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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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Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Weekend away...

Beth and I have just arrived back from a wonderful weekend away in north Hampshire - just a brief trip to celebrate our tenth anniversary. We dropped the children off at school on Thursday, and the guinea pigs at their 'holiday home' before driving round the M25 a bit, to the Surrey/Hampshire border. Beth had cleverly booked the hotel last July(!) so we got a really good deal, which meant we had a little more to spend on going out and about.

Winchester CathedralAfter a relaxing afternoon unpacking, seeking out a supermarket for snacks and breakfast, then watching the first episode of volume two of Heroes in the evening, we made plans to visit Winchester in the morning. It's a lovely city with a very striking cathedral, wonderful floral displays in the parks, and plenty of green space. Certainly an area where we felt we could settle - maybe in the long, long distant future! The evening was spent in Southampton, at the well-appointed Jongleurs comedy club. The food was tasty and satisfying, and the comedians certainly didn't disappoint, either. It was compered by John Mann, with fine stand-up acts from Johnny Candon and Tom Stade. Our favourite was a musical comic called Rob Deering, though - we were retelling his jokes for the rest of the weekend, a sure sign that he had some great material!

bowling at Spectrum in GuildfordOn Saturday morning we took a drive to Guildford, and visited the Spectrum leisure centre. It certainly seemed to have plenty to offer, from ice skating to swimming; we opted for ten-pin bowling (slightly less dangerous and exertive!) and had a jolly good time . We drove to the town centre for a browse round the shops in the afternoon, and then took a look at Haslemere for an evening meal. There was a Wetherspoons there, on which we knew we could rely for a good, well-priced meal. It was a traditional pub, though, rather than a converted theatre or cinema, and the clientele were quiet and friendly (well, at half-past seven in the evening anyway!) We were blessed with some wonderful weather over the days we were there - I think I even caught the sun on Saturday afternoon.

The back of a terrified me. Up a tree.That was all going to change, though. Beth had the rather adventurous idea of visiting Go Ape on Sunday morning. I've never really been a very big fan of high places, preferring to keep my feet on the ground if at all possible. But I knew that I'd really get a lot of fulfilment out of battling my fears. So we arrived in Wendover Woods (a beautiful place, offering some excellent outdoor opportunities, like nature walks and orienteering) ready for our experience. Half an hour before we were due to start, though, there was a thunderstorm. Trees and wires aren't the best place to be when there's lightning about, so the site had to be evacuated. Fortunately, it had all passed within the hour so it wasn't too bad - we were on the 'training' bit before midday. I can't, however describe my feelings during the activity itself, though - it was breathtakingly nervewracking, but entertaining nonetheless. I must have looked a sight clinging on to the tops of the trees (despite the two safety lines, and the teenagers behind and in front enjoying zipping back and forth across the wires!)

I think I got a lot from the experience, though; maybe more than most, since it was so much of a challenge - will I do it again? The jury's out; much like theme parks, I can rarely remember how harrowing an experience I've had, so it takes Beth to remind me whether I liked it or not!

So, all too soon, the weekend came to an end, though, and we came back to Luton on Sunday afternoon. It was lovely to see the children again, and we made sure they had some little trinkets to remember their sleepover. Back to work, now.. and I've spent much of the day catching up with the fallout from the big database upgrade. This will doubtless go on during the course of the week..

Here are a couple of the pics from our trip away - there's more - as always - in the gallery!

Floral Roundabout in WinchesterThe grounds of Winchester CathedralGuildford on a Saturday afternoon

Posted by james at 9:29 PM

Saturday, 19 April 2008

More things to do with the Neuros OSD (including being frustrated)

OK, so I just can't leave it alone! I'm slowly working through the features and new developments for this little box-of-tricks, and trying to rationalise them, in case things go horribly wrong and I have to start again.

I'd like first of all to thank Matthew Wild for all his assistance with his excellent wooble and lpkg applications, and for his insights and experiences with the OSD so far. With his help, I baled myself out of some awkward trouble last night when I discovered there was corruption on the compact flash card.

Which represents a good place to start...

Arizona - a new firmware.. the good and bad

To make use of the shiny Qt graphics engine, the clever people at Neuros have completely re-written the basic code for the OSD, but in doing so have caused the on-board memory to more-than fill up. For all purchasers of the device, they are offering a free CompactFlash card (or a voucher for a free one) to hold the new firmware.

You can find the firmware tucked away on the Neuros blog, here, but you need to have upgraded to the last of the previous generations of firmware (333-175-02849-beta - a beta edition, so not necessarily one I'd have downloaded from the automatic download, but available here nonetheless) to install it.

It certainly took a while to do its business, but when the game of 'Pong' had finished, it seemed to boot up, and look reasonable. Until.. it suggested I update to the latest version of the firmware (which ended, quite ominously, in test). I clicked OK. Oops. Another half-hour of waiting, and then.. disaster. When it started installing the latest batch of applications, it got stuck on 1% and that was it... every restart after that would try and continue where it left off, and no progress was made in over an hour.

Fortunately, there's a roll-back procedure, which involves sticking the 'old-school' firmware on a freshly-formatted CF card in a directory called newpackage and with a file called disable_upk_version_check. I followed those instructions (which can be found here) and tried again.

So.. was it worth it? Did it get rid of the slight niggles I had - the horrendous time it sometimes took to connect to the Windows shares on the mac, the occasional, but total, complete hang-ups when I was trying to search for YouTube videos? Well, no.

In fact, the two excellent facilities I'd installed (the video streaming, and the remote control website) also both stopped working! Fortunately, a new version of stream _fuse is available for Arizona, as linked to in a forum post here.

As I mentioned before, the developer of Wooble has been very helpful throughout our email conversations; apparently an executable called screenshot is missing from the new firmware, but he has updated it and is hoping it will be included soon; I'm sure he won't mind me linking to the copy he kindly offered me here - copying it into the bin directory where you installed lpkg will make the OSD screen appear in the web front-end.

So.. this could be considered as 'back to square one'. It's still a little unreliable - every time I want to demonstrate the 'new thing' I've discovered, I find it has hung or just takes ages to respond. But I think that'll improve with time - there are definitely lots of bug reports being submitted, so we'll see how it goes.

Streaming internet radio on the Neuros OSD

I thought I'd look into the development of streaming radio capabilities - it would be great to be able to listen to my favourite Shoutcast stations (like FTLfm, Radio Nova and - of course - image FM).

With Arizona, it is possible to play radio streams (yay!) although only through the 'command line', either through telnet or using the More Applications -> Advanced Applications menu, which gives a terminal prompt that can be typed into using the remote control and arrow keys. Ouch.

So.. how do you do it? It's not easy... you have to enter the stream address manually, by opening up the listen.pls (or similar) file, and typing in the address you find, thus:

~ $ xmms2 add
~ $ xmms2 play

To stop it, use

~ $ xmms2 stop
~$ xmms2 clear

But the best bit is that it works - sound comes out of the TV, so internet radio is definitely possible. In fact, I was looking at the development schedule, and it seems that streaming audio - including last.fm - may be turning up in August.

So that's my trials and tribulations for the day. I still had some time to go for a walk in the April showers with Lenni and Chris earlier, zipping up the hill on their scooters, but I think I'd better leave it alone for a bit, for fear of neglecting my family!

Posted by james at 8:57 PM

Friday, 18 April 2008

Neuros OSD - the fun that can be had...

I've just spent most of my free time over the last couple of days playing with my recently delivered Neuros OSD. As I already mentioned, I had intended to buy a small PC for under the TV, so we could watch - and listen to - files saved on the network or streamed from the internet, and send video from the Sky box across the network so we could watch TV in the kitchen or elsewhere in the house.

There are a few 'small footprint' PCs available, but all of them are expensive for the limited role they fulfil, and, since we have a hard disk recorder and on-line storage on the mac, some of the functions it could perform would be duplicated.

So I ordered a Neuros OSD from Maplin on-line, using a money-off voucher from their mailing list, and - despite the free 'economy' delivery, it arrived the next day!

My Neuros OSD, remote control, and streaming TV on the iPaq!Opening the box, I was quite pleased with what was in there, since all the breakout cables - including serial and an 'ir blaster' TV remote control on a wire - were included, and the unit itself was tiny!. It was smaller, certainly, than anything I was expecting, even a standard Freeview box, but not flimsy and quite artistically designed, with a gentle curve of the top (or front if held vertically in the supplied stand) surface.

I found somewhere to put it - on top of the video recorder (hardly used, but still there in case we want to put an old Disney film on!) - and, after copious amounts of irritation with (in my opinion, poorly conceived) SCART connectors, I wired it up with the rest of the kit under the television.

Out of the box, and after a firmware upgrade, it could do some cool things. There was a bit of a frustrating wait before it could see the mac's storage, but when it could, the video from the Sky box could be saved as an MP4 file, and played with no problems.

It could also play a selection of the videos on the server, and they looked quite good on the TV, despite being at standard television resolution, through the composite input (so no RGB component). It could also play music - although I hadn't wired it to the stereo - and show pictures, although not at fantastic resolution. Finally, it's recently become able to play YouTube videos, although again it's quite slow.

Since - by its very name - it's an Open Source Device, though, there were some other features that I wanted to investigate, the first being streaming of video across the network. Fortunately, someone had already addressed the need.. which takes me onto the array of extra things it can do, most of which are introduced and discussed on the Neuros forums.

A couple of things to note

Before embarking on the 'extensions', though, I would recommend plugging in a CF, SD card or USB stick of some description on which the software can be stored, since the device doesn't have a huge amount of its own, and some areas of its fiile system are volatile.

Which reminds me - the OSD can also play videos, music files and photo slideshows from almost every conceivable multimedia card plugged into the array of sockets on the side. It's definitely versatile..

The device has a default username and password which isn't immediately obvious from the forums:
login: root
password: pablod

using the Neuros OSD to stream video across a network

This is surprisingly simple. Since an 'ASF' file can be created - which has file header that can be picked up by a piece of software like VLC, all you need to do is set the default destination to somewhere on the network, start it recording, and then open the file using VLC. It's not ideal, though, because a file is created - and grows - for the entire length of the recording.

Even better, then, is a piece of software called stream_fuse by a hacker called mgschwan. The steps to do this are:

  • Copy the stream_fuse binary file to the storage card
  • Create a directory on the storage card called stream
  • Use the menu system on the front of the machine to set the default record location to SD-card/stream, and set some defaults, depending on whether you're intending to view at home or away (yup.. I've managed to watch TV from a wi-fi hotspot!) Here are some example settings - you'll need to go to the Advanced menu to see these screens:

  • Settings for streaming to the internet
    Settings for streaming to the internet
    Settings for streaming to the LAN
    Settings for streaming to a local network
  • Then, from a telnet session (I use the free, and excellent PuTTY to connect on Windows) log in using the username and password as above, and then enter the commands in bold:
    	neuros login: root

    BusyBox v1.6.1 (2008-01-29 11:41:46 CST) Built-in shell (ash)
    Enter 'help' for a list of built-in commands.
    ~ $ cd /media/SD-card
    /mnt/tmpfs/mount_SD-card $ chmod 775 /media/SD-card/stream_fuse
    /mnt/tmpfs/mount_SD-card $ /media/SD-card/stream_fuse /media/SD-card/stream
    /mnt/tmpfs/mount_SD-card $

  • Finally, open up VLC and open a network stream to http://ip.address.ofyour.NeurosOSD:10001 - it should display TV on your screen! To use the OSD on the internet, it's a simple case of forwarding an external port using NAT to ip.address.ofyour.NeurosOSD port 10001

remote controlling the OSD from a web browser

Now, I've only managed to cajole the OSD to be remotely controlled through a local network connection; because I have a webserver at home already, I can't just pass port 80 through to the router. But it's still a straightforward process to install a simple but effective web front-end, and it's all credit to Matthew Wild, who wrote not only the application but a tiny package installer to make installing it so easy!

Simply follow the instructions to install lpkg and wooble from his website - again, using the SD-card to store the downloaded files - is all you need to do. I managed to deviate rather horribly from the prescribed method, but all I had to do was format the SD card and start again (although I had to delete /mnt/OSD/registry.lua.dat too, to clear out the package information) to bring it all back to life. Here are the links you need:

What's next? Well there are only a couple of things I'd really love:

  • a front-end to the BBC's iPlayer - like YouTube except with more quality content! Apparently the directors of Neuros OSD are being asked to consider developing this..
  • A directory of internet radio stations and a player. A simple link to Reciva and a connection to the MP3 player software would be all that's needed.. though I wouldn't have the first idea where to start with that! Hmm.. I wonder if it'll play streaming MP3 stations...

As you can see it already does SO much of what I've always wanted a piece of kit to do - we could even rig it up to a video camera when we go away, and archive security footage - and see what's going on while we're on holiday! I'm sure, once the children have had a play, they'll have some ideas as well..

Posted by james at 11:18 PM

Monday, 14 April 2008

TV transmission.. more gadgetry!

I've been looking for a small, low-powered bit of kit that can sit under the television in the lounge that can do two things, mainly:

  • stream video from the TV in the lounge to the mac mini in the kitchen
  • play videos downloaded or streamed from the internet on the main TV

The main benefit of having the mac on all the time is that it gives us all access to shared resources (be they CD images of games or MP3s or downloaded TV programmes) so any device I get wouldn't really need to have its own storage, or much of a brain, really - just enough to move video from place to place.

I'd considered buying a micro-ITX PC (such as the Aopen MP945-VXR) but it could run to hundreds of pounds as all the components add up. However, I heard about a gadget reviewed on the mightily entertaining Daily GizWiz that piqued my interest. It's the Neuros OSD - OSD stands for 'Open Source Device' and it runs a version of Linux.

It has audio/video in, audio/video out, a network connection, and a USB connector - and the best thing is, there's a very active community that really makes the most of what it can do. Suffice it to say, I've ordered one (with a money off voucher) from Maplin for just over £130; I'm not sure I could get anything as effective anywhere else - it certainly knocks spots off the Slingbox!

I'll be sure to review it when it arrives...

Posted by james at 5:52 PM

studio project photos...

Since I updated my website to run on a contact management system, I hadn't taken the time (or, more accurately, made the effort!) to copy the story of the studio project onto it; as a result, unless I were to forward viewers to my rubbishy old website on Lycos - which is mostly obliterated by adverts - and various blog entries, it would be consigned to history.

One of my objectives this weekend was to start work on the studio door, which had never really had any time spent on it, marking it probably the largest unttractive part of the room after the curtains. I'd managed to get hold of some foam hard disk packaging sheets, which seemed to be ideal for the purpose, and the first stage was to apply them to the door. With the assistance of Christopher and some No More Nails, we got the job done - see below!

This prompted me to wander through my collection of studio photos, be they from the original project - over six years ago - and upload as many of the reasonably good ones to a new studio photos album in the gallery. The next stage will be to write up the story on my main music website.. something to do on my commutes, anyway!

The original door,<br />
covered in asbestos
The original door,
complete with asbestos
The stripped-down door, half-covered in foam packaging
The stripped-down door
half-covered in foam packaging
The stripped-down door, half-covered in foam packaging
The nearly-finished door -
just awaiting a fabric covering

Posted by james at 4:53 PM

Sunday, 13 April 2008


In some ways we're very fortunate, living where we do, since there are quite a few large towns just a short drive away; Hemel Hempstead, Stevenage, Milton Keynes, Watford, Welwyn to name but a few. We very rarely go to Bedford, though - I've never really rated it as a 'shopping' town, and I've often struggled to find a parking place there.

But since Beth was away, and had taken the car, I thought it might be fun to go on a train adventure to the end of the 'Bedpan line' with the children, and visit the Poundland there. Yeah, I know - it doesn't sound like much of a treat, but it's an occasional favourite with our family, since they can buy some fairly entertaining things for just a pound or two.

It only cost us about £6 to get there with the Family Railcard - which, when there's just one adult, is probalby cheaper than driving, and the children enjoyed the bus ride to the station, despite the fact there was a Luton Town football match on, and consequently we were somewhat besieged by visiting fans and police. It was all very good-natured, though.

We spent a happy afternoon dodging the showers, and enjoying the sights and sounds of the town, before we travelled home again in time for David to arrive. It certainly seems to have improved since I was last there, with some really ingenious means of entertaining the children, most enjoyable of which was a grid of nine metal squares that, when you jumped on each, it played a chime. Eleanor - not surprisingly - was hooked!

We also saw a wedding car that had bubbles coming from the exhaust (Christopher was intrigued!) and some sandstone sculptures that both children enjoyed climbing up and sliding down. Oh yes, we definitely had a good time! See below for some pictures, including the replacement sign for Falconers Road (as always, click for bigger versions!)

Christopher on the trainChris and Lenni on the sculptures in BedfordWedding car in BedfordEleanor - jumping girl!
Falconers Road sign - now correct

Posted by james at 2:35 PM

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Daily Photo of the Day : the green

OK.. so the daily photo project fizzled out, but I'm going to try and take as many interesting pictures as I can! I was quite pleased with how this one came out - it's the green that runs the length of Vauxhall Way in Luton, which has been contoured to discourage travellers, but is ideal for dogwalkers. The airport is in distance, with forbidding skies above... it's not a patch on Tamara's photography, but it's a start!

Posted by james at 4:48 PM

While the cat's away... party!

Beth's "Up North" for a surrogacy conference this weekend, so I'm looking after the children. It's Saturday lunchtime now, and I'm hoping to get this blog entry uploaded before I put the pizzas on to cook!

One of the activities the children wanted to enjoy this weekend was to have a 'bubble disco' out on the green at the front of our house. I dug out my old Hitachi TRK3D88 boombox (quite possibly the first thing I ever bought with the proceeds from my first summer job at Sainsbury's, and I think it still holds its own as one of the best portable stereos I've heard!) - fortunately we had eight D-cell batteries, and it was a simple case of uploading some of their favourite tunes to the MP3 player, connecting them together and taking the whole thing outside!

Since the ring road's constant traffic noise was so loud, even when we had the sound right up, the neighbours weren't disturbed by the music, although I'm sure we had some strange looks, as bubbles drifted to their windows...

Funnily enough, a couple of small police cars turned up a few doors down, as a small collection of officers investigated one of the bungalows, but clearly we weren't being a nuisance (despite it being Saturday morning!), so maybe we'll do it again.

I'm sure we'll have more fun this afternoon - depending on whether the children want to go out, and if the rain that's promised arrives, and then David from Jude is coming over this evening to work on some of the demo tracks that we recorded last year(!) and still haven't mixed down.

For now, though, here are some photos from this morning - they're in the gallery, so please feel free to click them for a bigger version.

Christopher - catching!Dancing children5-6-7-8!

Posted by james at 12:56 PM

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Curtains and gardening... and more, I've no doubt.

A first blog entry for April.. they really don't come often enough, do they?

The main highlights of the past week have been my work on the fabric (literally!) of the studio and finally making progress with the garden. Since I put the studio together, I had planned to put up some curtains using the same material that lines the walls, but hadn't touched a sewing machine since my second year at comprehensive school (23 years? Terrifying!) But once I'd followed the instructions and managed to destroy one machine (I think there was something wrong with it, to be honest.. the motor burned out - and I'll certainly recognise the early signs if it starts to struggle again!) I finally measured up the right amount of material to make the curtains and, if I'm honest, I'm quite pleased with the results.

They're probably not hemmed in the way that a professional would do it, but they hang straight and look OK - the most striking thing about them is that they're the original colour of the fabric, so are a much darker blue than the faded walls. Here, as always, is a before-and-after shot:

studio curtains - before
curtains - before
studio curtains - after
curtains - after

The next step is to cover the door with the remaining fabric. Unfortunately, it'll have to consist of two pieces of material tacked together in the middle, but I've managed to reclaim quite a lot of pieces of textured packing foam from hard disk boxes, so I think it'll look - and sound - pretty good when it's done.

So the weekend's here - the first of Beth being 30 years old and the last of Eleanor being 4. We were warned of snow, but it turned out to be a very mild morning, so we took full advantage and caught up with the gardening project. We managed to sow the sprouts, lettuce, parsnips (which were incorrectly labelled as carrots on the diagram - whoops!) and nasturtiums. We also planted out the parsley, which has been growing quite happily on the windowsill of the studio, next to Barry, the original of my aloe vera plants.

Here's a photo of the children preparing the raised bed for the parsley, which you can see in the pots on the right - it's always great fun in the garden, but we all work hard.

Christopher's back to school on Monday; Lenni has a teacher training day, so we're throwing a small party for her and some of her schoolfriends, which will certainly be an experience!

That'll do for now.. hopefully I'll write a bit more this month! Oh, before I go - remember we had a flood last June? Well, finally the last piece of work's been done; a new light fitting in the downstairs toilet needed to be installed by a council certified electrician. Annoyingly, though, he left without carrying out an inspection, so I need to chase that up before everything's finally signed off, otherwise we could be in trouble when we want to sell the house. How frustrating is that? It'll be a year, soon...

Posted by james at 11:07 PM

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