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The life and times of james Hart: his family, his music, life in Luton and his occasional escapes onto the internet.

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Sunday, 30 January 2005

wanderings and mixers

Well, it's looking like another brief era of all the family being in one country is over, as of tomorrow. Mary (my youngest sister) and Roger are jetting off to New Zealand for a bit of a look around; it's an amazing country, so I'm sure they'll love it as much as Cath and Martin did (who moved back to the UK in the later half of last year).

I think there must be wanderlust in the blood, although Beth and I are saving our travels until the children are older/have left home.

Well, another working weekend is over - it's been quite a busy one, all in, with Saturday spend wrestling with Big Brother network monitoring system, which was doing nothing I was asking it to, and today down in one of the basement studios tracing a buzzing mike fault all the way through the studio wiring to the innards of a perplexing but wizzy digital mixer (it doesn't look nearly as gorgeous as the Studer desks that are going in the bigger studios, mind). All good experience for me, though.

Tomorrow and Tuesday are days off - we're popping down to Watford in the morning, to see Cath & Luke and take a wander through town, but other than that, I don't think we've got much planned (except to see Look Around You, obviously...) I like it like that. Perhaps I might tidy the house (for a change!)

Boring webserver update - I've managed to get the sound working, and now I can broadcast any internet radio station around the house (well, to my little cordless headphones, anyway!) However, there's still loads I could do with sorting!

Links of the day

  • www.netstrider.com/.../entity_list.html : for some reason I keep needing these for my blog - they're the HTML names for all the tricky-to-type characters like é, £, € and, erm, ℑ.
  • www.banana2go.co.uk : Put an end to bruised banana misery with a purpose built holder. No, really. You can even get ones that glow-in-the-dark - not that I'd know...

Posted by james at 6:53 PM

Saturday, 29 January 2005

Just... Look Around You (series 2!)

Last night I did that thing where I was looking for a useful link (on this occasion it was about dragster video clips - Christopher and I were building a model of one out of K'Nex, and I thought it was the best way of explaining what one was), only to find it overwrote the blog entry I was almost finished typing. I don't know why, but it always takes me about half-an-hour to write one of these - it must have something to do with my inherent need to have everything neat and complete.

Before I continue, though, I feel I must announce to all and sundry that the second series of Look Around You is starting on Monday 31st January, on BBC2 at 10pm. I'll be watching it (especially the last episode, in which both Beth and I appear!) In fact, we're having a bit of a celebratory soirée of our TV acting debuts on the 7th March - please email me at the usual address if you fancy popping by... the more the merrier. "Hot Jon!"Look Around You

I've embarked upon another working weekend - the last three days have gone very quickly, in spite of the seasonal drizzle preventing much more than a brief trip to the tidy tip (although Beth's been out in the garden digging up the undergrowth!) There's plenty to do indoors, mind you - especially when Christopher's so keen to learn about all kinds of things and Ella's happy to sit on my lap while we read a story.

Christopher impressed me yesterday with some 'jamming' on his little children's keyboard to one of the automatic accompaniment tracks - I recorded a snippet of it, which you can hear here (109kB MP3)

I think I've finally reached the stage with my Linux server that I'm not fretting about with it too much now. There's still plenty to do (I daresay there'll be another blog entry entirely devoted to that!) but for now, all the main webserver bits are working OK, and I have on-line access to my email through the miracles of Squirrelmail, so I can check it wherever I am (although I can't guarantee to be any better at replying - sorry!)

Links of the day

Posted by james at 11:04 AM

Wednesday, 26 January 2005

Life on shift

So what of the other goings-on? I ought to bring things up-to-date, seeing as a couple of weeks has passed, and we're approaching the end of January already! Everyone in the family is slowly recovering from their miscellaneous ailments - Christopher's had some nasty blocked ears for, it must be, over a month now; we've all shared a nagging cough of some sort, and the general January Blues are taking their toll, somewhat.

Hopefully, as February approaches (and we've hopefully avoided that Snow Day that blighted both 2003 and 2004 in surreal fashion) things will improve and the skies will lighten, which will make going out for the occasional wander a little more comfortable.

Christopher and I have been looking at Space Shuttle launches and landings - there are some great resources on the internet, including how a space shuttle works and a video archive of breathtaking launches and landings. There's even an Operator's manual available... handy!

Links of the day

  • www.boingboing.net : a frequently updated directory of wonderful websites (thanks, Sunshine)
  • add.my.yahoo.com/rss : The "My Yahoo!" page supports RSS feeds; all your favourite sites digested in one place (including this one, I hope!)

Posted by james at 10:50 PM

Tuesday, 25 January 2005

rebuild ... again! (or "overuse of bullet points")

Using aged laptops as webservers, although moderately economical as far as equipment spend and electricity costs go, is much like running an old car. It's a fine strategy, as long as you don't mind paying out moderately regularly for large parts that seem to break and fall off, until the time comes to call it a day and get a slightly newer one.

So "plinth" (a redundant Toshiba Satellite Pro Pentium 166MHz) is gone - my Windows 98 laptop "chunter" (a beloved Compaq Armada 7800 Pentium II 300MHz whose screen suffered an ignominious fate) is well on the way to taking its place, as has (with any luck) been borne out by this blog entry.

There are quite a few outstanding issues to deal with, some of which are fairly fundemental to the operation of the server:

  • backups
  • power management that will extend the life of the hard drive a little and save electricity
  • shoutcast for Image FM broadcasts
  • sorting out the irritating little errors that crop up from time to time
..and many others which make up a list that's re-emerged since I have a little more processor power to play with:
  • webmail server, so I can read my email wherever I am (including IMAP, Squirrelmail and Spamassassin - thank you to Ed, for his invaluable help so far!)
  • Webcam serving - regular photos (and possibly a Realmedia feed) from my studio webcam
  • Audio distribution - I'd like to be able to listen internet radio stations and MP3s using my MusicBox
(so not much, really, then).

As I mentioned, the fact that my blog is up and running again is only part of the story. Here's what I've done so far:

  • I installed Fedora Core 3 (the latest offering from RedHat) selecting various bits that I might find useful, and SELinux - a new 'flavour' of extra-secure Linux that stops things from working when they shouldn't (and even when they should).
  • Installed webmin - probably one of the most useful tools I have, as it's browser-based, and a better front-end for system management than any of the X-desktops I've suffered through (I'm on the verge of resorting to 'runlevel 3' - text only mode, although that might cause problems with video capture. I'll cross that bridge when I've fallen over it)
  • Carefully (this time) restored the backups of my web server content and various other little settings (such as the configuration for Apache, which has all the useful bits on it)
  • Struggled for ages with nasty "mysql.sock" messages, only to discover that it's actually SELinux being over protective - stopping the web server section talking to the database, which it needs to do so that it can get the content off it - see this handy forum entry for the easy way to deal with these problems (that doesn't involve turning SELinux off)
  • Struggled with yum - a remarkable package installer that nearly makes running Linux quite easy - first trying to download GPG keys and then getting bogged down with the repositories collection

That's where I am now - to cut a very long and distracted story short. I'm certainly not finished tinkering, yet (have you ever seen me be?) so when I'm home tonight, I'll:

  • Turn my computer to run-level 3. Bored now.
  • Find out if IMAP is working
  • Find out how to run fetchmail as a daemon - I'm still going to use my ntlworld account as the main incoming store for the time being; changing domain hosting MX records is a bit too scary
  • Find out why Squirrelmail doesn't work, even though apparently it's installed (although I don't know what .noarch means)
  • Get powersaving working (APCI? APM? BIOS settings?
  • Re-install shoutcast server (for Image FM broadcasts)
  • Set up the backup jobs to save my computer from further disaster

From there, instead of doing any creative music-making in the studio, I might try my hand at:

  • Finding a sound card driver and building it into the kernel (without breaking everything else - I can't believe Linux is still not very good with audio
  • Retrace my steps with the webcam driver, in an attempt to make it take some pictures of my studio and put them on the web
  • Actually understanding how half of this stuff works, or why it's not.

Ambitious? Probably, but it's my grown-up equivalent of that huge Technical Lego model that would never be finished, although there's less chance of members of my immediate family smashing it up, these days. I say that, but I've got children now...

Posted by james at 11:54 AM

Sunday, 16 January 2005

Green

With all the television programmes telling of doom, gloom and Global Dimming, I know I'm not the only one who's looking into ways of helping the environment.

I suppose the 'little by little' approach is the only real way I can contribute - much like organic food has taken off because of a growing demand for it, so, perhaps can the environmentally friendly alternatives. OK, so they're a bit (or in more extreme cases, a lot) more expensive, but it's not the next thousand years we need to think about - in some cases, things could be starting to go horribly wrong by the time Ella is my age.

One thing Beth and I are agreed on is to minimize our use of planes, as they are heavy pollutants (someone once quoted that a jumbo jet, when it's taking off, creates more pollution than every car on the M25, although I can't verify that); we may also consider doing away with the car and rely more on public transport.

I have to admit, though, that I'm still not quite convinced enough to vote for the Green Party although perhaps some kind of coalition would be a great idea.

Related sites

  • www.greenelectricity.org : A directory of environmentally aware electricity suppliers
  • www.greenenergy.uk.com : A supplier of 'green' electricity (thanks for the link, Jon)
  • www.encraft.co.uk : Home improvement eco-style... I would so love to have a wind turbine on the roof, and solar panels to heat the house. One day, perhaps...

Posted by james at 1:15 PM

Saturday, 15 January 2005

Quiet weekend...

It's Saturday morning, and I'm in the office, enjoying the tranquility of weekend work - with any luck it'll remain fairly quiet, so I can work through the long list of outstanding jobs (we've had to buy a beefier stapler to get through the pile of paper!) with the engineers, and carry out some bits and pieces of my own.

I'm not sure I've left it quite so long between blog entries in a good while - life's been busy but rewarding, with days spent either at work or with the family, and evenings generally wrestling with laptops (for one reason or another!) and - for the first time in I don't know how long - making some music.

Otherwise, it's the time of year for malady; both the children and Beth have been laid low by colds, although I've come off quite lightly with little more than a mild dose of conjunctivitis from which both children have suffered, so I'm not too surprised. Unfortunately, this has somewhat curtailed our activities on my days off - swimming's definitely been out of the question - but we've still had some fun.

Pete and Lisa have just had their second child (I'm not sure what her name is yet) so now I have a rather impressive five nephews and nieces! I'm guessing/hoping they had a little easier time of it this time than when Lisa had Jordan in India.

That's it, really - I can't believe I've so little to report. If anything else crops up, I'll not hesitate to blog it (honest!)

Links of the week(!)


Posted by james at 10:18 AM

Friday, 7 January 2005

Weekend and cover versions

We popped down to Watford to see Cath, Martin and little (though rapidly growing up!) Luke this morning, and, after watching the little lad have his first play on the traditional "door bouncer", we went for an enjoyable (if a little blustery) walk through the park that's a short walk from their house.

In the afternoon, Christopher and I played, among other things, with K'Nex, a large box of which he received for Christmas. He's really taken to building things from the construction guide that came with the box; it's amazingly versatile, and he can follow the instructions without too much trouble.

Ella hadn't napped, so was a bit snappy, but she still enjoyed interacting with me from inside her large cardboard box that she has turned into a little refuge from all the bits strewn on the floor!

Beth, unfortunately, has a cold, and it's become worse as the day's progressed, but it gave me an opportunity to throw myself into entertaining the children. I'm going to have to catch up with the housework tomorrow, though! One of the benefits of the shift system is that my weekends sometimes extend to three days, so I'll still (hopefully) have some time to tidy the studio.

While I was catching up with my blogging (as you can see I've been rather intermittent of late - my explanation is that with my shiny new phone, I'm taking more photos; every picture tells a story, which needs to be told!) I was listening to a German radio station called Radio CT, on which a member of the team that pops over to the UK to help us with our playout system on occasion, does an 80s and early 90s show on a Friday evening. One of the songs he played was by a Belgian Choir called Scala who saw fit to cover the frankly untouchable "Creep" by Radiohead.

It led me to think about how many other bands have attempted a version (I know Richard Cheese, who performs irreverant lounge versions of rock classics, couldn't help but have a go) - I was surprised to see, at The Covers Project that twenty nine bands have committed musical sacrilege (or similar). Take, for example, "The Pop Project", who perform synthpop versions of famous tracks. Here's their take (3.29MB zip [inexplicably]) - and I would urge you to prepare yourself psychologically. See how many more inappropriate covers you can spot. Or not.

Posted by james at 10:01 PM

Thursday, 6 January 2005

Shift patterns and speech synthesizers...

I'm well into the swing of things now - the twelve hour shifts have started, and I'm doing the "supervisor" job full time.

Yesterday was a most interesting day - I took a trainee to Maida Vale for the engineer there to show us around (as it's an extended part of my patch) which, after a year with BBC Radio was my first visit to this hallowed ground. We chose to walk, as the weather wasn't too inclement, passing the lovely Little Venice just north of Paddington station. There are some lovely parts of London, although I still would never be persuaded to live here, even if I won £8 million!


Springs used to suspend some studios
Maida Vale studios were nothing less than I'd imagined - the large photo of John Peel outside the studio that traditionally hosted the famous Peel Sessions was very poignant, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra rehearsing in MV1 (a gym hall-sized area) sounded quite breathtaking. The engineering aspects aren't much more than I'm used to, although the equipment is top-of-the-line, and the challenges that face the guys who work there generally involve the ancicence of the building (which, incidentally, used to be an ice rink, and was hit by a bomb during the war) which was partially closed in the 80s, but has seen a new lease of life with the recent resurgeance in live music.

I'm (hopefully) developing something of a rapport with the others in the central London workshop. I was recently made aware of something that's rather fun - did you know you can now send SMS messages to any UK landline number? It's a new service provided by BT that doesn't cost any more than a standard text, and calls the intended recipient with a recorded introduction and synthesized voice that 'reads' the message. How much fun is that? See www.bt.com/bttext for more information. Here's one I made earlier (94kB MP3).

Links of the day

Posted by james at 8:38 PM

Tuesday, 4 January 2005

Copying video clips onto a Nokia phone... (techie)

Now I have a shiny new Nokia 5140, with all the technology that it offers, I've enjoyed creating little ringtones (I'm using MIKSOFT's Mobile AMR converter, based on some Sony Ericsson software - www.miksoft.8m.com), taking photos and, most recently, attempting to get small video clips to play on it.

This is probably the trickiest thing to do, as the phone uses (what seems to be) an industry standard "3GP" type of video, and will refuse to play anything which is the wrong size or too big (300kB is about the largest it can manage).

However, I've finally managed to do it - there's now a small but watchable copy of the impressive dancing robot car advert on my phone, with which I can entertain Christopher. Here's how I did it.

What you need

  • A phone that can play 3GP files
  • A phone that has a means of connecting to a PC, either through infra-red or cable
  • A PC capable of connecting to the phone and the internet
  • A video file of up to a minute in length, preferably in AVI or WMV format - www.stupidvideos.com is useful for that.

How to do it

  • Save the video file somewhere on your hard drive.
  • If the file is a WMV file, you'll need to convert it to AVI (due to the current version of the 3gp converter being unable to deal with WMV files directly). i use STOIK Video Converter 2, the conversion part of which is freeware.
  • I use the straightforward "Uncompressed AVI (original format)" setting to save the video file - it'll take upwards of 200MB of space, but not much more, as the clips can't really be very long, but it ensures that the quality is retained until it gets squished into tiny proportions at the end. However, if you're not bothered about editting unwanted bits off the beginning and end, you should save it as a compressed format (choose one that's available, changing the settings to maintain as much quality as possible - it's worth reviewing it using a media player afterwards to ensure it looks OK; if it's rubbish now, it'll be even worse when reduced to postage-stamp size
  • I get rid of uthe unnecessary opening and closing logos using the remarkable VirtualDub - there's also a problem with the final stage of the conversion process in that the 3gp software can't cope with uncompressed AVI files. Save it as an AVI in a compressed format - as long as it's in the list, it'll be readable by the 3gp conversion software, but it's worth noting my comments on quality above.
  • To prepare the video for transfer to the phone, I'm currently using the free demo of ImToo 3gp converter - it's got a 5 minute file length limit, but as I'm not able to play anything longer than about a minute, it's fine for me. The trick here is to ensure that the settings on the right hand side are adequate to make it play on the phone - it doesn't seem to be able to download anything bigger than about 300kB, and the size has to be 128 x 96 pixels. You can change the bitrate (I'm using 30kB/s instead of 40kB/s to reduce the size of a fairly long clip); use the h263 codec, to which it should default.
  • The video clip is now ready to send to the phone - with any luck it'll be accepted, and you'll be able to show off your collection of funny videos with the best of 'em. Here's one I prepared earlier (204kB 3gp file).

Posted by james at 9:25 PM

Saturday, 1 January 2005

Knighthoods and football. An obvious combination (?)

I was working on New Year's Eve, although I arrived home early enough to join Beth, Suzi and Andy for a quiet evening of anticipation before it was too late to have a couple of drinks; we chatted, and played our video recording of the surreal but generally unseen AD/BC Rock Gospel story of the Nativity, which featured two of the three stars of The Mighty Boosh which left us crinkled up in mirth (so to speak), followed by one of the televisual highlights (certainly for me) of 2004 - Flashmob - the Opera. Midnight came and, as I'm now quite old, to celebrate the commencement of a new year, I poured myself a large glass of water and went to bed.

There was plenty planned for Saturday. Beth's uncle, aunt and youngest cousin and family were due to visit; we were going to meet for lunch and after that, I'd been invited to join Rob, Drew (Beth's cousin's husband) and Alan (Beth's uncle) to watch Luton play a football match against Sheffield Wednesday. It's only the second league football match I've attended (see here for the account), and no less awe-inspiring - not to mention a little unsettling - to hear the whole stadium chant in unison. The songs they sang were that much more coarse, though, and directed mainly at the thousand or so away supporters who were barricaded in their own area. My favourite was "You're not famous any more" which was both true and amusing, especially when sung by tens of hundreds of people.pictures of the football match - 1

A suprise was revealed at lunch - Beth's uncle, an important figure in the car industry, had been offered (and had accepted) a knighthood. It led me to wonder if I'd ever be honoured (I very much doubt it!) and whether I would consider accepting...

second cousinsAll in all, a fine day for us and the children, who had the opportunity to play with their second cousins - one of whom is practically the same age as Ella. It was really encouraging to see them both interacting so well, in spite of being so very young! In fact, we're really lucky to have so many nieces and nephews who get on so well and - with any luck - will see our two a good deal more this year. My New Year's Resolution is to see more of the family - I hope I can keep to it!

Posted by james at 7:29 PM


 
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