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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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Thursday, 31 March 2005

bethday...

Woo! Beth's birthday today. Christopher came up with the great idea of making a video e-card; he and I sang and danced in front of a webcam, and I put it on a webpage for her to see this morning. He's a very creative young man - that's probably his first bit of film direction.

Because I've been working today, I wasn't able to put on the full birthday celebration, but Beth's happy to wait until tomorrow for that! (How lucky am I? I know of some husbands who'd be torn limb from limb for such impudence...)

Teenage Fanclub at 6MusicThe highlight of work over the last couple of days was seeing Teenage Fanclub sing and play in the 6Music hub. I don't think I've ever seen a steel guitar for real before, so it was educational as well as being quite a musical delight. Once again, my opposite number has had to take time off work due to family problems, so I've been quite full up with things to do. Still, I love my job and my working arrangements, so it's all tolerable really. I'll be forgetting about it for a few days, too; I say that, but I've still got to schedule some victims in for the onerous task of a new Service Desk on Monday. Sometimes it's impossible to be a popular manager!

Mmm... I can feel a weekend coming on...

Posted by james at 9:54 PM

Tuesday, 29 March 2005

Rehearsal

Well, the weekend finally came to a juddering end on Sunday night - I left work half-an-hour later than normal because of, well, a diminutive pop singer spilling tea down a Radio 2 desk.

My delayed journey home was then extended a little by the coach driver having a bit of a senior moment; the journey up the M1, outside peak hours, is punctuated by a brief detour to a small bus stop in the outer reaches of St Albans called Bricket Wood, which takes us off the motorway for about a mile. (Apparently it's a money-spinnig exercise by Arriva, who can claim a substantial grant for making the stop).

I was writing up some notes on my laptop, and only occasioned to look up when I'd finished. I was quite surprised that I didn't recognise the buildings that were next to the motorway - I suspected, as it was Easter Sunday, that there was a diversion in place. Then, however, we passed a junction for the A1, my brain recalled that there isn't a northbound exit, and I realised that the driver had rejoined the M1 going the wrong way.

It was rather strange that nobody else had noticed (although it's an airport coach, plenty of people got off at Luton bus station) but I approached the driver and said "Did you know we're going towards London?" His puzzled expression gave me the impression that he did; "We're supposed to be going to Luton." I said. He tapped at his little ticket machine thing and then made quiet cursing noises to himself. I don't think I've ever seen a driver try to make up for lost time so quickly... it was quite hair-raising at times.

Still, I made it home in time to put the eleven broken keys back into place on my keyboard (an antiquated Roland D5) after yet another fall off its stand in the studio, in preparation for a band rehearsal on Easter Monday.

Jude - rehearsingIt's been such a long time since I've met up with David and Joanne for a rehearsal (and a fair while since I've spent more than about half an hour playing my instruments) that I was a little worried that I would be severely out of practice.

As it happened, though, I managed quite quickly to pick up the three new songs we were practicing. For the first one - On my knees (600kB MP3) I played acoustic guitar It's got a slight mid-90s feel to it, and we managed to weave in some nice backing vocals. Unfortunately (or perhaps it was better that way!) I was playing into a microphone, so it didn't come out particularly loudly on the recording...

After popping home for the afternoon - having missed spending six days out of the last seven with the children, I didn't want to lose the chance to take them for a run around the park and a milkshake at McD's (I'm glad we did - it's been dull and overcast today) - we worked another couple of songs, the first of which was my favourite new song of the day. Best Instructions Before Life Ends (704kB MP3) has a slight Manic Street Preachers feel to it, and I played the loud rhythm guitary bit and the solo at the beginning with a good degree of mediocrity.

It's amazing how quickly time goes - half-past nine came far too soon, but fortunately we managed to make our way through the epic Grace (980kB MP3, on which I played the proto-U2 style rhythm guitar (plugged in, this time, so it could be heard!)

All in all, it was a really good session - it's a shame my work commitments prevent me from doing it more often, but when I do get time, I will try and get together with Joanne and David for the another session. Perhaps my fingers will have stopped hurting by then!

Links of the day:

Posted by james at 1:58 PM

Saturday, 26 March 2005

TV distractions (and intranet messaging)...

The Doctor and RoseIn spite of my being at work, it's been a bit of a televisual feast today; the England vs. Northern Ireland World Cup qualifier match was on BBC1 this afternoon, and it was the much awaited return of Doctor Who at 7pm. Fortunately, we have a TV in the office, and work was quiet during the times that the match and programme were on, so I could keep half an eye on the TV as I did some paperwork.

The match was really enjoyable. I only tend to like the internationals, as they bring out the best that a country has to offer, rather than the club with the most to spend. I certainly wasn't disappointed, especially when the goals started plopping in shortly after half-time.

I had also been looking forward to Doctor Who for quite a while, not least because most of the reviews of the first programme were positive - that's really something where cult programmes are concerned. Having one adventure every 45 minute episode (kind-of like Bugs, CSi, or - dare I say it - Buffy) was something of a departure, as I was used to stories that spanned six weeks, with each episode generally punctuated by a scream. The cinematography was excellent, there was plenty of comedy, and although the story was relatively simple, the characters had some depth (the Doctor's almost bipolar behaviour, the mother's 'desperate housewife' nature and Billie Piper looking like she did before marrying Chris Evans). If there were two things that bothered me, they were when the action just stopped and seemed a little awkward (mainly during the climax, where the shop dummies were having a bit of a go at the public and the Doctor was being restrained by the Kryten-a-likes), and the terminal incompetence of whoever was directing BBC1 continuity, and kept putting the sound of Quickly Scum Dancing (or whatever Saturday evening nonsense it was) to air during the first few minutes. "Dear BBC, why oh why..."

Sorry to keep harping on about Doctor Who, but I do wonder if the references to Monty Python (such as "We're sitting on a planet that's evolving and revolving..." or similar) were deliberate. The preview for Next week's episode reminded me of Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, too, as it's set at the 'end of the world'. Now that is something I'm looking forward to! (Er.. the episode, not the sun exploding).

All in all, a great romp (as a keen user of clichés would say), and much, much funnier than I remember it. I'm quite looking forward to seeing how Mark Gatiss's episode turns out, too...



Dull techie stuff alert...
In an attempt to prove that I wasn't bone idle all day, I've been trying to work out a way to alert Radio 4 Continuity of weather warning emails from the Met Office. We had a rather delightful solution, but the IT Gestapo have disabled the "net send" command (kind-of understandably, as it's really rather insecure). Fortunately, we use the intranet version of Windows Messenger, so after scouring the internet, I came across this fantastic article which explains how to create a Visual Basic script (VBScript) to send a Microsoft Exchange Instant Messenger message to another user.

It's one of those things that, if you have the in-depth knowledge of the way that Exchange works - or at least what the commands are - it's actually quite straightforward. Unfortunately, it requires a small Microsoft Exchange Messaging Runtime module to be installed (the version of Messenger supplied with Windows doesn't work, more's the pity), but otherwise it should be quite simple yet reliable.
OK... you can look back now.


Only one day of work to go - although it'll have to be as early a night as I can manage, as I'll be up at the equivalent of ten past five tomorrow morning! It'll seem even stranger, as I don't think I've ever worked on Easter Sunday (though I've done enough Christmas Days!)

Happy Easter!

Posted by james at 9:47 PM

Friday, 25 March 2005

wordplay...

Having only had one day off, there's not been a great deal to report.

We made the most of yesterday, though, with a trip into town to buy Beth's birthday present from the children, and during lunch, Christopher was excited to tell us that his second tooth had come out (having swallowed the first in his sleep a month or so back!)

That's the first time I've seen a milk tooth since I was young, and I'm amazed at how small they are! Oh, and in case of any concern, the tooth fairy popped by last time, too...

We're enjoying home educating Christopher, mixing informal learning (he likes to think through practical problems on his own, and can read quite a few straightforward words, given a little time to work them out) with more book-based stuff.

There is a fantastic collection free primary learning resources on the Exeter University website, and we're printing out bits and pieces for Christopher to sit down and go through with us. It's actually quite good fun, too.

Links of the day: ("Playing With Words" special...)

  • www.wordcount.org : an interactive guide to the 86,800(!) most popular words in the English language. I was rather surprised to see "milkshake" towards the bottom of the list.
  • web.okaygo.co.uk/apps/letters/flashcom : an interactive collection of movable letters - kind of like wrestling on the front of a fridge.
  • amaztype.tha.jp : Type a word, and this website will display it, formed from books available from Amazon, containing that word. Where did they get the idea for this?
(thanks to Tracy for this collection!)

Game of the day:

Cheery Song of the day:

  • www.7secondsoflove.com/winners : perhaps, considering it's Good Friday, this song could be saved until tomorrow, but since it's such a cheerful tune...

Posted by james at 12:25 PM

Thursday, 24 March 2005

BBC job cuts

I thought it'd be sensible to mention the announcement made on Monday the 21st of March.

In our office, we sat watching Mark Thompson outline the cuts of jobs, troubled by the sheer scale of what he was saying.

Once the figures had been given, we were summoned to our a meeting of own division (BBC Radio Resources - a subdivision of Radio & Music), and the specific details were disseminated. Essentially, there are two parts to the department - "Operations" (who work with the programm makers to use the studios) and "Support" (who are more technical), and it was all hundred-or-so of us that were crammed into a badly ventilated conference room to hear the local news.

It was confirmed that the support area, to which I belong, has recently had a re-organisation, and as such has made preparations for any cuts (mainly by taking on contract and temporary staff for the intense recommissioning of Broadcasting House) so we are most fortunate in that there are not going to be any cuts in permanent positions cut (save for retirements etc.)

If we get some of the new work that's proposed, and can make the contract staff permanent in order to supply resources for it - the new guys really are keen and useful - it'll be even better.

So not bad news for our small team at all. It's quite scary to think that, come the sale of BBC Broadcast (my former department), I will be the only one of the four ex-GWR folk still working for the BBC.

Time, of course, will tell whether that remains the case (I'm hopeful that I'll be staying for a few more years yet...)

Posted by james at 9:36 AM

Wednesday, 23 March 2005

Workdays...

It's going to be a long week. Well, I say that - time goes very quickly when I'm at work, especially when it's as busy as it has been. Either way, though, I'm doing 72 hours this week, so there's not a great deal to report. Yesterday was the first opportunity for all us supervisors to get together and have a chat about the life and times of the department. Today's disappeared quickly, too, in spite of waking at a quarter-to-six. That must have been the hardest bit about going back to work after a couple of weeks off!

Tomorrow's my day off, though. I don't know what we have planned, but talking to Christopher on the phone, we've come up with some ideas; he wants to make a 'treasure box', so we'll probably grab some graph paper to design it, and then pop down to B&Q to get some wood. All good educational stuff.

Whatever, though, I don't think I'll be getting up before half-past seven (so I bet I'll end up with Bed Head!)

Links of the day:

Posted by james at 10:09 PM

Thursday, 17 March 2005

Brigg Stow

I've just arrived home after spending a wonderful day visiting a friend of mine in Bristol, on a misty but warm spring Saturday; I can definitely say it is in my top four cities (along with Salisbury, Canterbury and Brighton), as every time I go there, I find another wonderful aspect to the town, be it a building, causeway, fountain or statue.

Recycled drummersIt was difficult not to be out on such a lovely day, and we started off wandering through the Broadmead shopping centre (I had my eyes open for a present for Beth, as it's her birthday in the next couple of weeks). We were treated to a rather surreal sight and sound - a percussion band, who played bits of recycled junk such as sinks and shopping trolleys. They were (of course) promoting recycling, although I can't think of a more entertaining way of doing it. There's a brief clip here (260kB MP3), but it doesn't really do it justice.

It put me in mind of a hilarious bit of performance art that I came across - this is definitely worth watching, not least for the unusual use for a chest freezer: plaza.ufl.edu/njh/vids/hurratorpedo.wmv (Windows Media video)

Other highlights of our meanderings (and hill-climbs) around Bristol include - as pictured below : Balamory style houses : a church in Clifton : the Clifton suspension bridge : the amazing engineering building at the University of Bristol : a 'hand' statue : St Mary Redcliffe church.



Balamory-style houses A church in Clifton Clifton Suspension Bridge from the lock
Bristol University Engineering building Mooncatcher statue St Mary Redcliffe


Links of the day:

*"Brigg Stow" (meeting place by the bridge) is the original name for Bristol; Luton's name comes from the "Lea Tun" or "farm by the river Lea".

Posted by james at 12:32 AM

Tuesday, 15 March 2005

Day in the countryside...

As we're home-educating Christopher, it's times like this that make a real difference - especially seeing it was the most pleasant day, weatherwise, so far this year.

After dropping Ella off at Beth's Mum's... well, after popping home to pick up her shoes (my fault for not noticing she'd come to the car in her wellies; she's very much into footwear - the next Imelda Marcos, perhaps?) we headed west, first to visit the The Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum.

Beth had taken a school trip there as a child, but it was still as spell-binding nearly twenty years later. I don't think I've ever seen so many different sorts of animals in once place; OK, so they were stuffed, but the sheer variety of creatures, from tiny hummingbirds and even smaller beetles to the skeleton of an utterly enormous giant sloth was enough to keep us all interested for a few hours. The benefit was made all the more noticeable by the school trip that was taking place at the same time - six or more children were allocated to each adult, so the attention and knowledge had to be split six ways (OK, so Christopher was outnumbered two-to-one, but hopefully we weren't too overbearing in our enthusiasm!).

Here are a few mini-pictures from the Zoological Museum (click for larger):



Crocodile Angry Badger! Christopher and a giraffe Some dressed-up fleas


Tree CathedralAfter we'd had a sandwich in the little café, we headed back toward Dunstable, to see the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral. It's really quite difficult to describe, as it's a cathedral in concept rather than true form, with trees and hedges forming the aisles and trancepts. Having seen the website, and studied the map in more detail, I'd like to revisit it, to gain a better appreciation of the ingenious design.

Tree CathedralOn our way to the Zoological Museum, we had passed Pitstone Windmill; before we climbed the hill to Whipsnade (fortunately under the power of four wheels - it's very long and steep!) we parked up and walked through the field to take a closer look. Unfortunately, it's not open to the public at this time of year, but it was still informative to see how the earliest windmills (from 350 years ago) were constructed.

We concluded our outdoor adventure in the more familiar surroundings of Ashridge country park. We had brought our little "bug collecting" kit, which includes a primitive pooter and set about digging around for insects. We actually found quite a haul, including tiny flies, wriggly caterpillars and the longest millipede I've ever seen (it must have been 2 inches long). When Beth handed the pooter to me at one point, though, I didn't notice that one of the straws was a bit close to the bottom, and managed to suck a couple of bugs into my mouth. I'm not very good with creepy-crawlies, so you can imagine the look on my face as I tried to get rid of them as quickly as possible. I can still taste it now.. eurgh.

We walked around the bridleway that surrounds the park, and maybe I was still a little bewitched by the collection of animals at the museum, but I am sure I saw some kind of hawk, flying between the trees. Possibly just my fanciful imagination, I suppose.

After a quick trip back to civilisation (Asda and Dunelm Mill) we collected Ella, who had enjoyed the day away from her brother (she'd popped in to see her Grandad at work during the afternoon, where she was well fussed over - she loves the attention!) and came home. Now that was a fine home education day.



Links of the day:

Posted by james at 10:22 PM

Monday, 14 March 2005

Quiet weekend...

There's been precious little to report - we've had a low-key family weekend without incident or accident (I guess I should be glad of that!) with a trip to the museum and plenty of cavorting round the lounge.

I note, not with a little sadness, that AbracaDABra has ceased broadcasting. It would appear that a collaboration between radio giant GWR (my former employer), children's programme maker/owner HIT Entertainment and the creator of AbracaDABra (Susan Stranks) is currently testing on DAB; the station will be called "Children's Radio UK" (or possibly "Fun") and has a launch due in April. More on that here.

Links of the day (Other people's blogs special...)


Posted by james at 9:24 AM

Friday, 11 March 2005

Athletics

Birmingham AcademyBirmingham AcademyBeth and I drove to Birmingham to see Athlete at the Carling Academy yesterday. It was well worth waiting through the somewhat downbeat but generally passable support acts (Morning Runner and Stephen Fretwell) to see them, although my legs were aching a little by half-past nine, and the crowd became a little - shall we say - cosy by the time everyone had assembled.

They performed just over an hour's worth of songs, including the marvellous "Westside" and "El Salvador" singles; they closed with the divine "Wires" (417k MP3) - a poignant song about his baby daughter.

It's certainly been a busy and interesting week!

Posted by james at 12:22 PM

Tuesday, 8 March 2005

TV debut, and time off...

Monday was definitely an interesting and unusual day; we'd planned a little celebration of our TV debut in the evening, and the guests started arriving mid-afternoon.

I have taken this week off work, which I've enjoyed so far (even though we've not really ventured out very much) and it's not often we have people over - not least because of the industrial tidying job that tends to need doing beforehand!

Fortunately, the house was in a fairly reasonable state when Jon (friend from college days), Mike and Chris (two of our fellow "extras") arrived, and a fine time was had by all - we watched recordings of the first five episodes of Look Around You to co-incide with the start of the 'live final' and Champagne was served for the event (posh, eh!) See below for some embarassing screenshots of our appearance on TV...

all the extras Me (just about!) and Beth on telly Beth in shot

If you've got Windows Media Player, you can see a snippet of our performance here (2.1MB wmv).

All in all, a fine (if not a little embarassing) evening!

Posted by james at 10:38 AM

Saturday, 5 March 2005

Mothering Sunday and Children's radio

It's been a quiet weekend - delightful in its way, although the chill has kept us indoors for much of it.

With it being Mothering Sunday today, we went to church, enjoying probably the most 'family' oriented service in a long time; quite often there's only our two there, but today we had - it must have been - approaching ten children all either sitting quietly (some hopes!), dashing around the place, colouring in the picture of Moses or generally making their presence felt. Most of the folk at church are very tolerant of the little'uns, and it doesn't bother me at all (except for the hard floor!)

Yesterday, while looking for something other than the local station to listen to, while Christopher dried and dressed himself after his bath, I chanced upon AbracaDABra - a radio station for children and their families. The music they were playing was mainly those timeless classics that have been enjoyed by generations (such as "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly") and interesting versions of nursery rhymes. AbracaDABra plays good, wholesome stuff, though, and there's nothing like it on the radio (save for a couple of hours a day on BBC7, and that's at fairly inconvenient times) - or the internet, even (they have a dial-up friendly MP3 stream, too) so I'm guessing I'll be revisiting it during any slow-to-start mornings we enjoy this week!

I've just discovered why I'd not come across it before- although it's on the DRG multiplex which is broadcast from the same transmitter as Chiltern, it goes off-air at 7pm, and I tend to listen in the evening. It's a bit of a shame that we don't actually have access to any local radio on DAB, but at least there's plenty of other fine stations to choose from (including BBC7, 6Music, Virgin and - on a good day - XFM).

Well, it's Beth's and my televisual debut tomorrow (I'm cringing already); Jon's popping up to visit to celebrate the occasion, but everything else is pretty freeform over the next couple of days... just how I like it!

Hope you've had a fine Mothering Sunday!

Links of the day:

  • www.37signals.com/svn/archives/001064.php : Now that is an ambitious way for 3M to advertise security glass...
  • aol.photobox.co.uk/.../&photo=11660134 : surely they weren't serious when they did this to a car? I would readily admit that if I were to try a paint job, it would probably end up as bad as this. That is why I will never attempt such folly.
  • www.blastbilliards.com : another addictive on-line game (best get yourself a pop-up blocker before clicking this link, mind!), this time involving billiard balls and explosives. Naturally...

Posted by james at 6:39 PM

Thursday, 3 March 2005

information for money...

Well, another day over - I had a safety course (which was a useful update yet moderately harrowing, considering - for example - the power of lasers they put in electrical kit these days) jammed in the midst of the goings-on which didn't help much, but I reached the end of the day with at least some of the list of 'things to do' chopped down to a manageable level (and went home an hour early, since I had to work through my lunch and tea breaks oh poor me!)

I've just noticed that tomorrow I've got yet another meeting, stuck in the middle of the day; this time a management thing up at Maida Vale. Ahh, well - the weekend's mine, and a few days after (still using up some of the leave I've carried over from 2004 - it's all rather complicated), so there's not much I can really commit to.

Of course, it's Mothering Sunday this weekend - Christopher and I are planning 'breakfast in bed' for Beth, which will be fun! Monday is the 'Live' Final in which Beth and I might be making an occasional appearance, but apart from that, there's not too much planned. And that feels good.

Links of the day

  • www.aqa.issuebits.com/promotion.htm : I saw an on-line advert for this service today, and am seriously tempted to try it out, although probably only when intoxicated (it's probably how they make most of their money!) It's a site called "All Questions Answered" who, for a pound, will answer any question you ask. Either an expensive way to cheat at a pub quiz or maybe not Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (especially the Fastest Finger First bit)
  • www.shazam.com : For a mere (?) 50p plus a bit to your service provider, you can dial 2580 on your mobile, hold your phone up to some speakers and it'll text you back with the tune that's playing. Perfect, for example, if you're listening to the frustrating (not to mention excrebly smug) Steve Wright programme on Radio 2, where he never seems to back-announce the songs I don't know. This can, of course, be avoided, by not listening.
  • www.goodguides.co.uk/gpubmobile.asp : Text GoodPub to 85130 and, for a few tens of pences, it will text you back with the nearest pub featured in the Good Pub Guide. I have tried this one, and it does seem to work, although there are quite a few candidate pubs in Central London, so it wasn't much of a challenge.
  • Posted by james at 7:17 PM

    Wednesday, 2 March 2005

    March already?

    Ella in her welliesI've not written a 'stuff going on' entry for a while, have I? We've had snow practically every day for over a week now, although it hasn't settled, meaning that it's been possible to get out of the house to go to work, and get some general fresh air (braving the cold wind to splash around puddles in wellies is fun!) without the Snow Day happening. Yet.

    The children are both much improved - Ella's tummy is back to normal (in fact, she's going through one of her serious eating phases, which is reassuring) and Christopher is a patient and tolerant big brother, considering that she has already started on the Terrible Twos behaviour. I wasn't witness to it myself, but she did the rather troubling "breath holding until she passes out" thing that children of that age are occasionally wont to do, despite how unsettling it is for the poor parents!

    Christopher and I are still very much 'into' K'Nex - a system has developed where one of us will come up with an idea, I'll make a start on it, and then, once it's begun to take shape, Christopher will adopt it as his own, and make all the customizations necessary. Take, for example, our pinball machine (the 'slideshow' format is mean to look like a feature on a Playstation game that I tend to spend a bit too long on when it's out!) - we're quite proud of how it ended up looking.

    On the subject of collaborative play (is there any better sort?) I chanced upon a CD-ROM of a game called "The (even more) incredible machines" in a charity shop the other day. I had a vague recollection of it as an intriguing 'Heath Robinson' type of game, and it was an instant hit with both of us - Christopher absolutely loves it. I've subsequently discovered it is available at an Abandonware site, although I would warn that it's not really very Windows XP-friendly, being a 15-year-old DOS game (the old ones are the best, eh?)

    Two more days of work, and then another few days off! Hopefully I'll have a little more musically to show for it; I have had a bash at writing some lyrics, but there's more that I could (and should!) do in my spare time (instead of playing 'iSketch')...

    Posted by james at 1:47 PM


     
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