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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, 28 August 2008

TomTom voices - child stars!

We've really seen the benefit of having a TomTom-based satellite navigation system, getting us reliably to our destination without the need to print out maps and directions from the internet (or, even worse, navigating using the classic Road Atlas!)

I've been aware for a while that you can download all kinds of celebrity voices (of varying quality, admittedly) but it was recently that I discovered an excellent website that takes you step-by-step through creating your own collection of voices.

It's at tomtom.graemelucas.co.uk, and is a straightforward guide, suitable for all skill levels.

Of course, this was far too good an opportunity to miss, so I asked the children if they'd like to do a recording session in the studio. The results are fantastic - I especially like Lenni's, since it sounds very much like Lola from Charlie and Lola.

Christopher's recordings need a little more work, I think, because his inflection caused the actual directions to be a little quiet, but, even after normalising the audio files, I think they could probably benefit from audio level compression to give them a bit more 'loudness', and make them better audible in a moving vehicle.

If you'd like them, you can download them here - simply check your VOICES directory to make sure the number 80 and 81 voice 'slots' aren't already taken, and then unzip the files into there. They should be available as 'Custom' voices. I'll post updated versions here when I get round to editing all 56 sound files!

Posted by james at 1:07 PM

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Zoom H4 - firmware update!

My Zoom H4 recorder is still perfect for location recording, collecting high-quality sound effects and generally accompanying me with my camera in case something makes a great noise (like our funky dishwasher!)

It's a bit plasticky, and fiddly to use, but I still love it, because it takes AA batteries, SD cards and a standard mini-USB plug. Add to that the stereo microphones and the ability to use it as a soundcard without having to install drivers and it's more useful than it is annoying!

Anyway, I'm sure I've already waxed lyrical about it in a previous blog post - this one is to let anyone who comes across this entry (it's remarkable how often my blog turns up in Google.. and quite cool, too!) that there's a major new version of the firmware.. I found out about it at the fine 2090.org forum - a site devoted to Zoom products and home made music, and the spiritual birthplace of The Home Made Hit Show podcast, which is a very entertaining listen. I must submit a song there sometime.. when I finally get round to finishing one!

Anyway, version 2.20 is now available - you can download it from www.zoom.co.jp/english/download/software/h4.php.

Installation is very straightforward; it's important to ensure the H4 is powered, so a mains adaptor is recommended. Then simply copy the SYSTEM.BIN to the root of the SD card, insert it, and switch the H4 on with the wobbler thing pressed to 'INPUT' (so, sort-of southwards!)

It was all done in 30 seconds, and seems to work very well, with a few new features, including a nice bold font, a 'time remaining' and 'battery remaining' element, and support for large SDHC cards. Quite, quite brilliant. There's also an ASIO (low latency audio) driver available for Windows on the same page.

Posted by james at 9:56 PM

Luton Airport - off their trolley.

I'm not sure I can think of a more cynical money-making scheme - or possibly, even a bit pointless? (if fractions of pointlessness are possible).

Luton Airport have started charging a pound for the use of the luggage trolleys that had, until recently, been freely available. This is not like the supermarkets, where the coin is returned once the trolley is reunited with its siblings - no, you don't get your money back.

So, why are they doing it? Are they finding that their trolley population is dwindling? I very much doubt it, since - and I know this for a fact, living on the estate that lies closest to the airport - I doubt anyone would be keen to wheel them for 25 minutes (at a healthy pace) to get there.. and surely cattle-grid traps like they use in supermarkets would be much more effective at keeping them close to their natural home?

They still need to pay the collectors - but surely that's all part and parcel of running the place; are they considering equipping the waste-bin emptiers with donation boxes and totalizers? "Sorry.. can't empty this until I get a tenner.." And I think, given that it's a captive audience, they'd have a riot on their hands if the toilets became cash-only.

And I have concluded - that's what it is: exploitation of a captive audience. When people have no other option, and let's face it, not every piece of luggage has wheels, or tesselates well, they will put their hands in their pockets, or swipe their credit cards(!) for the benefit of saving some backache.

I would, therefore, in no way suggest there be attempts to set a record for how far it would be possible to dispatch one of these trolleys, but on reflection, hey.. take your very own luggage trolley home for a mere pound! Bargain.

Posted by james at 9:44 PM

Monday, 25 August 2008

Woburn Safari Park - Wonderful!

I think I can safely assert that Woburn Safari Park is the greatest attraction in the area - we had a most wonderful day out, helped in no small part by the warm, dry but not overwhelmingly sunny weather that accompanied this weekend.

We thought we were taking a risk going on a Bank Holiday Monday, since many touristy places are extremely busy, especially during the school holidays, but either it wasn't too busy, or (quite possibly for the first time in my experience) it was big enough to cope with the number of people who chose to come at such a popular time!

The first thing we encountered when we entered the gates was the safari trail, which is certainly the part of the attraction that's made its name. In a very, very slow stop-start procession of cars around a tight three-mile-long track (a matter of some concern if you've got an old car!), we saw some animals unhindered by the wire fences often seen in zoos... OK, so the lions were lazily lying around, and the bears kept their distance, but then a wolf crossed the road in front of our car, the family of giraffes stood elegantly outside their tall shed and most excitingly, the patas monkeys hopped about between, and at times onto our car - the children absolutely loved that bit!

But after this 45-minute long drive, there was still plenty to do. We parked up, and were able to see sea-lion, exotic bird and wallaby feeding displays; during a picnic, we were accompanied by some chickens, and the children completely loved both the well-equipped indoor play area and the fun things to do outside, which included some small fairground rides which were completely free! (I was most taken aback by that - how many places would try and squeeze another few pounds out of the vistors through parent pester power?) Oh, and how could I forget the delightful Rainbow Lorikeet birds, who happily hop onto your hands to feed from the little pots of nectar?

There's no doubt that Woburn is a fantastic day out - and a great way to spend loyalty card points, because with Tesco Clubcard Deals, £15s worth is almost enough to admit a family of four.

Of course, with all those animals, how could I resist taking some photos? Here's a small collection - there are more in the gallery!

A patas monkey, really close up!Giraffes!
A pair of macaws in flight

Posted by james at 10:16 PM

Sunday, 24 August 2008

'secret' - the card game!

Since I've been unable to find the rules for the card game to which Amy introduced us, I thought I'd reproduce them here. It's a great game to play with young children, because it won't (really) affect the game if you can see their cards.

card scores
A = 1 point
2 = 2 points
3 = 3 points
4 = 4 points
5 = 5 points
8 = 8 points
9 = 9 points
10 = 10 points
J = 10 points except 'one-eyed' Jacks (i.e. those who only appear with one visible eye on the cards)
Q = 10 points except 'bedpost' Queen (i.e. the Queen of Spades, who looks like she has a bedpost next to her)
K = 10 points except 'knife-through-head King (i.e. the King of Hearts, who looks like he has a knife through his head)

6 = half a point
7 = 0 points

One-eyed Jacks = 0 points
Bedpost Queen = 0 points
Knife-through-head King = 0 points

aim of the game

The aim of the game is to accumulate the fewest points possible when the values for the cards are added, including that of the 'secret' card which remains unseen until the end of the game.

how to play

Each player is dealt seven cards that they may look at, and an eighth that they keep face-down on the table until the end of the game. The rest of the pack is laid face down on the table.

The first player takes the top card from the remainder of the cards, and can choose - depending on whether it scores less than a card in his/her hand, to discard it, face up into a 'discard' pile, or to keep it and discard another of the cards in his/her hand.

This leaves two options for the next (and subsequent) players; they may take the next card from the face-down pile, or choose to rescue the top card in the discard pile, if it is of a very low value. They then put a card onto the discard pile to ensure they continue to have seven cards.

Play continues clockwise until the last card has been taken from the face-down pile, and when the last card has been discarded, the scores for each player are added up. Then, each player's eighth card is revealed, and its value (still based on the scoring above) is added on to the total.

The player with the lowest total is declared the winner.


This is ostensibly a game of luck, although with more players, the strategy for picking a card from the pack or the discard pile can make a difference between winning and losing. With two players, it's most likely that the 'secret' card will determine a winner, although the fun is progressing through the pack to find who'll get the 'special' cards.

Hopefully this explains the rules fairly well.. if anything's unclear (or I've got something entirely wrong!) I'd love to know...

Posted by james at 12:56 PM

Smartwater and Immobilise..

Bedfordshire Police have recently bought a quantity of an excellent technology called SmartWater, and have offered kits free to residents in the area.

It's definitely worth checking to see if this is available where you live, since it's an even better way to mark your property than the good ol' UV marker, since it contains a special 'DNA' that identifies it.

I spent much of yesterday wondering around the house with my iPaq, marking down model and serial numbers of much of the electronic kit we have, and I'm just about to submit the information to www.immobilise.com - one of a few websites on the internet that acts as a registry for personal property, and can be sought in the National Police Property Register if there's a theft of a burglary.

It's a reasonably good addition to the protection that home contents insurance offers.. it'll not replace everything (I've not put battery chargers and other bits and bobs on the list) but it's a start.

Posted by james at 12:22 PM

Family photos..

Family photo by Tamara KuzminskiLast Sunday (wow.. was it really a week ago?) we went with our dear friend Tamara to Stockwood park to have some family photos taken.

The results are gorgeous - a sample can be seen at www.tkphotography.co.uk/clients/hart. just let me know if you want to see the collection; I can certainly recommend her for portraits and family pictures as well as her fine landscapes!

Posted by james at 12:07 PM

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Visitations and vacations..

We were fortunate enough to be visited by Paul, Judy and their two wonderful daughters a couple of days ago - you may know at least three-quarters of them as Total Podcastrophe - and we had a great time, showing them the delights of Ashridge (where, to be honest, we got a little bit lost.. and that's with three of us owning GPSs, but not having them with us at the time!), going bowling at the recently refurbished Go Bowling in Dunstable, and watching the long-awaited (and definitely worthwhile!) Be Kind Rewind in the evening. The next day, I tagged along with Paul and Judy to meet up with another long-time podcaster - 'Podcast Paul' Nicholls - for breakfast, and then they dispatched themselves to London after having been subjected to some rather bizarre (but hilarious) children's comedy TV on CBBC, called Sorry I've Got No Head, to meet up with some more listeners and collaborators in the wonderful world of podcasting!

While they were out, Lenni, Amy and I played Uno, and an interesting game of luck called 'secret' (that I can't find the rules for online) with conventional cards - some wonderfully traditional games, and a lovely way to spend the afternoon.

When the travellers had returned, we were again treated to some tasty food (Beth did a great job of catering for a houseful!) and then, before they had to leave for their last hotel stay, since they were departing for America the next day, we attempted a couple more geocaches - this time near Harpenden.

I'd not realised that The Nickey Line had once existed - an old railway track between Harpenden and Hemel Hempstead in the heyday of steam, and it was interesting to learn about it, once we had been there. Of the five geocaches that were along that line, we only found one - and even that took some rummaging through nettles and thorns. Perhaps I'll take the children for more sometime soon - hopefully with less occupational hazards!

Then, they were gone - definitely a highlight of the summer holidays, which have been quite remarkable, and aren't over yet! Jon and Lisa are coming to stay next Thursday - I have a Bank Holiday day off to spend time with them, and we'll probably be out and about at various other times... and I still haven't written up our trip to Legoland with Trev, yet, or Jemma's amazing singing session a few Saturdays ago. Hopefully I'll have a chance to catch up - it's what this blog is all about, I guess!

Posted by james at 11:08 PM

Monday, 18 August 2008

London tourism...

One of the things we'd been sure to plan for the school summer holidays was a visit to London, with an overnight stay at a hotel to enable us to make the most of our time here.

We drove down after church yesterday, stopping off at my office, so the children could see where I work - and water the plants! Then we had a quick tour of Broadcasting House - since it was a Sunday, we had the run of most of the studios, so they could make their own crazy radio show!

I've drive through Central London a few times, so getting to the hotel was fairly painless, but the SatNav (more on that in a later entry!) was essential, with the number of one-way streets and road closures - I discovered, after dropping the car back off, to avoid paying the congestion charge today, that there was an event in Soho Square so it took a while to navigate, and I ended up (as I seem often to do) at Piccadilly Circus on my way back to work.

Chris and Lenni on the Jubilee FootbridgeThe hotel was a Travelodge, just south of High Holborn, and it was a short walk to get to the ebankment, so we crossed the Jubilee Footbridge to see what we could find there. One of the buildings in the South Bank Centre offered a hands-on architecture exhibition, but when we arrived we discovered that the floor had been cleared and the London Community Gospel Choir were performing - a sumptuous, but extremely loud - sound!

We ambled around a little more, mainly to find somewhere to eat (there seems to be a distinct lack of child-friendly restaurants in London, beyond the usual chains), ending up in probably the most unpleasant Burger King - towards the top of Kingsway - that I'd ever been to... no small feat given that I've ended up in the one that used to be in Luton on occasion. It was cramped and noisy, with loud rap music playing, but the seating on the top floor seemed to be vented from the kitchen, since it was uncomfortably hot, as well.

We all went to bed fairly early - a necessity, since it was a shared family room, but I listened to podcasts while the children (very!) slowly settled. Since we kept the window open - once again fairly necessary to ensure we didn't overheat - the City traffic noise, sirens, and (according to Beth) what sounded like a riot meant a fairly broken sleep, but it was no more than I expected.

Still, we were up and about in good time this morning, and Beth heroically took the case to the car while I had breakfast with the children. The deal offered by Travelodge was, in fact an excellent one, with all you can eat for £7.50 per person, but children eat for free.. that's excellent value when you have two children!

We walked down to the riverside again, after discovering that both the British Museum and the South Bank Centre didn't open until 10am. Fortunately, our booking for the 'London Wheel' (as I insist on calling it) for 11 o'clock could be brought forward so that we could go on straight away. The children loved their first experience of the view - visibility was excellent, which made for (hopefully) some fine photographs!

Chris, by London BridgeThen we took a river trip - buying a Red Rover ticket to travel all day - with City Cruises. I would certainly recommend this particular boat trip, all the way out to Greenwich, since the commentary is entertaining and informative (and a little irreverent!)

On the first trip, though, we went as far as Tower Bridge, from whence we walked (oh so much walking!) to The Bank Of England, through the heart of The City. Beth had found there was a museum there, and it was surprisingly interesting, hands-on and quiet, compared to man of the other London attractions. I don't think I'd ever held a gold bar before (albeit inside two perspex cases, constantly monitored on CCTV!) and the children took away quite a few tokens of their visits, including a calligraphy certificate, a little cardboard money chest and a little brooch thing with the current campaign - 'The Pound in your Pocket' - logo on it.

Lenni and the London StoneWe then walked a short distance to the Museum of London, where, to be honest, we didn't spend a lot of time, but the children enjoyed looking at the unusual objects exhibition and Eleanor was very taken with an art and craft project about the London Stone - something I'd never heard of, but has somewhat legendary status in the City - and we ended up seeing it on our return to the Tower Pier.

After a twenty minute wait, the boat took us along the Thames to Greenwich, taking in the vast collection of former wharfs (I'd not realised that this was an acronym: Warehouses At Riverfront) - now apartments, presumably for those working in the financial district of Docklands, and with some more amusing commentary.

By the time we'd returned to Westminster, it was about to turn 6 o'clock - perfect time to drive home, since the congestion charge was not in place. We walked up Whitehall (passing Downing Street) to Trafalgar Square, both of which were unexpected treats, especially since the base of Nelson's Column played host to a large TV screen broadcasting the Olympics, and then on past the delicious aroma of Chinatown, then finally back to the car. We were all footsore and achey by the time we headed home, but this definitely means the children will sleep well tonight!

A proper tourist trip round London, I think - but there is so much still to see! Perhaps next year or so.. as always, for the time being, there are photos in the gallery!

Back to work for me tomorrow, although I have a couple of days off following, since we have some friends coming for a brief stay - Paul and Judy from Total Podcastrophe - and their daughters, whom we will show the delights of Luton. Not sure what we'll do the rest of the time (although hopefully, if it doesn't rain, Ashridge would be lovely).

On board the London Wheel

Posted by james at 10:07 PM

Sunday, 17 August 2008

A slight digression...

I'm aware that I've not been updating my blog with all the cool and interesting things we've been doing during the summer holidays - with any luck I'll have time to catch up soon.

For the time being, though, I'm experimenting with moblogging ... we're out and about much of today and tomorrow, so I'll be posting updates to:

This makes good use of a fine UK-based moblogging site (moblog.net) and every time I post a picture or a bit of text, it'll send a tweet, too.

Then, when I get back (in theory!) it should be fairly straightforward to aggregate it all into one post... we'll have to see, I guess! It would've been great to fine-tune my moblogging solution to work with my new phone, but the half-hour I've had to play with it hasn't quite yielded the results I'd like.

So.. for the time being, I've got two blogs! (And a Twitter... but don't ask me how disappointed I am that they've had to withdraw outgoing text messages.. especially now Orange is charging for sending texts to Twitter.. nothing's free, I guess!)

Posted by james at 8:33 AM

Sunday, 10 August 2008

(not even nearly) Daily Photo Of The Day : DJ Pony!

Chris and Lenni were in the studio this afternoon - it's been raining all day, so we've not really ventured far! Both of them recorded a 'Theme Show' each; half an hour or so of music and chatter. It's so cool that they're comfortable in front of a microphone and able to make little radio programmes, and I hope they'll listen back to them when they're older with a recollection of happy days during the summer holidays!

While Lenni was performing - with her Barbie pony and Little Mermaid costume, I thought I'd take a few photos, and this is probably the most striking. I love the warmth that the dimmed spotlights give the picture, so I thought it would be good to share it (especially since I am woefully behind on blog entries! Hopefully I'll be able to catch up tomorrow!)

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