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

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Sunday, 25 October 2009

A narrowboat trip up the Grand Union Canal

Grebe Canal Cruises - Princess of the ChilternsOne of the adventures on which we'd planned to go during the summer was a trip up the nearby Grand Union Canal on a narrowboat. It was fortunate that we were able to book ourselves on a Grebe Canal Cruise (www.grebecanalcruises.co.uk) near Pitstone on the last Sunday of its seasonal run. That said, when we boarded the Princess Of The Chilterns, it was tipping it down with rain, but fortunately, the passenger area of the boat was covered, so it was a dry, comfortable trip - and as luck would have it, once we had set off, the rain relented and the sun came out!

The hour-and-a-half journey traversed two pairs of locks, before turrning about and returning, with a commentary from the driver (pilot?) as his colleagues took charge of opening and closing the gates - quite a physically demanding job, although they were clearly far more adept at it than we could have been. Who knows what would have happened if they'd asked for passengers to volunteer? I'm pretty sure we didn't cover much of a distance - the boat went at a fairly pedestrian speed, and it's fairly clear that navigating the canal all the way up to Birmingham would be almost as much effort as walking!

We all had a good time, I think, in the company of Beth's folks and brother. Had it been a warmer day, I think we might have been more bothered by waterside insects, and being under a roof in summer might be a little restricting, so I think we went at just the right time. Save for some large fish at the wharfside, a few ducks, swans and a solitary moorhen, we didn't really see much wildlife, but that's only a trivial gripe to what was otherwise a Sunday afternoon well spent messing about on the river (sort of!)

Lenni took on photography duties about halfway through the trip, and the gallery has a selection of the photos we took. I've put a few of her finer works below - click them to see the large versions.

A train seen from the canal boat (taken by Lenni)rope on the deck (taken by Lenni)Louise the lonely canal boat (taken by Lenni)a bridge over the canal (taken by Lenni)

Posted by james at 9:57 PM

Friday, 23 October 2009

Doves and London Bulgarian Choir - amazing!

I was privileged to be able to attend one of the Electric Proms events at Camden's Roundhouse last night.

Headlining were Doves, featuring the London Bulgarian Choir, with whom my friend Ann sings. They were supported by Magazine, a post-punk band formed by a former member of The Buzzcocks.

I absolutely love live music, and, were it not for Beth's spinal surgery, I would be a little disappointed that the first 'proper' gig I attended in 2009 was in late October. But what a pleasure to savour - the combination of alternative floaty rock with the strong harmonies (and disharmonies) of the choir were mindblowing. The arrangement was exquisite, and the band were magnanimous enough to leave the last song of the night for the choir to sing alone.

After the gig, I was fortunate enough to be able to go backstage and mingle with the folk from the choir and band - all truly lovely people, before we were all ushered out and made our way to a nearby pub. We ended up at the Monarch, who were kind enough to turn the in-house music off so that the choir could perform an impromptu rendition of some of their favourite folk songs. It was indescribable being among them in such a small space - the power of their voices intermingling made my ears ring in the most wonderful way! The remaining clientele (it must have been well after midnight by this time!) seemed to appreciate the performance, and everyone really enjoyed themselves.

I can safely say - despite how long it took me to get home afterwards (we spent over an hour waiting for a bus that never came) - it is an evening I will never forget, even though I have only poor quality photos and video to show for it. That said, the performance is available on BBC iPlayer (UK only - quite probably for a limited time) in both audio and video forms, so I've had the chance to enjoy it again this morning! There are also some proper photos here: www.bbc.co.uk/electricproms/2009/artists/doves/photos.

Here are a few poor quality photos and a video clip of the night.. one of the most uplifting of my life.

The London Bulgarian Choir. Just... wow. #electricproms on Twitpic The Doves! JAMYEH! #electricproms on Twitpic
Photos from TwitPic - click them for larger versions.

Posted by james at 1:15 PM

Monday, 12 October 2009

Holiday at Winchelsea Beach - October 2009

We have just returned from a lovely - relaxing - long weekend in East Sussex, staying at a caravan park at Winchelsea Beach. The weekend was a perfect combination of rest, recuperation and visits to various friends, family and tourist attractions.

Here's a brief audioboo about the weekend, followed by a small collection of photos, many more of which can be seen - as always - in the gallery.

An audio recording from audioboo.fm

Outside the caravanOutside the caravan
Seahorse at Blue ReefSeagull and fishing boats at Hastings

Posted by james at 1:20 PM

Thursday, 8 October 2009

An audio recording from AudioBoo

Outside Broadcasting House with Richard Vobes boo

An audio recording from audioboo.fm

Posted by james at 4:10 PM

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Internet radio and wi-fi radio directories... the pitfalls!

We've had our Goodmans CD1505Wi wi-fi radio for nearly a year now, and it's been an excellent - and very useful - addition to the kitchen.

I have been in contact with some of the folk at Penbex - the company that developed the radio (they make a series of other models, distributed across the world) - and they have been very helpful and friendly. They have an on-line directory (at station.penbex.com.tw), and have sent me some beta firmware, which offers some really useful extra functions, like allowing the radio to continue to play when returning to the station list menu - a simple, yet useful improvement.

However, with the rapid change and evolution of online radio - certainly in the UK - the directory, which allows users only to add entries for stations, rather than modify or report them as requiring deletion, quickly became out of date.

Recently, for example, BBC Radio has stopped streaming their local radio services using the (expensively licenced) RealAudio format. In fact, their preferred method of streaming is now a flash-based system, where AAC+ (one of the most efficient compression algorithms available at the moment) is securely wrapped up in a Flash stream, which isn't currently untanglable by most wi-fi radios. Hence the need for a 'backup' option, which is now Windows Media Audio. For what it's worth, the latest links to live streams are currently here:

iplayerhelp.external.bbc.co.uk/help/streaming_programmes/real_wma_streams (BBC National Radio)

iplayerhelp.external.bbc.co.uk/templates/bbciplayer/seo/answerPage...local_radio_streams (BBC Local Radio)

bit of a rant.. sorry!

Of course, the BBC sets the standard for platform agnostic radio listening - many commercial radio stations seem to view online listening (of any kind) as an afterthought. Our local Heart station (formerly Chiltern Radio) feeds its internet stream from the station output before it gets processed for FM transmission, since the compressors are at the transmitter site. What's worse is that the automatic jingle and advert players are much louder than the incoming networked audio feed so if we have the radio on quietly and a local jingle comes on, it has us jumping out of our seats...

However, to their credit, there is a perfectly usable Windows Media stream (at 32kbps, mind, which isn't brilliant quality) so at least we can listen to it. GMG's Real Radio, Rock Radio and Smooth Radio, however, have an on-site Flash player; until recently, each station had a link that should be added to an internet radio directory. However, when I opened the station on my wi-fi radio, all I could hear was a message saying "Sorry, but you appear to be listening using another method than the official Player..." - I wrote a comment to this effect, and these links have now been removed. Hopefully they'll get it sorted, otherwise there's a whole (albeit small) section of their listenership using wi-fi and internet radios that will be missing out, including the many Reciva radio owners in the UK.

Live365 typifies this inexplicable restriction with their streaming radio service. It used to be the case that any service that participated in the Live365 system would be available on internet radios - in fact, there were adjuncts to directories listing all the stations involved.

Now, however, they are web-only, unless one buys VIP membership - and I have no idea how one would add the stations to an internet radio if they were available - probably one at a time! Why, though..? Is it simply because almost all the advertising is done via the website? Probably...

end of my rant. Sorry about that

Anyway, back to the main matter at hand: radio stations change! Most of the directories out there - including Reciva and vTuner are managed partially by user submissions of stations, but mainly through the efforts of staff ensuring that streams still exist (possibly done automatically) and duplicates are eliminated.

As I mentioned earlier in this blog post (and doubtless elsewhere), the range of internet radios made by Penbex (of which my Goodmans is one) normally uses Penbex's own directory - once again, it's managed mainly through community involvement. In fact, I have exchanged emails with very helpful and co-operative members of the small Penbex team, mainly to let them know of changes the BBC has made.

Another Penbex internet radio user, and regular commenter on my blog - Voyager - has gone one stage further, and taken the GPL (Gnu Public Licenced) and freely available source code for the radio's operating system, and modified it. One of his objectives to use his own directory, which would enable those who use his firmware to submit their own 'private' lists of stations. This is an excellent idea, since it enables users quickly to listen to stations they find without having to wait for the moderation process. It also increases the number of 'favourites' beyond the twenty that are available in the radio itself.

His excellent and informative blog is here: penbex.wordpress.com, and the station directory is at penbex.mine.nu. I am honoured to have been given moderator rights, so I'm currently working through the station lists, which were imported from the Penbex directory, doing all the things that I mentioned before - removing old and duplicate station links, adding new ones and generally tidying up the UK part of the directory.

As such, internet radio still piques my interest - certainly as a subgenre of the medium I love - and I'm very much enjoying the serendipity of finding new and interesting stations to listen to (often to the annoyance of my work colleagues!) I am sure I will wax lyrical about it on many more occasions through the medium of blog entries, as well. Expect more apologies!

Postscript: I saw an interesting tweet from fellow radio and tech guru @richard_C linking to a Guardian online article about the poor state of digital radio (here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/sep/30/digital-radio-dab) - ironically it's Guardian Media Group's own stations that are the ones that I can't actually get on my wi-fi radio... says it all, really!

Posted by james at 12:05 AM

Monday, 5 October 2009

Bletchley Park

We've started catching up on the 'days out' that we wanted to have during the summer holidays; high on the list was Bletchley Park, the wartime home of code decryption which has evolved into a museum of wartime codebreaking, and now includes a model railway exhibition and the National Museum of Computing.

It is, therefore, a bit of a geek's paradise - and when we entered, the atmosphere was just what one would expect - it was like going into one of the university faculties when I was a student, entirely focussed on a subject about which the curators were passionate and extremely knowledgeable.

There were, in fact, tours of the site - which extends over several of the huts and blocks, although most of the old buildings (of which the BBC Radio 4 sitcom Hut 33 is an affectionate parody) are now boarded up, some of which are in terribly disrepair. Our friends Emma and Pete, with whom we were visiting, had been before and said that the guided tours were extremely informative; I think, perhaps, that's one for when Beth and I go on our own (our tickets are valid for a year, and children get in for free - a bit of a bargain, really!)

Christopher especially enjoyed seeing Turing's Bombe - one of the most important parts of the wartime code decryption effort, and Colossus, a later - electronic - machine, but there were so many other machines to see, from mainframes to micros that it was a bit of an overload, really!

The curators of the Colossus exhibition gave the children a small piece of paper tape to decrypt - a great way to retain the interest once they got home - I shall have to direct them to codesandciphers.org to work out what they say!

Lenni loved the model railways - we've not had anything more than a Tomy Track Master system at home, but it's certainly inspired ideas of a layout! She also very much enjoyed the outdoor play area, which had some modern play equipment and some classic activities, including a giant chess set.

All-in-all, the site was a little haphazard, with lots of walking from building to building involved, but it was a really good day out, and I'm keen to go back and see some of the (many!) bits I've missed.

Here are a few pictures from our visit - please click on them to see bigger versions, and there are more - as always - in the gallery.

Chris in front of Turing's BombeColossus
Lenni in the play parkWe had a ZX81!

Posted by james at 10:20 AM

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