Highway Star

Posted on 15th September 2013

A few years ago I posted about whether the M6 viaduct over the Gravelly Hill area of Birmingham, was the longest bridge in the UK. In February 2012, someone added a page to Wikipedia for the bridge, which appears to be called the Bromford Viaduct. The Wikipedia page references the same page I found from the Motorway Archive, but nowhere on that page did it reference the name. So now I had two questions:

  1. Is the Bromford Viaduct its official name?
  2. Is this still the longest bridge in the UK?

Regards the name, it would seem that the proposals for HS2 refer to it as the M6 Bromford Viaduct. After some further searching, it would seem that The Highways Agency calls it the Bromford Viaduct too, so I guess that is its official name, seeing as they are the government department in charge of UK roads. I still think the Spaghetti Viaduct sounds better :)

However, the second question still remained unanswered. On the Motorway Archive page it states the bridge "was then the longest continuous viaduct in Great Britain", which implies it no longer is. Having said that, in November 2010, a few months after my initial post, it seems someone else had thought the same thought, and added the bridge to the Wikipedia page for the longest bridges. Seeing as there is no other mention of a longer UK bridge and the Second Severn Crossing is measured as being 472m (1576ft) shorter, I think, until proven otherwise, Brummies can be proud to have the longest bridge in the UK.

File Under: birmingham / bridges / road
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The Last Wall of the Castle

Posted on 13th June 2011

Back in September 2008, Dan and I were fortunate enough to discover a special event happening at the Weoley Castle ruins. The event was one of only a few open days for the ruins, which allowed us to actually walk around the ruins, as well as being given a walking tour of the ruins.

The event was fantastic, and there was the hope that these sort of events would happen again. In addition there were plans to open a special education centre, so children on school trips could come and learn about the history of the castle and the area. Over the last year, Birmingham City Council have spent £1.14 million on improving the site and completing the education centre for future generations.

All the improvements couldn't have happened without Heritage Lottery funding and English Heritage. In recognition of the improvements, the site has been put forward for the Best Heritage Projects category of the National Lottery Awards. It has been successful enough to now be in the public semi-final.

The site is now looking for public support to reach the final. To support the Weoley Castle ruins, you can vote either online or phone. For further details see the B31 Blog article. Go vote, the castle really does deserve your support.

File Under: birmingham / castles
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A Letter to Elise

Posted on 28th September 2010

The Jewellery Quarter has always held a lot of history within its streets and buildings, but having worked around the area for a few years, I completely missed some of that history. Although I knew of Warstone Lane Cemetery, The Agent Centre, The Chamerlain Clock and of the older buildings, I'd never really looked up their history. Last week I discovered that Birmingham had catacombs, and they had been right under my nose in Warstone Cemetery all this time. As such, I thought it might be interesting to take some time to look up some more history of the area.

After only a few minutes, I decided that Dan and I should take a photo tour of The Jewellery Quarter, and pick out some highlights. Our first stop was at Northwood Street, which was once home to tw2, the web design company I started working at in 1999. We then went around the corner into Regent Place, along to the building now occupied by D&F. From 1777-1790 there stood a large house where James Watt once lived. Not only did he live here, but in partnership with Matthew Boulton, he also worked here too, and produce many of his most famous inventions here. Around the corner is the school that is now part of Birmingham University, but still today concentrates on teaching pupils the art of sliversmith and jewellery making.

Although many of the factories have been replaced over the years, many still hold the history of the trades of a bygone era. One such trade was the making of pen nibs for fountain pens. Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter was once the highest producer of pen nibs in the world, and its decline only came more recently, due to the mass production of László Bíró's invention by Bic. However, The Pen Room in the Argent Centre still exists to preserve the history. As you enter, you walk into a room instantly full of history. Around the walls on the left are various packages and pens, with the centre given way to cases of exhibits. On the right are some of the old machines used to make the pen nibs. On a quiet day the staff are more than happy to give you a demostration, although they can only perform 5 steps of the process, as the other 12 require machines too large to fit in the room, as well as time to perform them. Dan got to punch out the metal and stamp it to begin the process, and got to keep the results. He was quite impressed to realise that all those years ago, children the same age as himself were producing all these nibs. Of the stamping process 28,000 per worker were cut from the sheet metal.

Next we were shown some of the braille machines that were also produced in Birmingham, with Dan getting to spell his name in braille on the ticker type machines. After the demonstrations, we were lead into the second room, full of typewriters, pen nibs and other exhibits, with the opportunity to try some of the typewriters, as well as try writing with some of the pens. A member of staff took out an old German typewriter that was very unique as the characters were all on a single barrel, and the letters chosen via a metal pointer attached to the barrel, and pointing at the letters on a curved pad. A very unusual typewriter, and I should have taken a photo, as I can't find anything like it online. Looking at some of the other exhibits, it is surprising to discover just how much an impact the pen industry had on Birmingham (as well as the world), with many pioneers having been since commorated with street names, mounments and buildings. Josiah Mason, John Baskerville and Joseph Gillott to name a few.

Across from The Pen Room was Joseph Gillott's Victoria Works, and is one of a few factories that can still be seen, the Argent Centre itself (previously the Albert Works) being one too. Incidentally the Argent Centre at one point was also a Turkish Baths. Another bit of history I discovered, is that the stories of 'Rip Van Winkle' and 'The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow' were actually written in a house, whose grounds covered the corner of Legge Lane and Frederick Street. The house survived even after the Argent Centre was built in front of it, to occupy the corner itself. Further up Frederick Street is the factory of Thomas Fattorini Ltd, who moved to Birmingham from Italy, via Skipton, and was renowned for making medals and badges. I used to walk past these buildings every day when I worked at The Big Peg, and although I often took the time to take in the grand designs of the buildings, I really wished I'd taken more interest at the time. I'd have probably spent most lunchtimes walking around with a camera :)

We then entered the central part of the Jewellery Quarter, by the Chamberlain Clock and Aquinas House. From here we walked across the road to the Warstone Lane Cemetery Lodge, and to The War Stone. The former is not something I'd really paid attention to before, and the latter I never knew was there. From here we walked into the cemetery. In the central part of the cemetery are the catacombs. Above them originally stood St Michael's Church, which has long since gone. From images and drawings the cemetery was meant to be viewed from the Icknield Street entrance, with the catacombs appearing to be leading into the church. However, the abundance of trees these days hides a large part of this viw now. The catacombs were once used from protection in WWII, but have now all been boarded up, although some had already been closed with upright headstones. A link to our visit to The Pen Room is John Baskerville who is buried here. Although I didn't find his gravestone, there is a sort of memorial to him.

As we were planning to spend all day wandering around, we walked back and drove around some of the other places, such as Icknield Street School. Next time we'll take some time to visit the Key Hill Cemetery, which is just the otherside of the train station, and holds many famous Birmingham history makers, including Alfred Bird the inventory of egg-free custard, of which the Custard Factory is named (and perhaps another tour some day). Another place we'll visit is the Jewellery Museum at the top end of Vyse Street, as well as taking in more of the buildings in and around St Paul's Square, including The Assay Office, the biggest in the world.

One of Dan's fascinations of the day was the BT Tower. So as we headed back home, I stopped at the base so he could take a picture. Opposite we discovered the building that is St John's Ambulance Headquarters, which I've probably walked past several hundred times and never really noticed. Just goes to show what you can be missing when just walking through the streets of the town where you live.

It was a great dayout, and a good reminder that discovering history is only a short step away from your own doorstep. And it doesn't need to cost a fortune either.

If you're interested in the area, and perhaps doing a similar walking tour, I thoroughly recommend reading The Walk by Bob Miles, as well as the additional material Bob has assembled over the years. I wished I'd read more of it before setting out on our trip, and I'll definitely be using it for the bits we missed when we visit the area next time.

File Under: birmingham / museum / photography / sightseeing / structures / walks
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Church Of Noise

Posted on 15th September 2010

So the Pope is coming to Birmingham this Sunday, much to the annoyance and irritation of many local residents as well many nationally. He'll be giving a mass in Cofton Park, which is a short walk from where I live. Being so close, the local council has classed us in a restricted area. As a consequence this weekend we'll be prisoners in our own home unless we can prove where we live. We are not allowed visitors, unless we visit them first and give them proof that they are coming to see us.

The restricted area covers quite a large area of Rubery, Rednal, Cofton and Longbridge, and many local businesses are going to suffer. The 2 big pubs, The Old Hare And Hounds and The Oak, the Lai Ling Thai restaurant and the Old Rose And Crown hotel will all being affected, as people travel from outside the area to frequent them on a weekend. I suspect they will either be closed all weekend, or they'll be defiant and local residents will all go out to make a point.

From 6pm on Saturday until 8pm on Sunday we have been told expect severe disruption as roads are closed around the park and restricted access is put in place. Coaches carrying 70,000 people will then descend on Cofton Park from early Sunday morning at around 3am until the mass at 10am. Where these several thousand coaches are going to park is anyone's guess. The mass itself will be heard around the local area thanks to a very large PA system that is being erected. I wonder how many lawsuits local residents will be filing against the Catholic Church if even a whisper is heard through it before 8am on Sunday morning. Technically the pope could even be served with an ASBO.

Cofton Park itself was closed off for public use from last weekend, and won't opened again until a week after the visit. It's supposed to be a public park, and it's being closed for 3 weeks. So much for William Walter Hinde's will bequeathing the park "to be kept for ever as an open space for the benefit of the people of Birmingham."

As we're living in a restricted area, if we leave it, even just to go to the high street shops in Rubery or across the Bristol Road to Great Park for an evening out, unless we carry proof of address, we will not be allowed back in. Even if we're on foot! Apparently the area will be (excessively) policed to ensure no one is there that shouldn't be, so I'm assuming that stop and search will be in full effect, with civil liberties through out the window.

On top of all this we have to pay for it. The church are allegedly covering £9m-£10m for the cost of the visit to the UK, while the tax payer is expected to pay over £12m. A large portion of the population are not catholic, and have no interest in his visit, but local residents are told to pay for the privilege. As you might guess many local residents are not impressed. To make matters worse he's a pope that has a huge dark cloud looming over him because of various child abuse scandals he has been involved in covering up. I'm told he's probably the most unliked pope there has ever been.

So why do the non-catholics have to pay anything? As far as I'm concerned, if he wants to come here, the Catholic Church should foot the complete bill. And in addition should pay compensation to the local councils, which should be put towards community projects, that will benefit everyone in the area, not just a select few.

Several months ago a local councillor or MP, appeared on local news saying something along the lines that the visit would benefit local people with jobs and the like. Others make even bolder statements. Not sure how this can benefit local people, as all the ground crew, police and other support staff are being drafted in, and local businesses are going to severely disrupted. Even the trinket and tshirt sellers aren't from the local area.

And speaking of trinket sellers, how is it that the Catholic Church can rake in profits from sales of their cheap tat, and not expect to cover the remaining costs of the visit? Looking at the pictures it really is cheap tat, except being charged out at over inflated prices. Has the Catholic Church plummeted so low as to be nothing more than Del Boy and Rodney Trotter in the guise of official merchandise?

I remember visiting Lourdes in the South of France over 20 years ago. The initial impression that struck me then was how tacky the place was with all the cheap street sellers, and even the official sellers. The grotto site itself was actually quite peaceful, and although I wasn't caught up with the religious overtones, was relieved to find the grotto devoid of merchandise sellers. The town of Lourdes itself was quite nice, and I did enjoy visiting the Château fort de Lourdes by cable car on the outskirts of the town. In many ways it's a shame that the religious nature of the town over shadows other aspects of the town that are just as worthy of a visit.

It's crossed my mind whether after the visit we'll see parts of the turf from Cofton Park ripped up and sold on eBay, with the heading "The Pope stood here!". The Catholic Church has already plummeted the depths, so I wouldn't be surprised.

Just how much inconvenience and disruption can one man cause, particular when only a small minority from the area actually want him there!

I, like others I suspect, will be awkward just for the sake of being awkward this weekend and see how much hassle it causes to prevent me from entering my own home. I'm guessing the police and officials will just get fed up with residents and let them through anyway. We shall see.

File Under: birmingham / brum / coftonpark / life / longbridge
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View From A Bridge

Posted on 31st August 2010

When is a bridge not a bridge? Apparently when it's a viaduct. Though having said that, it seems some are more insignificant than others.

About 20 years ago, I was told a fact that didn't seem that far fetched, and every so often I've tried to verify whether it was true. This weekend I found a page on the web that seemed to give a definite answer, except every other web page relating to the question seems to completely ignore this particular structure.

The fact I was told was that at the time the longest bridge in the UK was the M6 over Birmingham. Now having driven over that particular section on several occasions, I was intrigued to find out how long it was. My amateur attempts of measuring the rough distance from Junction 5 (Castle Bromich) to just past Spaghetti Junction (Gravelly Hill), aka Junction 6, found the distance to be just under 4 miles. However, as I was on top of the bridge deck I wasn't able to tell exactly where the bridge begins and ends. Until now I've never seen a reference to the exact distance.

This weekend I came across a page on the Motorway Archive, which states "The section between Gravelly Hill and Castle Bromwich is 3½ miles, which was then the longest continuous viaduct in Great Britain". Okay so it's not classed as a bridge, but a viaduct, although at 3.5 miles it does re-enforce the belief that it was the longest when I was told the fact.

So what is the longest bridge/viaduct in the UK? According to the Wikipedia page for the longest bridges, the longest in the UK is The Second Severn Crossing. However, that is only recorded as 3.2 miles long, and the M6 viaduct over Birmingham isn't mentioned. On answers.com someone else also asked the same question. The answer there states the Humber Estuary Bridge has the longest single span in the UK, but again The Second Severn Crossing is the longest in distance. On Flickr someone else wanted to know the longest viaduct in the UK, and again the M6 viaduct doesn't get a mention, as they only mention rail bridges.

Aside from the links above, I can't find anything that relates specifically to UK bridges, and many of the pages listing longest bridges in the world rarely list more than a small selection. So what is the longest bridge in the UK? I still think it's the M6 over Birmingham, but may be the reason it doesn't get mentioned is that it doesn't appear to have an official name. I'd suggest the Spaghetti Viaduct, seeing as it's one of the strands as part of Spaghetti Junction. If anyone has a definite answer, I'd be delighted to know.

File Under: birmingham / bridges / structures
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Set the Fire to the Third Bar

Posted on 5th February 2009

The snow has been thick everyday of the week so far, and this morning looked particular uninviting for travelling the 45 miles to work. We had a new blanket overnight and while the kids are currently enjoying the snowball fights, I'd rather be here in the warm. If it stays like this at the weekend, I might have to take Dan up to the Waseley Hills for some sledging. I can't see Dan's football match being on, even though they managed to play in a blizzard on Sunday.

File Under: birmingham / weather
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Castles and Dreams

Posted on 29th September 2008

Discovering local history can be quite fun at times. I've lived in and around Birmingham for the past 12 years, and there is certainly a lot history I've discovered already. However, there has been one part I never knew existed until recently. While planning the trip to Ludlow Castle and Richards Castle last weekend with DanDan, I came across a page listing Weoley Castle. Now Weoley Castle is an area of South Birmingham, that is slightly North of where I live now, and slightly south of where I used to live when I first moved to Birmingham. I've driven through the area many times between Northfield and Harborne, but never knew that the remains of the castle ruins still existed. Although to be fair it isn't a castle in the grand sense, but a fortified manor house. Not that that should deter you from visiting it.

So on Saturday, DanDan and I took a drive over to the Weoley Castle Ruins. Having read the web page, we were prepared to only see the ruins from the viewing area. But seeing as it's a bit of local history I wasn't too bothered about that. As it turned out, our arrival at the site couldn't have been better timed. We'd just started taking pictures, when a woman walked passed the other side of fence, in medieval attire befitting of the lady of the house. She and the guy walking with her, walked up on to the ruins, where she posed for a photo. As they walked back, the woman paused and told us that if we wanted to come back later at either 2pm or 3pm, there would be a storytelling and we would be allowed into the ruins to have a look round. Not wanting to miss a golden opportunity, DanDan and I headed home for lunch and picked up Nicole and Ethne.

We arrived in time for the 3pm event, and walked with about 40 others up into the ruins by the last surviving apple tree, of those that had originally stood there. Then the show began. The woman we had seen earlier announced herself as Joan de Botetourt, lady of the castle. Over the course of about half an hour or more, she took us around the rooms of the castle, telling us about each room, the history of the castle and the de Botetourt family history. All completely in character. The show and storytelling were fantastic and I was so glad we had happened to come and visit the ruins in the morning. The storyteller turned out to be Anna O'Brien of Annamation, one of a troupe who frequently do this kind of storytelling, particularly at the Barber Institute by Birmingham University, where they re-enact paintings.

I took the opportunity to take LOTS of photos, and it was a wonderful day to take them too. I spoke with one of the organisers, who had come over to ask if I was a professional photographer or did it as a hobby. Reassuring her I was most definbitely an amateur, she told me about their plans for the site. Unfortunately they had been turned down to open a visitors centre, but they now have plans to open a school room. Although some local schools do take advantage of the opportunities to have the children taken around the ruins, not too many do, and occasionally rain means tours get cancelled. A dedicated school room means more schools can plan visits regardless of the weather, and much more planned activities.

It was a brilliant afternoon, and I'm so glad that Birmingham Museums And Galleries put on these sorts of events every so often. If you ever spot the chance to go and tour the ruins, especially if Annamation are doing the storytelling, then go. You will be thoroughly entertained.

File Under: birmingham / castles / museum / photography / sightseeing
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Not Fade Away

Posted on 17th May 2008

The Cadbury Cricket Pavilion (as it is often referred to these days), is quite a grand building. It was originally opened in June 1902, and was a gift to the Bournville Cricket Club to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII, hence its other name of The Coronation Cricket Pavilion. The black & white photo shown here is taken from The Food of the Gods, by Brandon Head (available thanks to Project Gutenberg), although alas it doesn't recall when it was taken.

Earlier this year, Dan's team Callowbrook Swifts, played a match against Cadbury Athletic on the Sports Field, so I took the opportunity to take a few photos of the Pavilion as it is today. I assume it is still used by the Bournville Cricket Club, as they still hold cricket matches here during the summer months. One of many Bournville treasures.

File Under: birmingham / photography / sightseeing
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So Glad 2B Alive

Posted on 12th May 2008

Back in February we went to see Bleeding Hearts as The Adam & Eve in Digbeth, Birmingham. It was also Gel's 40th birthday, and a great gig to celebrate it. It was also great to see Paul Rogers at the gig too, who I hadn't seen since my days with Ark, in fact since 1994. There were quite a few old faces in the audience, as well as plenty of new ones too. The was a complete mixture of old and new songs, with more emphasis on the newer songs. I did mean to make a note of the setlist, but got complete caught up in taking photos.

The Adam & Eve is quite a small pub, though long, so although you can't necessarily see well at the back, you could definitely hear the band. In fact most of Digbeth could probably hear them, and undoubtly would have said they deserved all the encores asked of them. After the live album I was quite eager to see the band again, but unfortunately it ended up being a little longer than intended. Since The Adam & Eve gig, they've done a couple of German tours now, and are set up to do a few UK gigs around the Midlands, so hopefully we'll be catching up with them soon. Expect more photos then, and hopefully a setlist next time around.

File Under: birmingham / bleedinghearts / gigs / music / photography
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I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

Posted on 6th April 2008

Snowy Rubery

Snowy Rubery

I commented to someone in the US recently that we'd had snow, blistering gales, rain and only a bit of sunshine over the last week. He then replied "all four seasons, wow!" However, the snow we had was only light had gone within an hour of the sun being out.

Not so this morning!

We awoke to discover Birmingham has been covered in a blanket of snow, and not just a light covering, but a couple of inches in places. DanDan was supposed to be playing a football match today, somehow I doubt that now. Ethne got all excited when she saw it all. I think trying to stop them playing outside today might be a bit difficult ;)

File Under: birmingham / rubery / weather
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Where The Birds Always Sing

Posted on 4th April 2008

Peter N M Hansteen

Peter N M Hansteen

This week I was at The UKUUG 2008 Spring Conference, where I gave two talks on testing. While I was there I met Peter N M Hansteen. The name didn't ring any bells, and it was only when I was in conversation with Peter that he happened to drop the snippet of information that he was part of Bergen LUG, who implemented RFC1149.

Okay for most people that probably doesn't mean that much, but for real geeks this is one of the guys that implemented RFC1149!

So what is RFC1149? It's full title is "A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers", which also goes by the acronym of CPIP ... Carrier Pigeon Internet Protocol. Yes you read that right Carrier Pigeon. There was a later revision of the RFC which allowed for Sparrowhawks, but in 2001 Bergen LUG took it upon themselves to attempt a practical experiment to prove the RFC1149 actually worked. You can see all the photos and reports of the event, to which they invited Alan Cox along as an impatial witness, on their website. Peter can be seen in this picture, on the far left.

The reason I know all this, is that in the first version of my Understanding Malware talk, I used it as a humous aside. Amusingly, Peter did a talk about Spam and Malware at the UKUUG conference. It's a small world :)

Incidentally my photos for the UKUUG 2008 Spring Conference are now online. Click the links below:

File Under: birmingham / conference / internet / people / ukuug
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I Feel The Earth Move

Posted on 27th February 2008

Last night, just before at about 1AM, an earthquake hit the UK. At the time, Nicole woke me up and was a little worried that something had happened to the house, as she heard the wardrobe bumping against the wall. Unfortunately, possibly because I was tired, I didn't hear or see anything. After checking on the kids and checking outside, everything seemed fine and we went back to sleep. This morning on the news we discovered that there had been an earthquake just south of Hull, that had been felt in London, Newcastle and across the midlands.

Last time there was such a major earthquake in the UK, the other side of Dudley (about 15 miles from my house) in September 2002, I was out of the country, having just attended YAPC::Europe in Munich, so only got to hear about. This time around I was half-asleep and too tired to notice. Not that I want to experience the full effects of a devastating earthquake, but next time I hope I'm a bit more with it!

File Under: birmingham / life
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Two Tribes

Posted on 18th February 2008

DanDan playing for Callowbrook Swifts

DanDan playing for Callowbrook Swifts

This Sunday Callowbrook Swifts were playing Glade Rangers away. A couple of weeks ago we played their neighbours, Hampton Sports. For the first time since DanDan has been playing for the team, they had a full strength team of 10 men. Glade Rangers finally managed to make a full 7 man team, as we were thinking they might have to forfeit the game when only 5 players initially turned up. From the kick-off Callowbrook Swifts made their presence felt. Glade Rangers put up a galant fight all the way through the match, and never gave Callowbrook a chance to take it easy. However, a mid-week training session seemed to make a huge difference in the team play. Callowbrook were passing, making and finding space and generally taking on their opponents.

DanDan was sub for the first half, and came on for the second half. Sharpy had managed to take Callowbrook ahead, and nearly got a second, in the first half, and the constant pushing and driving kept the ball in the Glade half. The pitch was slightly sloped in our favour, and the early advantage could easily have been taken away by Glade, but they never quite managed the same level of pushing and dispite getting close to goal on a few occasions, Ross, Jack and Zak held their own. Jack taking the ball up the full length of the picth on several occasions. Soon into the second half Callowbrook got a corner. My previous hinting of DanDan standing in front of the goal, rather than standing back, paid off and ball fell more or less right at his feet. He just had to kick it, and he did. Right into the back of the net. His first goal for the team. Understandably I was delighted, although I was disappointed that the camera wasn't quick enough to capture the moment.

Callowbrook Swifts

Callowbrook Swifts

Both teams to their credit continued the relentless driving of the ball. It was the best match I've ever seen Callowbrook Swifts play and much better than several professional matches I've seen. Sharpy did himself proud with a second goal, supported by passes from DanDan and Charlie. All the team played brilliantly, although it was a shame that we saw a few casualties. Joel suffered towards the end of the first half and Cameron got a bad knock just after he came on for the second half. They all played better as a team this week, with much better passing and calling for the ball, so a 3-0 win was well deserved. We're at home to Marston Green next week, so fingers crossed we're on form again. Well played lads.

File Under: birmingham / callowbrook / dandan / football
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Snow

Posted on 19th November 2007

It's snowing!

It's snowing!

Early this morning, just before going to bed, we happened to look out into the back garden and noticed a rather large abundance of white. It had been trying to snow earlier in the day, but it hadn't been settling. After it had gone dark it would seem the snow had fallen a little more heavily. I tried taking some photos through the kitchen window, using a night setting, but I think it would have been better had I been outside. Seeing as I was too tired to go out (it was 2am) and it was far too cold, I had to make do. Hopefully this won't be the last snow, as I'd like to get some with Ethne playing in the snow :)

File Under: birmingham / brum / life / photography / rubery / weather
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Liberator

Posted on 25th September 2007

This week, 27th-30th September, BT and Intel are teaming up to promote wireless broadband coverage in Birmingham for Liberate Birmingham. There seems to be a big promotion going on with lots of giveaways and prizes, but it's really a basic marketing ploy to get you to sign up to their services. During the promotion they are advertising that you'll get one day free wifi access, but if you read the website, that's part of the standard package when you sign up at any time.

I might have been more excited about it had it been permanently free not just one day, which many other countries are moving towards, or at least a low charge (£10 per month for 4 hours access is quite steep considering that Virgin Media Broadband (Telewest as was) charge £25 per month for a 4MB unlimited link). I can understand that the initial outlay has possibly been quite significant, but charging ridculous prices is not going to get you that many long term users.

I've often wonder why some of these companies don't learn basic economics. Understanding supply and demand isn't difficult, but it would seem that people like BT are being swayed more by the numbers of their capacity, thus scared of the uptake and maybe frightened that if everybody signed up they would be so overwhelmed with the bandwidth that their network would overload and shutdown. Charging a high price for very little doesn't get you much demand, so you never reach your capacity limits.

However, charging £10 for perhaps 30 hours (roughly 1 hour per day), would seem like a much better deal for everyone. The customer thinks they getting a good deal, and the provider is getting a decent demand for the service and more importantly long term demand, because people will be more willing to stay signed up for quite some time. For that kind of deal I'd sign up, in fact I'd probably sign up for a year. But how much usage would I actually get out of it? At the moment I don't spend a lot of time in Birmingham City Centre, but when I do, had I signed up I would probably be getting to use maybe 8 hours of usage total for the month. Despite the fact I never used the other 52 hours worth, I would still feel like I got a good deal, because I would know that if ever I needed the access when I was in the city centre, it would be there. If I worked in Birmingham, I could possibly use maybe upto 20 hours just sitting waiting for my bus (longest I've waited for a 63 is two hours!).

It's all about perception. It's how banks work. The perception is that a bank will always give you your money whenever you need it, and in virtually all instances that happens. The reason being that your local bank contains enough money to pay out a reasonable amount to any customer who wanted it. If with the case of Northern Rock recently, customers suddenly flood the tellers with requests, then the reserves run out fast and those unable to get their money out panic and demand suddenly escalates. Thankfully this rarely happens.

With BT's wireless service, if they had a signup of the service for 100 users, when they know they could only cope with 80 users, the chances of all those 100 users accessing the service all at the same time is unlikely. Possible, but unlikely. Maybe when an international disaster hits there might be a flood of people trying to get access, but no-one would find it totally unexpected to struggle to get a connection at those times. During regular daily usage I would expect maybe only 40-50% of users would be using the service at peak periods (probably home time). Most people are only likely to use the service in the evening or weekends, when they're out at the pub (possibly on a quiz night) or wandering around the shops. With the increased usage of the wireless mobile phone, potentially the usage could be a little higher, but in most cases people are using their work connection on their desktop or laptop, or they're at home. I would be extremely surprised to see all the access points at 100% for connections and CPU usage at any point of the day or week.

I find it sad that UK business is still greedy to make as much money as possible out of their customers. I'm not against anyone making money from this sort of service, but I am against them making it sound like a good deal, then actually offering you very little in return. Signing you up only to find you use up your monthly allowance in the space of a few days, is not likely to get you many long term customers. With the government moving to speed up the rollout of high octane fuelled 100MBps broadband across the country, it would be nice to see some of those plans to also include the provision for cheaper wireless network services. The UK is falling behind many others around the world, and it's increasingly embarrassing to explain to non-UK geeks why you're so excited to sit in a pub and have FREE wireless access!

File Under: birmingham / commerce / rant / wifi
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Wipe Out

Posted on 7th August 2007

Recently I've been looking for an alternative venue to host the Birmingham Perl Mongers social meetings. Although The Wellington is a nice pub with some excellent real ales, it doesn't have a free wifi connection. The pub itself is wired live to the internet, as the instant a pub runs dry the staff update the website, so they do have the potential to add a wireless router. However, in most of the pubs that do have wireless, they seem to be signed up to people like The Cloud.

While trawling the web looking for alternative locations, I happened across an article posted last year, that highlights two things about the wireless internet business in the UK.

First off is that the prices are way too high to be anything but greedy. One person connected to The Cloud for 24 hours would be enough to pay the bandwidth on a 4MB broadband line for a month, and at least 2 routers, with the rest covering any administration charges. Public WiFi in the UK is expensive. If a company wants to make money out of the use of a service like this, why are they charging such a high rate. Think about it. One person might pay £2.99 per 30 minute session, but you're more likely to get more than 3 if it was under £2 per hour. I also don't get why the pubs, cafes and the like don't put more effort in to promote free wifi and get people like The Cloud to charge the venue a standard fee. This fee would then be offset by attracting more people to their establishments and selling more drink and food. In this day and age there are more and more people are carrying portable wireless internet enabled devices, whether it's a laptop, mobile phone or a Nokia N800. What better way to attract them in for a quick pint or two than to allow them to do some web surfing at the bar?

The second issue is about the content people are viewing, and why some may fear being prosecuted for transmitting that kind of material. With companies like The Cloud routing all web surfing activites through central servers, internet level security companies, such as MessageLabs, are well placed to enable that peace of mind and block all inappropriate content. There is no reason for the fear, other than for the service providers to give a reason why they need your credit card information so they can track your surfing habits.

Free WiFi internet access is growing in other parts of the world, because the pubs, bars, cafes and clubs all realise the additional revenue it brings in, when punters buy their main retail items such as drink and food. The UK seems so far behind in this realisation that it's almost backward. I only know of one pub in the whole of the Birmingham borough (not just the city centre) that provides free Wifi. If it wasn't in such an odd spot, I would move the Birmingham Perl Mongers socials there ready for the next meeting.

After I started to write this piece, I've been well informed (thanks Kake), that JD Weatherspoons now have a special deal for WiFi users in their pub. Buy a pint and you get 30 minutes free wireless internet access. This is exactly the kind of thing that pubs should be offering. After all, if they're going to offer free WiFi, the least you can do is buy a pint. Though it does pose a problem for slow Guinness drinkers like myself ;) We have a social meeting tomorrow, but it's a little late to change venue, but we may well look to see whether we should decamp for next month to The Briar Rose (only a few doors down from The Wellington).

File Under: beer / birmingham / pubs / rant / wifi
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Breaking The Habit

Posted on 21st June 2007

I spoke at the OpenAdvantage Open Source Showcase yesterday. It was intriguing to see how some other speakers took the brief of "introduce why you use open source" to mean "a free 10 minute marketing exposure". While I certainly have nothing against small businesses trying to promote themselves at these sort of events, it would have been nice for them to better explain why they chose to use Open Source Software. Some did, albeit briefly, some explained the benefits they've gained (Birmingham Friends of The Earth was certainly a good example), but most took the time to explain how big their client portfolio was. The people in the room largely were small businesses and were looking to understand why they should consider Open Source.

One presentation failed to even mention Open Source or any Open Source product. It was only later I discovered that the hardware product worked with a Linux kernel. It was a sales pitch from start to finish. The presenters wife was sat next to me, and kept adding commentary to those around her, to follow up statements made by the presenter. It was a bit bizarre, and a bit out of place I felt.

My talk, using Labyrinth to provide an example, was really about why I chose Open Source and specifically Perl to implement the website application. I started by explaining my background, not in any great detail, but enough so the audience could understand that I had a history of programming and IT, long before Open Source and Free Software was consider the movement it is today. Whereas most other speakers were able to say they had been doing their particular field for 4-8 years, I was able to state that I have been a programmer for nearly 30 years. I also come from a very different perspective, that of someone who is a true developer. The only other developers were Kat and Dave, who did the presentation about PHP before me. Pretty much everyone else had a much more user perspective. With 13 presentations, it was an odd balance that only 2 were not user experiences.

If I was attending to represent my own company, then while user experiences would be very useful to prove that my business could benefit from using Open Source, I personally would like to understand what benefits that the actual developers see and the future for Open Source, which you're not likely to get from users. There was one presentation from a lawyer about licensing, which pretty much reaffirmed what most of us understand about licensing issues, which was well placed, as it is a subject that does worry some businesses. While some may be just interested in the cost aspect to begin with, ultimately the subject of support and longevity does get thought about. Users often can't explain those, so it would have been nice to have had a Linux distro developer or other Open Source software developer to give that sort of perspective.

There wasn't much Microsoft bashing, which was refreshing, but rather reasoned arguments why proprietry software didn't work for these particular business. One speaker gave a price list for seven basic development machines running Windows and another seven running Linux. The final cost compared £10,000 with £4,500. I did have to smile at the claim that they didn't need AV software on the Linux machine, but resisted the urge to note that Linux isn't virus-free. I originally did offer to speak about why MessageLabs use OSS, but Elliot from OpenAdvantage felt that the Perl talk would be more appropriate. Now having done the talk, I would have to agree.

The event was well attended, with about 50+ people in the audience, and generated a lot of discussion. I hope they get to invite me to another event in the future, and this time I might not over run :)

File Under: birmingham / conference / opensource
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In The City

Posted on 12th June 2007

Centennary Square, Birmingham

Centennary Square, Birmingham

Last year DanDan and I made several trips around the city of Birmingham in preparation for the 2006 YAPC::Europe Perl Conference. The plan was to take lots of photos, so that attendees would both already know some of the landmarks before they got here, and to encourage those teetering on the edge, that Birmingham is actually a decent place to explore. I've just uploaded five galleries of photos that we both took during June and July 2006. We managed to pick our days very well, as we had glorious sunshine to help bring out the colours of the buildings and plants. It was fun explaining Perrott's Folly to DanDan as that's part of his heritage.

I say we, as some of the photos I've included are taken by DanDan, using my old camera. He's not done too badly in some of them :)

File Under: birmingham / brum / photography
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All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit

Posted on 20th April 2007

DanDan has been going to The Strikes Soccer Accademy for the past year, and had some great football coaching. He already had the ability to drop-kick and aim the ball from as young as 3, so we knew he had a natural talent. Thanks to Neil his coach, and getting the chance to play with the older boys at school, he's come on leaps and bounds.

My only disappointment is that Strikes doesn't seem to be able to market themselves very well. At the moment there are only 4 boys being coached in the under 8s group, which DanDan is a part of. It's supported by Birmingham City FC, Walsall FC and Birmingham City Council, so I'm surprised that it hasn't had a lot more publicity. Having a smaller group to coach has meant that Neil has been able to give each boy much more dedicated coaching, which is good, but it does mean there isn't more of a challenge for DanDan.

There was talk of a marketing campaign earlier in the year, but I haven't seen any evidence of it. It would have been good to promote the football coaching to local schools, as there are several. Callowbrook Swifts seems to be the next step up for some, but they seem much more orientated to playing rather than training, and I think DanDan needs more of the training at the moment.

I was thinking the other day, if we did manage to nuture his talent and help him become a first team player with some (preferably local) club, I wonder whether he'd get labelled as "the next ...."? I hope not, he's DanDan. Our DanDan ;)

And for the youngsters among you, regards the title ... see here.

File Under: birmingham / coaching / dandan / football / strikes
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Driving In My Car

Posted on 15th April 2007

Yesterday was "The Pride of Longbridge Rally". It started with a large gathering of cars at Hopwood Services, junction 2 of the M42, followed by a long drive around the old MG Rover / Austin Rover works before turning into Cofton Park. It must have been slightly disheartening to see the disappearance of such a large part of the works. I tried to find some old pictures of what the place used to be like, but it's been a bit difficult. None of them really capture enough of the site as it was, so you can see how much has gone.

Then I discovered this photo of the plant from 1978, and this one from roughly the same time. The first photo faces west, whereas the second photo faces east. The large building at the top of the first photo, is the same large building in the lower part of the second photo. The white (it was really grey) bridge (The Conveyor Bridge) over the road in the centre of the first picture was where the car frames would be transported to the assembly line. Thankfully as Google Maps are based on data from around 2000, this satellite photo was taken just before the demolition started and you can see the areas of the site quite well. However, this image helps to identify the areas that have actually gone.

Take a good look at those photos. The bridge has gone, everything from the large building to the west of the Bristol Road has been flattened [West Works], the corner piece between Bristol Road and north of Longbridge Lane has long been flattened (in the Google Map photo it was used a temporary car park), and looking at the first photo, everything north of the white building at the bottom of the photo, north all the way to Longbridge Lane has also gone [North Works]. Also the area to the south of Groveley Lane and to the east of Lowhill Lane [East Works] has gone.

DanDan and I took a wander around the works and recorded how it looks now. I just wish I'd thought to have taken a tour around the site before demolition had begun. As we live less than a mile away from the site, we have been included in the plans for the area's future. There is a site Future 4 Longbridge that has been detailing the plans and recording all the responses from residents. The now proposed plan looks to be quite an interesting prospect. Whatever happens it's going to be a major change to the area.

Taking a step back, as mentioned at the start, it was also "The Pride of Longbridge Rally". DanDan and I had a walk round some of the early arrivals at Cofton Park, as the classic cars and more recent ones all lined up to show off their part in the Longbridge Legacy. I personally love the old classics and have always held a liking for Minis, but the more recent Allegros, Metros and numbered cars have never held a candle in my opinion, so we didn't stick around to watch them line up. Apparently there was entertainment lined up from a live band, but judging from the soundcheck, we didn't miss much. I'm sure everyone there had a good day, and it is great for the area of Longbridge to remember the part it has played in the history of the Motor Industry.

File Under: austin / birmingham / cars / coftonpark / longbridge / rover
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