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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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Monday, 30 March 2009

Royal Institution lecture, class assembly and clock change...

It's been another busy week! Christopher and I took a trip into London on Monday (sanctioned by his school) to attend a lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain - an amazing place, which is steeped in modern history.

We sat in the same lecture theatre as Michael Faraday, who was a student of Humphrey Davy, and were treated to an amazing demonstration of chemistry, from colour changing liquids, through the wonders of liquid nitrogen, to some rather loud explosions! The lecturer was Andrew Szydlo, and he had all the children spell-bound with his engaging, exuberant approach to presentation.

Doctor Andrew Szydlo during his excellent lecture
Doctor Andrew Szydlo during his excellent lecture

Afterwards, we took a look around the RI's museum, and I have to say it kept Christopher's interest really well. Giving a credit card as a deposit, we were each given a little PDA and earpiece; pointing the PDA at particular targets started an interactive animated explanation of the associated exhibit. The style of these animations had just the right combination of modern idiom, humour, whimsy and - of course - scientific content to make them compelling, and we did a full tour of the building before it was time to leave. Considering it's only a short walk from Piccadilly Circus, and free, I would certainly recommend it for part of a tour of London, especially with older children.

We took a walk to Knightsbridge to have a quick look at the Science Museum before it closed for the day, then caught the tube (during rush hour - a first time experience for Chris!) and train home - all in, a very economical and enjoyable day out.

Eleanor had a class assembly on Friday; the theme was "languages" and she represented Spain, in a traditional Spanish dress. It was fortunate that I could take the day off to be able to enjoy it, especially since she did such a fine job of saying "buenos di�s" and counting to nine. Below is a photo of her in her costume. Unfortunately, Eleanor's not been particularly well over the past couple of days, but she has a blood test booked for tomorrow morning, so hopefully we'll have a better idea of what's up (if anything!) She's in good spirits, though,

Eleanor in her Spanish outfit
Eleanor in her Spanish outfit

It was a bit of a rush to finish work on Thursday, though, since - once again - I had to make preparations for the clocks changing over the weekend. This took much of the day, and still managed to present some surprises. I'm hoping next year - or even by October - we'll all know what should be done! I met up with a friend after work, and we went to a recording of The Now Show - something I would definitely recommend if you get the chance, since Radio 4 recordings are always an amenable, entertaining way to spend an evening.

And so another weekend comes to an end; I took the children into town on Saturday to buy Beth's birthday presents, and we visited Dave and Debi on Sunday - spring is definitely here, and with the daffodils and sunshine, it's been very pleasant both indoors and out.

Posted by james at 2:30 PM

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Hobnobbing with the stars (well, being a 'hanger-on' anyway!)

I've been working in 'the media' for over ten years, now; on many occasions I've been within metres of a household name - be they a film-star, pop musician or radio presenter - but much of the time I'm supposed to be doing my job, and they're at one of the radio stations I help look after, doing theirs.

Rolf Harris and me - 10th March 2009!A couple of Wednesdays ago, though, I heard that Rolf Harris was in the building over the road from my office, being interviewed for a show to be broadcast the next week. He's long been a hero of mine - his career has spanned four decades, and everyone I know who has encountered him (one of whom was even privileged enough to sit next to him on a plane journey!) has said he's a charming and friendly man.

So how could I turn down an opportunity to meet one of my childhood heroes - just a shame I didn't know sooner, otherwise he could have signed my small collection of records he's made!

As it was, though, he agreed to my request for a 'Rolfaroo' - a work of art in itself, and a testament to his patience and willingness to do such a thing for his fans!

Rolfaroo! By Rolf Harris 10th March 2009

Just a week later, I had the opportunity to go to an event organised by The Radio Academy - a celebration of Radio Comedy. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of having tea while listening to Radio 4's half-past six comedy programmes - Just A Minute (in its glorious days when Kenneth Williams was a regular panel member) and I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue (which is coming back - yay!), and when I first got my own radio, I used to listen to The News Huddlines and other late-night comedy offerings with a headphone in bed.

Steve Punt, Jon Holmes and Barry Cryer at the Radio Academy's Celebration of Radio Comedy, 18th March 2009This event, therefore, was one I really felt drawn to attend, and I saw Jon Holmes (from out of off of the Now Show and a very amusing Saturday afternoon 6Music radio show) interview his fellow comedians Barry Cryer and Steve Punt to choose the pieces of radio comedy that most influenced them before and during their career. The event was in aid of Red Nose Day, hence their accessories in the photo to the left! (click for a bit bigger)

Before the show, I was making my acquaintance with the folks who were sitting around me, and ended up discussing radio comedy with a journalist from The Radio Magazine who turned out to be a former Radio 1 DJ - Adrian Juste - who used to play comedy clip shows on a Saturday lunchtime. It was effectively his format that is now used for those countless 'compilation' radio comedy shows presented by the likes of Arthur Smith and Jeff Green, and it certainly took me back to hear his voice - and even more of a surprise to see him in person.

The week came to an eventful end, too. As I've mentioned countless times, I am a big fan of Twitter - even to the point of writing a long blog entry about it! I discovered, through some 'retweetings' that turned up on my timeline, that Jason Bradbury from Five's The Gadget Show had arranged a 'Flashmob' to take place on Friday Lunchtime at Somerset House, just north of Waterloo Bridge. Since it's just twenty minutes walk from my office, I thought I'd pop down and see what was going on, especially since the last few days have been very springlike and sunny - it's definitely good to get out and about over lunchtime!

When I finally found the event (it was in the quad in the middle of the building) I joined the couple of hundred other participants - most who had responded to the call from Twitter, but a few who had heard about it from Facebook; it was amusing to see that they'd been split into two groups, and Jason and a bald lady were entertaining their respective audiences with a display of break dancing!

It turns out that the lady was none other than Gail Porter - something of a surprise! Everyone had a great time, and there are plenty of photos of the event on-line, including some in my gallery. To close, then, a couple of my favourite pics of the day. I should mention that Jason, too, is a wonderfully amenable man, signing autographs and posing for photos - it turns out - for half an hour straight after the performance, before he had the chance to go for a drink of water... what a star!

Jason Bradbury whipping up the crowd of Tweeters to an excited frenzy
The amazing no-headed breakdancer!
Me and the man Bradbury...

Posted by james at 9:08 PM

Monday, 16 March 2009

Fire station!

Since I've been involved with helping out with Christopher's Cub pack, we've come up with some entertaining ideas for the sessions; a couple of Mondays ago was the home-made performance that I mentioned in an earlier entry, and this week, we arranged to visit our local fire brigade.

I have to say, Blue Watch at Stopsley Fire Station were the most affable hosts to the group, as we were shown around the station, and the fire appliances. There were lots of questions, lots of laughs and time went extremely quickly!

The highlight, though, was the opportunity for the Cubs to have a go with the fire hoses. There were two groups, both of whom ended up getting quite wet with the airborne spray, but everyone had great fun..

Here are a couple of photos of Christopher during and after some fun with water! (as always, click for the gallery version!)

Posted by james at 10:16 PM

A home-made cloche... to avoid a late frost (hopefully!)

Since the sun's been shining, and there's not been that strong northerly breeze that can often make it feel wintry, even in mid-March, we have made the most of the opportunity to get out into the garden.

As I've mentioned, Beth is already preparing potatoes for planting out in big black buckets, but since it's definitely the time of year for sowing, we thought we'd make a start on preparing the main raised bed, the upper flowerbed and the two large tubs for the growing season.

We took a trip to Wilkinsons to buy compost and some other bits and pieces; our plan was to create our own home-made version of a cloche to prevent any last-minute frost from damaging our seedlings.

This was, in the end, fairly easily achieved. We bought a large dust-sheet which, folded in half, reached perfectly from one end of the bed to the other. I then re-inforced parts of it with gaffer tape, and then cut up some old wire clothes hangers to hook the sheet top and bottom to create a triangle profile. With a little more plastic to cover the sides, the cloche seemed to take shape, and I'm hoping that the wind won't blow it away! The wire anchor points are easy to remove for watering, so it's only really slugs that we'll have to deal with over the next month or so. That's the theory, anyway!

Here's a photo of the the completed cloche, under which we've planted broad beans (hence the netting you might be able to see at the back), parsnips and onions so far. We also used coat-hangers and plastic sheeting to cover the upper bed - this time with more of a curved profile. I'm hoping to do another diagram to show what's going where. We're hoping for a much better yield this year! As always, we'll be continuing to listen to our friend Emma's wonderful Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast for more ideas and inspiration!

Our home-made cloche

Posted by james at 5:02 PM

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Pre-spring weather and lemony electricity!

The last week's been one of variety - busy, as always, at work (my boss has been on leave, so I've been to quite a few meetings on his behalf. This means we'll have plenty to talk about when he gets back!) - and with plenty of family fun, too.

Last weekend (though it seems quite a while ago now!) was, in general, very clement; we spent the morning in the garden, just doing some 'post winter' stuff. The brown bin is now completely full of brambles and the low-hanging overgrowth of the Leylandii (which I really want to get rid of completely!) and we've also turned over the raised beds, covering them with black anti-weed plastic stuff ready for the last frost to go. Lenni has a real affinity with the garden, and loved to dig, play with the worms and help us with our garden preparations.

Lenni in the garden..

With any luck we'll have a more productive year than 2008; Beth is already chitting some potatoes and we have a wonderful selection of seeds that can be planted. I'd really like to have another go at growing parsnips, and Eleanor wants to grow tomatoes.

However, the weather remains - perfectly normally for March - somewhat schitzophrenic. Beth and I went shopping in Letchworth last Monday in bright sunshine (see the left-hand picture); compare that with the hail storm a few days later, rattling on the terrace, and making us glad to be indoors!

Letchworth town centreLetchworth town centre

It's another mild, mostly overcast Saturday, but with the occasional stream of sunshine which is encouraging; I'm keen to go out for some fresh air! We've had a relaxing morning, though - one of the activities was to use some lemons which Beth had bought, reduced, from Asda to make electricity.

We found the instructions on Schlumberger's interesting Seed website: www.seed.slb.com/en/scictr/lab/fruit/index.htm and the children were really interested to see the LED glow through nothing but household items. Lenni had lots of questions - how much sense my answers made, or whether the information will 'stick' I don't know, but she's definitely taking an interest in science, so that's definitely something to encourage. I'm sure we'll be visiting the Seed site and many others for practical experiments to do over the next little while!

Lemon battery!

Posted by james at 12:38 PM

Saturday, 7 March 2009

What do people use Twitter for..?

I've been wanting to write a blog entry/essay thing on Twitter for a little while - it's probably my favourite example of social media, mainly because of its combination of brevity and versatility, and I've not yet found a site or blog post that analyses the site and the people that use it.

Putting aside (mostly) Twitter's business model, its future development and the psychology of why people 'tweet', here's my list of what I believe are the ten most common uses for Twitter:

  • 01. microblogging
    It's quick and, although sometimes quite a challenge to remember, convenient to use Twitter to keep track of the things that go on in my life - certainly moreso than writing a longer blog entry, where I feel the need to enrich the content with pictures, sounds and video. More often than not, the time I get back to my computer, I've forgotten what I was going to write, anyway!

    There were (and perhaps still are) issues with looking through Twitter's archives, but I've removed my reliance on it by writing a bit of shellscript that downloads a list of my daily Tweets and posts them to a quiet corner of my website.

  • 02. link sharing
    I share common interests with many of my twittermates(?) so Twitter is an excellent way of sharing links to sites that have caught my eye; it's not quite to the scale of such social bookmarking sites as Delicious or Digg but it's certainly a way to propagate a cool new thing - the "retweet" (prefixing a copied tweet with 'RT @{username}') is an excellent tool for publicizing a website. Now if only http://www.dramaticchords.com could go viral...
  • 03. photo sharing
    There is a growing collection not just of Twitter clients (for all platforms - TweetDeck for Windows, Mac and Linux, Twitterfon for iPhone/iPod Touch and ceTwit for Windows Mobile), but of add-ons, enabling multimedia to be shared. Examples of this include TwitPic, to which pictures can be uploaded to accompany an update, and the rather unusual www.bubbletweet.com, which enables a little pop-up video to be displayed with a tweet (like this).
  • 04. social interaction
    Starting a post with "@{username}" indicates a response to a tweet; Twitter has now become sophisticated enough to be able to link responses to any earlier tweet, not just the user's most recent one. This gives rise to conversations that can range from domestic discussions to entertainingly amusing exchanges. Direct messages ("d {username} ") mean that users can communicate privately with each other; services like the excellent www.twe2.com can send these messages to a mobile phone.
  • 05. information gathering
    With a substantial number of followers - especially those with expertise in all kinds of subjects - it's possible to request advice, solutions or links to help with various situations, both on-line and in the 'real world'.

    I've found there's always someone who is willing to offer help - Twitter has a wonderful community spirit, and people can be very supportive.

  • 06. celebrity spotting
    There's little doubt that Stephen Fry is one of the most conspicuous 'twittercelebs', with over a quarter of a million followers. Many celebrities who tweet do read their @replies, even from those whom they don't follow, and twitterers like actor Robert Llewellyn and comedy writer Graham Linehan often use it as a means to interact with their fans.

    Certainly when these famous folk write their own tweets (many like Britney Spears and Barack Obama are run by their agencies) it brings them much closer to the 'punters'. I admit to following Stephen Fry, @RobertPopper and the hilariously quite amusing @JonHolmes1 off of from BBC's 6music radio, among others..!

    There's a fairly recent list of twittercelebs on The Guardian's Technology site.

  • 07. news reporting
    Since Twitter is accessible through something as quick and simple as a text message (mobile costs can vary and service operators can end up charging more than you think), it can be the first way that a news story can emerge, especially in conjunction with TwitPic (for which many mobile clients have integrated support).

    The greatest example of this was in January, when an airliner crashed into the Hudson River. Sky News now has a Twitter correspondent (@RuthBarnett) who seeks out news stories from the site, and I'm sure it won't be long before they get a scoop from Twitter...

  • 08. cathartic outbursts
    As I mentioned before, the community spirit on Twitter is amazing, and it is possible to express frustration, sadness or even grief to the 'world in general'. Even if replies of support and encouragement haven't been desired (or even forthcoming), I think most of the folks I follow have written from the heart; I have read moving tweets about the death of a parent, the apprehension of a job interview and - oddly more often than any other - despondency about house moves!

    If I'm having a bad day at work - or a fantastic weekend - it feels good to share it, and even if nobody acknowledges my tweet, I don't really mind... it's a little self-indulgent, but another use to which Twitter can be - and is - put.

  • 09. another media outlet...
    I'm not sure RSS feeds have caught the imagination of the public, and I'm fairly sure they never will. You can subscribe to a podcast by clicking on a link that opens iTunes; next to the often-ignored orange RSS (or XML, or that little radar thing) icon on many websites is an "Add to Google Reader" button; on occasion, I've had to explain that 'subscribing' doesn't mean having to spend any money. In short, most people don't know what Really Simple Syndication actually means.

    Many sites - especially those that deal with current affairs - also automatically update Twitter with their main stories; I subscribe to The Guardian's @GuardianTech tweets and a number of radio-based news feeds.

    News sites such as @BBCNews (helpfully provided from the BBC's data feeds by a third party developer) and @SkyNews also update Twitter.

    Many bloggers (myself included) automatically send tweets when a new entry has been published - it's a useful additional way to spread the word that another missive is complete! To take this full-circle, there is a little box on my blog which displays my latest tweet... which may well be simply that I've updated this blog!

  • 10. popularity contest / marketing strategy
    I guess the nature of Twitter is that it's a two-way medium; it can be used to gain information (often to the point of overload, and I find myself clicking links at the most inopportune moments when something interesting turns up just as I have to leave the house!), and it can be used to communicate to a social network of friends, family and on-line acquaintances.

    Considering the number of people who are now using Twitter - it must be well over a million by now - I know of some twitterers who have made it their objective to gain as many 'followers' as possible. This can have more benefits than just ego-stroking; someone who has a small business (like @FreyaSykes or @BaristaOnDuty) can create a potential market for their product or service, making use of local information from something as simple as a Google query.

    Companies like @innocentdrinks and @VirginMedia have already embraced Twitter as a means to interact with their customers, announcing competitions and even dealing with queries. Many believe the future of Twitter (certainly in terms of its financing, since it doesn't employ advertising or sponsorship to support it) is that businesses will be encouraged to pay for publicity on Twitter, such that large businesses like Dell can use it as a sales tool.

It's not so long ago that Friends Reunited was the 'flavour of the month', as an opening gambit into this social internet world; the likes of Facebook, MySpace and Bebo have all turned up since then, but I think Twitter offers something slightly different. It's simple, yet versatile, and has already evolved from my early assessment as "blogging for extroverts with a short attention span" to something which, with the help of @wossy and @stephenfry, has entered into most people's consciousness as part of the social networking revolution.

Many people, I'm sure, have had a bit of a look and then moved on, but for those of us who fit into any of the ten categories above, it will remain a useful tool even if it fades to become a niche site, or - which is more likely - begets descendants that fulfill a need that develops as the internet evolves.

For now, though, I'm going to keep on tweeting... and to those who read what I write, and whose tweets I follow: thank you!

Posted by james at 8:20 PM


I may have mentioned that Christopher is a member of the local cub pack, and most Mondays I go with him to 'help out' with the activities that they do. It's remarkably rewarding, especially when the children (aged between eight and ten) show an interest and enthusiasm for what we're doing. Obviously, there are games most weeks, but in a meeting just before the beginning of this term, I came up with a few more adventurous ideas, such as allowing them to put together a performance for their parents - an ambitious challenge, but one that would help them qualify for their 'creative' badge.

Lenni cheerleadingMonday was the culmination of this preparation, which had been somewhat hampered by half-term and cancellations because of the snow; the cubs have been split into three 'teams' - a small backstage crew, who made masks, props and prepared the introductions, and two 'performance' groups, who wrote and acted out much of their own ideas.

The rehearsals were chaotic - sometimes even dissolving into shambles, but I was taken aback by the way that, when the parents arrived they all pulled it together to make an engaging performance, which was met with smiles and appreciation.

Apart from directing one of the groups, I also brought in a small amount of PA kit, and found myself using - for the first time in a long while - a minidisc player to play in the spot effects and themes; it's a bit more robust than a laptop, and perfect for the job, because it can be set to 'pause' after playing each track, making it easy (or at least easier!) for the lad who was pushing the play button to keep control of what was going on.

Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of the cubs in their finery, but I thought I'd write this blog entry to remind myself - if anything - of a small, yet quite pleasing, success. Lenni might well be joining Beavers after Easter, so when Christopher moves up to Scouts, I'll probably stay on and help at Cubs, since Lenni have joined their group by that point. It's great to be involved with the children as they grow up.

A couple of weekends ago, for example, Lenni took part in a cheerleading performance with her gymnastics club - since it was on a Saturday, I was able to go along and enjoy the show (although I ended up putting the music on... I tend to answer 'yes' if asked if there's anyone technical around!). Fortunately we did have the camera with us that time, so to the right you'll see a picture of Lenni with her pom-poms.

It's promising to be quite a quiet weekend ahead, but if the rain holds off, I might drag the children into the garden to make preparations for planting our vegetables in the spring... who knows, we might actually grow something this year!

Posted by james at 9:37 AM

Friday, 6 March 2009

Things to do with YouTube... amazing!

It's not often I'll write a whole blog post about something I've seen on-line, but this really impressed me. It's a project by a musician called Kutiman, who has taken individual performances recorded by other musicians on YouTube, and combined them to make songs. It's a project called thru-you and the results are incredible!

Unfortunately, the site seems to be down a lot of the time because of the number of visitors it's received, but the videos are available on YouTube. Here are a couple of my favourites:

Posted by james at 9:44 AM

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