskentyre on Harris

Both from Flickr user Bluewave:


Media_httpfarm2static_pdjsc




Media_httpfarm2static_kmkgg

Great lamb (Hebrides) and dubious chicken (unknown)

Now, this is good. Intelligent use of Internet technology to:

  • support livelihoods in Hebridean islands

  • provide a fair price for Hebridean produce to the provider

  • provide an option for high quality meat for mainlands


One advantage of online shopping is that it works both ways. Online shopping doesn't just mean that products travel over the Minch to the Hebrides - Hebridean residents and business can and should sell more stuff to the mainland.

In a particularly superb example of this, a group of crofters from Lewis have got together to sell their lamb. The current dire prices they receive at the market, which often bears little resemblance to what people pay for it in the supermarket, make this example particularly interesting. A similar situation occurs on other Scottish islands, as detailed by an Orkney blogger.


Media_httpfarm1static_ecede



They have a website with prices, contact details, pictures and descriptions. It's here - go look:

www.heatherislemeats.co.uk

Your purchase is delivered ready for the fridge, freezer or oven:
"Heather Isles Meats will only source products from local crofters who have signed up to the Quality Meat Scotland farm assurance scheme. All our animals are processed locally in Stornoway at a small, fully approved, EU-licensed facility. All individual cuts will be vacuum-packed on the premises and packaged ready for despatch to your doorstep." 

You can also purchase knowing that a much greater proportion of what you have paid goes straight to the farmer. Sort of a "Crofter Fairtrade". Which is a side-point; before this it's been much easier for someone on the mainland to buy coffee at a fair price to South American coffee producers than it has been for them to buy lamb at a fair price to Hebridean crofters.

One of the Scottish national newspapers ran an article about this a few days ago. It's notable that a few of the lesser intelligent commentators thought the lamb was expensive. It isn't. We've had Hebridean lamb every Christmas here, and the leg roast alone fed two hungry people and two greedy cats for a surprisingly long time. It tasted good, and turned out to be good value for money. Which is important - but so is quality and enjoyment of food (well, to me, anyway). Else you might as well eat in fast food outlets all day.

For those people who have "as cheap as possible" as their sole criteria, the Guardian had a disturbing article a few months ago about mainland supermarkets selling whole chickens for £2 each. Think about the whole process of raising and feeding a chicken, and all the people involved (farmer, supplyer, supermarket) - but it only sells for £2. The review of the £2 chicken:
"Poking the flesh revealed what might as well be a life's ambition to retain more water than Lake Erie ... During the cooking, a freaky amount of fat came out of it. Some 50 mins later, out the chicken came. I let my best chef friend, Fred, have a try. "It tastes like Kentucky Fried Flesh," was his summary, "and the bones behave like cardboard." I tried it too. It was tasteless, and greasy."

Of course, there always will be people who will buy the cheapest option, no matter how dubious the quality. In the same article: 
Back in Clapham, the £2 chicken is selling out. "Why are they selling this bird so cheap?" asks Bridget Aguilar, a local shopper. "There must be a catch. It smells to me that something is wrong." But she bought one anyway.

So Bridget and others have saved a few pounds. Good for them; but (a) they're on for a tastless meal and (b) if that chicken has been fed and injected unnaturally to keep costs low - and at £2 each, you can bet anything it hasn't had a happy, organic, life - then the end product of that feeding and injections and bulked water will be absorbed by your body. What price your health in the longer stretch? Literally, food for thought. Oh, and that isn't the cheapest chicken sold by Asda, almost unbelievably...

Christmas Day is just 10 weeks tomorrow(!), I'm looking forward to Hebridean lamb again this yuletide, be it from Lewis, Harris or the Uists. I hope the Lewis crofters online lamb selling system is successful, and the crofters in Harris, the Uists and Barra also increase the amount of produce they market and sell online, to the mainland.

With more of these kinds of schemes for marketing and selling produce, some aspects of crofting could be elevated back to the level of true livelihood provision, as opposed to what is little more than hobby-farming due to the astonishingly low prices lambs and other produce make at market. It would be good to see the Comhairle and WIE really supporting and pushing these kinds of initiative.

If you are contemplating what to eat for Christmas, and you don't fancy dry and tastless turkey, or suspiciously cheap supermarket chicken of dubious quality, then try some Hebridean lamb.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Sollas International Airport

Sollas is fairly close to here, being a settlement on the north side of North Uist. Every now and then, planes fly in. Here are two (picture by Flickr user Chris Chinnery) that flew in for the 2005 annual fly-in:


Media_httpfarm1static_fegas



Here's another picture by Chris, this time of a plane preparing for take-off from Runway One, otherwise known as "the beach":


Media_httpfarm1static_beqty



There is a surprisingly long history of planes landing and taking off from the beaches of the Outer Hebrides, in addition to the regular timetabled Glasgow-Barra service which lands on the beach. The west beach of Berneray has seen a few land over the years, and more frequent services operated off the beaches of Harris and the Uists in the last century. Hmmm; the Comhairle are keen to improve the transport links here...

Friday, 12 October 2007

Flotsam and jetsam

Unclaimed item washed up on the west beach of Berneray:


Media_httpfarm2static_giefk



Definitions:

Flotsam are those items which are floating as a consequence of the action of the sea. Jetsam are those which have been jettisoned by a ship's crew (although they may float too, of course). Lagan is the word for goods or wreckage that lie at the bottom of the sea.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Online shop review: Boots the chemist

The first in an occasional series of online shopping reviews.

A few weeks ago, I did our biannual Boots online shop. This is where I buy stuff like shampoo, shower gel, toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash and lots of other bathroom stuff in one go. Gets delivered to my door, and cuts down on including the same items in the weekly shop.

The website itself am not too keen on. It's a bit 2001 in style, and Boots haven't found a way of comfortably showing all the products they sell. You can search and browse, but it's quite fiddly to hunt down a specific product that you use; the categorisation of items is not intuitive. Having said that, the various offers available in their branches are also available through their e-shop, and it's easy to add and remove things from your online basket and do a cost-efficient shop online. I'm quite astonished at what I get for the total amount.

The last Boots shop I did I wasn't too chuffed at, as it took an unacceptable two weeks to deliver. This time, when I ordered, I was informed that the goods would arrive the same week, which I sceptically read. Online tracking provided some information, though with cryptic status messages. Including this: 


Media_httpfarm3static_twdsh



I know that the Outer Hebrides is way out for some people, organisations and delivery companies, but ... Saturn? What does that mean? 

Anyway, the goods turned up in two very large boxes three days after the order was placed, which is pretty good.

Box 1 was fine. All the stuff tightly packaged, no problems.

Box 2 was not fine. Not enough filler meant that one bottle of shower gel had split, though thankfully all the bottles were well wrapped so there was no leakage elsewhere. Also, three items were not in either box, despite the despatch note saying they were.

A quick email was despatched; I refuse to use phone services and sit in a stupid queuing system; defeats the point of online shopping off to them. They rang back, apologetic, and confirmed that replacement items for the split one and the missing ones would be despatched. And they duly arrived a few days later (this time, well packaged).

  • Value for money of order: 9

  • Web site and ordering process: 7 

  • Delivery and tracking: 8

  • Packaging: 6

  • Problem handling: 9



  • Overall score: 78%

  • Would I use it again?: Yes


Positives

  • quick delivery

  • free delivery for orders over £45

  • problem handling was quick and online

  • website has the full product range, and all the "3 for 2" and other offers


Negatives

  • goods not packaged well 

  • website is fiddly and takes some searching and browsing to find items

  • can collect, but can't redeem, Advantage Card points in an online shop - why?

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Berneray e-shop open for business

Part of what I do for a living is look at e-commerce; not just online shopping, but the whole process of trading, and making transactions, electronically. One of the services I've been experimenting with lately is Cafepress, an interesting model of "just in time" shopping. A person with digital pictures sets up a "virtual shop", uploads the pictures, and configures the shop so the pictures appear on selected items automatically. The shop owner also sets a price for each item.

People go the shop, and buy stuff directly, as per online shopping. The items are created "at order", and sent direct to the customer. So, the shop owner doesn't have to deal with goods - or for that matter customers, and the trade and transaction is between Cafepress and the online shopper. Cafepress keep a fixed fee for each item sold; the shop owner gets the rest. 

As an experiment, and also to offset some of the costs of the Isle of Berneray website, I set up a Cafepress shop selling items with a few of my pictures of Berneray on them. The shop can be found at, and items bought from, www.cafepress.com/berneray

Last month I uploaded some of my Flickr pictures of Berneray scenes to it and expanded the product range. So, now people can buy clocks, t-shirts, mugs, hats, even boxer shorts(!) with pictures of Berneray on them. Curious as to what the products actually looked like in reality (as opposed to on the screen), I ordered some.

Ten days later, a large box arrived from the USA; here's the contents:


Media_httpfarm3static_aijjs



The single sheet calendar (on the left) for the whole year was a bit disappointing; it's just basically a large sheet for blue-tacking onto a wall. And I could have perhaps chosen a more exciting picture for it. But it's cheap.

The cards and postcards are good quality, and more interesting to look at, especially the one of Fred sailing his boat in Bays loch. Here's the greeting card, and here's the picture from my Flickr account that was used.

But the best item of all was the 2008, one month and picture per page, calendar, which is named Boats around Berneray. As a theme to choose for a calendar, boats were a safe one as they are bright, colourful, and judging from the website stats for the Berneray website people really like looking at them. I'm well impressed by the print quality of the calendar, as have been several residents who have flicked through it. Donlald the boat addict was practically drooling over it.

These items aren't very cheap; Cafepress do very well out of their service (their base prices are quite high, so the choice for shop owners is to either have a low margin for themselves, or make items very expensive). There's also the cost of delivery from the US, which can make small orders rack up a bit in overall cost. A UK version of Cafepress, with lower costs and quicker times for delivery, would be better.

Having said that, UK buyers have the large advantage that it's currently over 2 US dollars to 1 UK pound. So the Boats around Berneray calendar is around £8.50, and items such as cards and postcards are very cheap. At a stroke, that's solved a lot of my Christmas shopping problems :-) 

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Sunset from Borve Hill

One of mine. A sunset shot, taken from atop Borve Hill, Berneray, in July 2006:


Media_httpfarm3static_akoca

Monday, 8 October 2007

Rabbit burrow (perhaps) and mountains of Skye

One from me from last summer. Across the minch, some of the mountains of Skye; I think this was taken from the north end of Berneray.


Media_httpfarm3static_gsibz



I've only just noticed - but is that a rabbit burrow in the bottom centre of the picture?

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Moon rising

The moon rising over the hills of Harris:


Media_httpfarm3static_bpnch



As seen a few days ago, looking across Bays Loch on Berneray to the renovated blackhouses. Picture by Ms Ruth Wilson, Berneray.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Friday, 5 October 2007

Lonely trees of the Outer Hebrides

Yes, there are some, and often they form the subject matter of good pictures. The better pictures are often of trees on their own; those in this post are all on the island of Lewis. Long-term readers of this blog will remember this picture from Achmore by Bluewave:


Media_httpfarm1static_shira



Here's another one, against the sunrise, again from Bluewave:


Media_httpfarm1static_lkeib



... and another one of that first tree on Achmore, reproduced in some arty format by Islandboy


Media_httpfarm1static_vsuyr



Finally, by the same photographer, a tree near Stornoway:


Media_httpfarm1static_gpkfm

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Updated "snapshot" of UK HE / FE activity in Second Life

(If you are one of the people who look at my blog for pictures of the Outer Hebrides then a. there aren't any today and b. this post will make little or no sense to you. Best move on.) 


Media_httpfarm1static_mafdc



As part of their range of Second Life activities, the Eduserv Foundation hired me to do a series of "snapshot" reports, looking at the take-up of SL within the UK Higher and Further Education sector. The update of the first report, containing some new examples of how and where Second Life is being used in UK Higher and Further Education, can now be downloaded.


Media_httpfarm1static_itucw

 

If you are doing anything constructive in Second Life, then feel free to publicise, pass on to other people, and use in any way that helps you in your Second Life activities.


Media_httpfarm1static_ercdy


 
There will be further snapshots in March, and September, 2008. In the meantime, if you are doing something on the SL grid connected with UK HE / FE, then please get in touch.

(Pictures from the Eduserv Symposium 2007, which was held in both the Real World and Second Life, with feeds in both directions).

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Comhairle leaps into 21st century

I've often found the website of the Comhairle (the council of the Outer Hebrides) a disappointment. Very 1990's in style, and with a searching system that is not helpful, it's difficult to find specific materials on there. Most of the time, stuff I've been looking for and hoping to find online hasn't been there.

However, as reported in this weeks Stornoway Gazette, one part of the website has taken a big leap forward.

Enabled by legislation, the Comhairle has been developing an online service for planning applications and the wider process of planning, scrutiny and objecting, similar to the online service that covers all of England and Wales. The fruits of their labour are now online, free and available for anyone to see.  The bulk of this information is planning applications, warrants, letters of support, letters of objection, receipts, certificates and lots of other things (even, in some cases, correspondance to Comhairle staff long after the application) - totalling millions of pages and stretching back several years. All can be downloaded and scrutinised; information is ordered according to property and/or application.

I'll use, as an example, a bit of modernisation done on my house by the previous owners. If you're on dial-up, this will take you some time as all the files are in PDF format; broadband is much better.

Go to the Comhairle Planning Service page and select the Online Planning Information option. You'll come through to something called PublicAccess.

Now click on planning. You've got several different types of searches you can do, including application searches and enforcement searches. The "Property Search" is the way to get at the bulk of the data. Select that, and you get this:


Media_httpfarm2static_dwisp



I found the postcode search option was a bit frustrating, but the scrollable street list proved better. For Berneray, the main options are "Backhill", "Rushgarry" and "Borve" (there may be others). In my case, select Backhill, Berneray. Go and find my house (An Caladh), which is the 19th entry (it's on page 2 of the results). Important: be aware that there can be multiple entries for the same property or ground. For example, under "Rushgarry, Berneray", there are seperate records for Berneray School grounds, Berneray School, and "Bin enclosure". So it's wise to check all the listed entries for a particular road or area if you are looking for something specific.

Select "Click to view details" next to the property title:


Media_httpfarm2static_ahcbd



You'll get the address details of my property. Click on "Related info". If it says something like "There is 1 (or 2 or 3) related records" then there's been an application, work, or something else in the last few years. Click on "Display" to find out what kind of record it is, the do "click to view" to get more details on the application. You'll get a screen with a large tab bar:


Media_httpfarm2static_gdsor



Go to the last option on the tab bar, "Associated Documents", and click through. Here is where you'll find the content that's been scanned in. It's all in PDF format, and often there are thumbnails available:


Media_httpfarm2static_jqfbi



In the case of my property, it's 23 items / pages concerning the installation of 2 windows and a bathroom, including a building warrant, receipts, correspondance between the Comhairle, previous owners of my hoose and their solicitor, plans, cost estimates, approval letters, and other stuff.

And that particular application was simple. Find a complex application, or one where there's been letters of objection, and there's often dozens or hundreds of pages of scanned-in material.

Full credit to the Comhairle for this service:

  1. It creates a "level playing field" in terms of information access. People who work for a living have limited time and opportunities to go down to the council offices (sometimes a long way out) and find this information, as opposed to people who don't work and spend all their waking hours obsessing on personal planning campaigns. Now it's online, 24/7.

  2. For the same reason, it's environmentally friendly. Less car journeys involving residents going to and from Comhairle offices.

  3. It's cheaper for the Comhairle - and therefore residents in the form of local tax payers - in the long run, as staff are not tied up dealing with so many requests for information.

  4. It's an extra encouragement for people to acquire basic online skills. You don't need to be a teccie or geek to get to the information; the interface is pretty much "select and click". Free or cheap net access, if you don't have a PC at home, is available to all residents in the public libraries and various centres and facilities through the Outer Hebrides.

  5. It hinders liars and scammers in the property market. Interested in buying a property but aren't convinced by what the owner has said about recent work on it? Before forking out for solicitors fees, search the database first.

  6. Ditto, it cripples uber-gossips. "Oooooh, do you know what Donald MacDonald is having done to his house? It's all leather panelling inside and it's costing him 50 thousand pounds and planning have turned a blind eye because his cousin Donald empties the planning officers septic tank for free in the middle of the night." Click, click, click. Uber-gossip = liar. 

  7. There's much more - truthful - information about building work online. Like what someone has had done to a house? Check it online, and you can see what has been done, and possibly who did it.

  8. Ditto, by checking out similar works to ones you are thinking of doing yourself, you can get a good idea of the complexity, requirements, restrictions and possible hurdles to overcome. Do your research online and it could save you a lot of money in architect, legal and other fees.

  9. It's a natural progression from a few years ago, when prices paid for property sales became freely available online. A neighbour in the previous village I lived in, who was prone to telling large porkies about anything financial, whined endlessly about this on the grounds that potential buyers of her house would be able to find out what she paid for it, rather than rely on what she told them. Good.

  10. The process of planning is easier and quicker all round, for all concerned.


Above all, it reduces Information Asymmetry.

It's nearly 2008. Other countries, such as Japan, South Korea and all of Scandinavia, are some way ahead of the UK in terms of the effective use of online technology. The Freedom of Information Act (2002) has gone part of the way to making information more available here, but has severe problems such as:

  • it ties up staff time (paid for by us taxpayers) in dealing with information requests which are often a time-consuming administrative nightmare

  • it costs money to undertake requests, thus giving advantage to funded information seekers

  • information retrieved is still "closed" in terms of how the retriever uses it


Consequently, this online planning database is a good model of open information for other departments in the Comhairle to follow; I gather there is some progress in some of these departments. It's also a good model for other organisations who serve the residents / taxpayers of the Outer Hebrides. I wonder - and am not the first person to suggest this by a long way - how different the Western Isles NHS board would be in operation if they made much of their internal correspondance, minutes and other documents available online as policy?

It doesn't let the Comhairle off the fact that their main website - and especially the search mechanism within - is still wanting. But this online service is a really good step in the right direction.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Stornoway: officially the sunshine capital of the UK

The Outer Hebrides is going through a period of quite glorious weather at the moment. Day after day of cloudless skies, with little or no wind. Even better, it's well past the midge season, so one can get out and enjoy it without risking any bare patches of skin being bitten.

According to the BBC, two out of the last three days has seen Stornoway have more hours of sunshine than anywhere else (I presume with a weather station where they take data from) in the UK. Last friday saw the capital of the Outer Hebrides be exposed to 6.6 hours of sunshine; yesterday saw the town suffer a relentless 9.8 hours.

Hot hot hot.