Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Stratford-upon-Avon redux

For my wedding anniversary my wife and I visited Stratford-upon-Avon yesterday (though later on we realised we had gone there for our anniversary last year too!) Of course this is somewhere i've been no less than 3 times this year so far (plus a trip to Wilmcote).

But i love it so who cares and i took some nice photos too which you can see here!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Micro Life (7) : Unisys 386SX-33

After a couple of laptops (or 1 laptop and 1 beast in the PPC) i decided to forget portability and get a "proper" PC so i could do some programming and the like on it. Morgan Computers was my destination again (my first 4 computers came from there) and i bought a nice little Unisys PC. It was a small compact little box which had solidity to it (which makes me think it was surplus stock from a government order). Inside was a 386SX-33 microprocessor (yes we were going 32 bit!) and 4MB of RAM. It was also my first computer with a built in hard drive, a massive 80MB! It came with an Apple RGB monitor (Morgan tended to mix and match what was available).

This was however my second choice, i had intended to go to Morgan to get an IBM PS/1 but they had sold out of that, this Unisys system had a better specification though so its an ill-wind.

For the next few years this little workhorse served me well and i upgraded the hardware a few times. The RAM was doubled to 8MB and i got an external CD-ROM drive. This enabled me to install OS/2 Warp. It didn't exactly run fast but it did run OK and was interesting to play with. I also bought my first modem (2400 baud natch) for some telnet and ftp fun (this was pre-public web of course).

The computer served me until i graduated from university but then i needed something more powerful and by then had a job so i could actually pay for something, but that is a story for next time.

Monday, August 29, 2011

TOTP (05/08/1976)

Jimmy Saville is our host and he is wearing a kilt! If you can get past that you can get past anything. Elton and Kiki are still at number one but will they be live in the studio?

Slik - the kid’s a punk

Slik start the show with their poseur retro rock. Its all quiffs, US college jackets and rock’n’roll riffs. Its not terrible but maybe not that good either.

David Dundas - jeans on

Ruby Flipper are here to perform with David Dundas, don’t forget he had Hot Gossip last time. Does he feel lonely on stage or something and thus feels the need to have fit young people gyrate their fit young bodies nearby? We understand David we really do.

Billy Jo Spears - what i’ve got in mind

Country music often broke into the British charts regularly even as late as the 1970s as may be forgotten nowadays. Billy Jo Spears is of course a legend though this isn’t her best song. A performance somewhere else, probably in Nashville.

Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel - here comes the Sun

In front of a castle Steve Harley and band perform this George Harrison cover, its been given a bit of a proto-punk feel along with bongos. Its all wonderfully weird.

Did Saville explain why he is in a kilt? 

Ruby Flipper are working hard tonight, they are back to perform KC & the Sunshine Band’s “shake your booty”. Very disco in futuristic silvery outfits. Like if they had song & dance routines in Blakes 7.

Dorothy Moore - misty blue

A repeat of her performance in front of a giant dressing room mirror.

Billy Ocean - love on delivery

Its fine just a bit formulaic and forgettable. Seems we have a lot of songs on tonight which have been on before.

Twiggy - here i go again

Yes the model, years before the M&S adverts of course. Twiggy is best known as being a model for good reason, as her singing isn’t that good to be honest. Mind you if she was around now she would probably win the likes of X Factor easily.

Elton John & Kiki Dee - don’t go breaking my heart

No they didn’t make it to the Top Of The Pops studio, maybe next week eh?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Curdworth fields post harvest

Back in early June i had a walk along public footpaths through some farm fields near Curdworth, back then the crops were high and looking fairly healthy despite the dry weather. I returned today to a barren post-harvest landscape. I like the bleakness of it all to be honest. You can see the photos i took here or in the slideshow below of course.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Warwick & Saltisford Canal 27/08/11

Another Saturday another trip out into Warwickshire for some canal photography. This time i went to Warwick itself and walked the canal there including the Saltisford Canal Arm. Very changeable weather today though but during one rain storm i was sheltering under a large tree in Warwick like a gentleman of the road in some kind of medieval idyll. Anyway you can see the photos here or in the slideshow below.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A canal tube map

A few years ago i combined two of my loves : canals and the London tube map and created a "tube map" of my own depicting the canal network in Birmingham and the West Midlands. A few days ago i decided to redo it and the results can be seen here.

It was originally created on a PC in Photoshop back in 2009 but since then i have moved to using a Mac at home sans Photoshop but with Pixelmator instead. Although i could edit an imported version of the original in Pixelmator it was becoming a bit untidy and i also wanted to improve how the map looked, optimise it for viewing on an iPad, and include some of the canals in Warwickshire i have been exploring over the last 12 months.

So i recreated it from scratch. Next stage will be to turn it into a full-fledged HTML5 interactive map using Hype with information on the various canals and links to my imagery. So keep tuned. You can find out all about my canal wanderings on my Down The Cut blog of course.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Comics : Star Wars #54

Years ago (a lot of years ago) i used to get the Star Wars comic every week. We're talking back in the late 70s and early 80s here. Like much else from my childhood the comics have long gone as i didn't have the foresight to know that people would pay good money for such things on a global visual network yet to be created one day. However one comic did survive as it was left at my Grandmothers' house and years later i made sure i would keep this one...

Star Wars #54 then was released on Valentine's Day 1979 and includes a Star Wars comic strip and two other stories (The Micronauts and The Warlock which i wasn't that interested in back then and not so much now either). The Star Wars comic started off a weekly comic telling of the first Star Wars movie but once they blew up the Death Star and Darth Vader went spinning off into space they had to continue the comic with an early example of the Extended Universe at least until Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980.

The story here concerns Luke, Leia and Tagge who appears to be some kind of galactic mafia boss who hates Vader. Luke and Leia are trying to discover why and how Tagge can fly TIE fighters into the atmosphere of the gas giant Yavin while at the same time evading Tagge's TIE fighter patrols. Of course the story here was set between the two films and no one but George Lucas knew that Luke and Leia were siblings, so we get a little bit of mild incest.

The cliffhanger has their ship under attack by TIE fighters and the intriguing teaser that next week is called "R2 D2 Casualty Of War", as to what happened in Star Wars #55 i can't remember, but obviously R2 was fine as he made the next film OK. It would be great if these Marvel Star Wars stories were released in some kind of collected volume. I'm hoping someone will tell me they are...

Previously published on my music/comics blog, going to re-port comic reviews here too from now on.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

TOTP (29/07/1976)

David Hamilton is here to introduce the latest from the centre of the pop universe. Was the Olympics going on right then in 1976? It would explain his lame athletics jokes anyway.

Thin Lizzy - jailbreak

Thin Lizzy is back in town (see what i did there?) Hard rock is always the best way to start the show. Not that familiar with this one of their tunes, something about jailbreak in the town, the boys getting arrested last time obviously and now are out again. Lenient criminal justice system obviously.

Dr Hook - a little bit more

Dr Hook is after your body apparently. Is Dr Hook a medical doctor? I would want to see his medical certificates in any case before he laid a hand on me. A re-run of the mildly homoerotic video set in the forest. I must say i do love this tune. I prefer not to think of it being sung by a big man in a bigger beard in the forest though.

Chanter Sisters - side show

One of these girls has one of the most formidable perm i've ever seen. Song is a dreadful mess full of screeching by two women who appear drunk. I love it. As does David.

Ruby Flipper perform a funked up version of Beethoven, obviously in cabaret outfits dancing on chairs. Well of course. We get some SFX too, the producer is spoiling us.

Jimmy James & the Vagabonds - now is the time

Jimmy James returns with his dance floor filler. Its quite a good song though also rather mainstream, this could easily be the theme music of a 70s sitcom. Jimmy puts on a good show, less weird grinning than less time. More SFX as Jimmy's head appears superimposed on the background. The producer has a new box of tricks it seems.

Status Quo - mystery song

These chords seem familiar.

Liverpool Express - you are my life

At #11 in the chart, and David is right this is quite a lovely song thats if you love atmospheric soft rock. Hey why not, it is maybe a bit over blown with the effects and dramatics but its a good song, much better than some of the others we've had so far anyway.

Elton John & Kiki Dee - don't go breaking my heart

Second week at #1 but still no live performance, so lets see the MV recorded in a recording studio again where Elton kisses Kiki's dungarees.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Micro Life (6) : Zenith minisPORT

My first proper computer (as opposed to my Dad's) the Amstrad PPC512 had been a disappointment but i soon sold it and got a proper laptop, or so i thought at the time. I headed down to Morgan Computer again and bought a Zenith minisPORT, a nice little XT notebook. Unlike the PPC512 this did actually seem portable.

It had a backlit CGA display, MS-DOS loaded from a ROM, a RAM disk and a built in floppy disk drive. What more could i want? Actually there was a problem, the disk drive used the unusual 2" floppy disk format though it came with an external 3.5" drive. Unfortunately getting a hold of 2" disks was difficult, and when you could find them they were very expensive. I had to resort to using the external drive which of course meant the laptop was not quite as portable as i'd like. It's power pack was also rather large which you needed as the battery life wasn't that great. So i did not take it to class to show off.

There wasn't a great deal i did with it apart from some word processing and soon i needed a more powerful PC but the Zenith was a nice little machine which i still possess. I have no idea if it still works though, maybe i should try it one of these days. Zenith miniSPORT

Friday, August 19, 2011

Big Brother returns

I used to be a Big Brother ultra fan... There i have gone and admitted it. I don't mean i was Avid Marrion and stalked ex-house mates but I used to watch it every night, up until the 5th year at least i was able to list the names of every single house mate. I remember the thrill of seeing Sandy in Selfridges (albeit at a distance). I even have the first 2 Big Brother official DVDs!

After BB4 my interest waned and by the 6th series my interest had more or less gone completely. I still watched the opening night as i enjoyed playing house mate stereotype bingo ("Ex-glamour model" CHECK "Aggressive gay man" CHECK "Claims to be wild but really boring man" HOUSE!) but i seldom watched anything afterwards, except maybe the final night unless anything else was on.

So Big Brother has returned, after Channel 4 tried to kill it off last year Channel 5 bought it back to life and the opening night of Celebrity Big Brother (personally i don't like the Celebrity edition that much but i still watched) gave Channel 5 one of their biggest audiences ever!

I am happy it is back, British TV without Big Brother just seems wrong. It is maybe because i associate Big Brother with freedom and owning my own home. I bought my house just a few months before the first series of Big Brother back in 2000 and as i was still cable TV-less at the time Big Brother was more or less all i had to watch that Summer and is probably how i became a fan. It is unlikely i will watch much of the current series but i am happy it is still running somewhere. It makes everything seem all right with the world.

And my ambition to be a house mate still has the possibility of one day being realised...

Monday, August 15, 2011

Rethinking the tube map... thinking the unthinkable

Harry Beck's London tube map is nowadays as iconic a part of the capital as Beefeaters, Buckingham Palace, black cabs and inner city squalor. However over the last couple of decades it has become a little too cluttered as new lines have been added, really someone could do with remastering the map. Or maybe rethinking it altogether.

Thats what Mark Noad has done, he has totally rethought the map this time returning to the pre-Beck geographical style which Beck abstracted out with his original design. I think it is great though of course as with anything new like this many people disagree. Not that i think the original design should be binned as i still prefer that, i'd like both to be available.

Micro Life (5) : Amstrad PPC512DD

As a student at Birmingham Polytechnic i now had money (you see back in the past we actually got paid to be students and got all of our course fees paid!) and of course i wanted my own computer after using and abusing my Dad's computers up until now. I saw an advert for Morgan Computers where they were selling Amstrad PPC512DD portable computers with a free external monitor. I fancied the idea of having a laptop as a rich guy on my course had one. So i went along and bought it...

If you are not familiar with the PPC512 then it was an unusual portable computer. It had a full-size proper keyboard (so was fairly big) though had a small black & white (and non-backlit) LCD screen. This was rather hard to see anything though so i tended to use the Sinclair black & white monitor instead (until it overheated which was usually by the time the PPC had booted). It had twin 3.5" floppy disc drives and not a great deal else. It was not what you would call a laptop though to be fair it was not a heavy computer.

I can't remember a great deal about the PPC to be honest because i sold it within a couple of months. I only lost about 20 quid on it, selling it to a fellow student, he didn't come back to me for a refund so i assume he got some good use out of it! I wanted a proper laptop and that is where i thought i was going next...

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Wilmcote and canal

Enough of the bad aspects of the UK, time for the good aspects, Warwickshire to be precise. I headed down to Wilmcote which is a small village not far from Stratford-upon-Avon this morning. Its most famous for being where Mary Arden used to live though i was more interested in the canal and walked up the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal beyond the amazing Edstone Aqueduct. You can see my photos here or in the slideshow below, i also did take some photos around the village which is very nice and is now in my top 5 desired places to live!

Friday, August 12, 2011


Although the city i live in (Birmingham) was badly hit by the riots and lawlessness that swept across the country this week i was not personally affected by it as there is probably nothing worth looting in the district i live in. I have thought about writing about the events and where i feel things have gone wrong but Peter Oborne in the Telegraph has more or less written much of what i was going to say anyway so read his instead!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fairey Fulmar

Project 020 is a Fairey Fulmar and it is nearly finished now, it might require the odd bit of paint here and there but then all thats needed to do is apply the decals (which as you know always goes so well) and varnish! I haven't yet decided on what my next project will be. I have 6 kits pending. Fairey Fulmar

Monday, August 8, 2011

Micro Life (4) : Amstrad PC1640DD

After the BBC Micro expired, due to mysterious circumstances, we were in search of a new computer and as it was the late 1980s and Amstrad had recently launched the PC revolution in the UK it was time to jump on that bandwagon and get a proper grown-up computer so we could do proper stuff like word processing and spreadsheets (yawn).

The PC1640DD was an early IBM XT compatible though it did have a few strange foibles such as the power supply unit being in the monitor. Ours had the full 640K of RAM, came with twin 5.25" floppy drives and a GUI! That GUI was GEM Desktop and it wasn't very useful on that PC to be honest, especially as we only had CGA graphics, so we mostly stuck to DOS. The most useful software that came with it was a business software pack of WordStar, Supercalc and a database i can't remember the name of now mostly because it was rubbish.

For the next few years that PC was our workhorse and my Dad was keen to upgrade it as much as possible. Over the years we got a 32MB hard drive (though because of the idiosyncratic Amstrad PC architecture the hard drive came on an extension card) and an external 3.5" floppy drive. I also bought MS-DOS 4.01 just because i can. I even installed MS Windows 3.0 on it as that did support CGA mode though it was as useless as GEM.

The PC coincided with my arrival at Birmingham Polytechnic so some of the software i used during my HND on the poly's PCs i also used on the PC (no idea how it got there - cough!) including a shareware clone of dBase III which i used for my final year project and Turbo Pascal (v4 which i bought myself as the poly was still on v3) to learn how to program.

However by the early 1990s the PC1640 was starting to look tired and had reached its limits, more or less, in terms of expandability. Besides which i now had a grant cheque and decided it was time to buy my own computer at last, though for some reason i bought a cut-down portable version of the Amstrad PC, but that is a story for next time...

Going HTML5

I redesigned my homepage last night, in tribute to Sir Tim Berners-Lee who invented the WWW 20 years ago, but actually really because there was an awful Flash movie on there i needed to replace. As i have been experimenting with Hype i decided it was time to redo my homepage with HTML5 i.e. cool shit.

To be honest my homepage these days just acts as a glorified signpost to my blogs which is where all the real action is. I have web space with my ISP which i use for some CGI programming so i keep a home page on there too for old time sake more than anything. So there it is, it maybe overdoes the animation and effects a bit but i wanted to test out what Hype and HTML5 could do. It looks a lot better on my iPad than the old one did anyway i.e. it works.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

They don't make them like this anymore

Last night i chanced upon a showing of the Cannonball Run on one of the digital TV channels, a film i love but have not seen for a few years. What struck me as i was watching the early 80s road race antics was how amazing the cast was. You had Burt Reynolds as the lead of course but supported by Dom DeLuise for humour and Farrah Fawcett for sex appeal but then look at some of the other supporting cast : Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Jackie Chan! It is difficult to think of a film these days which would have such a star strewn but also varied cast as this. Of course when they made the sequel most of the cast returned and they added Frank Sinatra to the mix!

Films from this era, the early 1980s, are very nostalgic for me as i was a tweenager at the time and just starting to develop my own tastes and fandoms. Burt Reynolds was an early hero of mine thanks to films like Cannonball Run and Smokey & the Bandit films which maybe did not trouble the brain too much and were often a little self-indulgent but they were definitely fun and thats what entertainment is all about at the end of the day.

The American road movie of course is the stuff of many dreams, even now the wide open spaces accompanied only by the roar of a Dodge or Chevy has a romantic appeal though i suspect the reality isn't quite as fun as the dream especially in these more pragmatic times.

TOTP (22/07/1976)

DLT's face appears on his sunglasses as he introduces tonight's programme, just the start of what will be the most surreal 30 minutes of TV ever... or for some time anyway.

Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel - here comes the Sun
Heralded by some raindrop SFX here is a George Harrison cover by the art rockers, it starts off promising but then here come the bongos. Its just wrong OK?

David Dundas - jeans on
David is sat at his piano in front of what appears to be a wall of dog identity discs. Some girls in Hot Gossip t-shirts (thus can we assume the early Hot Gossip troupe in some kind of guerrilla dance attack on Ruby Flipper? Well i will.) dance in front of him until some audience members get pushed into the camera shot. As for the song its a typical piece of late 70s pop, passable if a bit bland.

Ruby Flipper have been tasked with interpreting the Isley Brothers' "harvest for the world" through the medium of dance. So obviously they dress in black & white jazz cabaret outfits. Still at least its not as jarring as when Harvester used the song for their TV adverts a few years ago.

Johnny Wakelin - in Zaire
If you ever wanted a performance that sums up the 70s then this would suffice. A percussion heavy, messy but not without merit song with a singer dressed like the Jack of Diamonds... who looks oddly like Sgt Slaughter... if the Sarge was dressed as a 70s pimp obviously.

5000 Volts - Dr Kiss Kiss
Another performance of the passable novelty song, at least they arn't hanging stethoscopes off their guitars this time but it still all has the air of a Norwegian Eurovision entry.

Johnny Cash - one piece at a time
Unfortunately Mr Cash isn't in the studio but he is on stage somewhere, the song is pretty awesome of course but i can't wait until Ruby Flipper do this.

1776 - oh Suzanna
They are apparently called 1776 but seem like the cast of a musical, and the song, which is sung by a man with the worst mustache ever, seems like a typical musical song i.e. a dirge.

Elton John & Kiki Dee - don't go breaking my heart
And time for our new number 1, apparently the first time Elton has been to #1 but its still not enough to bring him into the studio so we get the pop video instead. And that brings to an end the surreal world of Dave Lee Travis. TTFN!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Who was Zara?

On the wall of my bedroom hangs a painting, it has been in the family a long time, for years it hung on the wall in my Grandmother's house and when she died the painting passed over to me (or rather i saved it from the skip). The painting is not famous or valuable (i suspect) but i love it, and i wish i knew more about it.
Who painted this?
The painting is very simple, showing a number of sail boats in a bay somewhere. A critic would probably think the painting was rubbish but it takes me away to a more relaxing place, maybe a sleepy bay somewhere that smells of fish. Where the painting came from i do not know, i assume my Nan bought it on holiday somewhere back in the 50s and 60s, it does seem to have the air of a print from that time.

Its signed "Zara", of course Googling "Zara painting" does not get me very far, does anyone know any good ways of trying to find out more about this artist and maybe what other work she did?

Web typefaces

You may have noticed (or not if this is your first time here) that i have changed this blog's main font back to Arial. I had been experimenting with the web font Copse (which is still used for post titles and the main title of this blog - at time of writing anyway!) The font looks great on my Mac and iPad though can look just too harsh on a PC, especially if the page is viewed in Chrome or Safari. I do like serif fonts as they are better for readability but the overall effect of using Copse en masse is unfortunately a little bit too much of a good thing or gives you a headache.

So there is your lesson for web design and the use of fonts, try as many platforms as possible. Hopefully future versions of browsers will improve the display of these web fonts on all platforms.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Micro Life (3) : BBC Micro B

The Commodore VIC-20 was a great little computer i played a lot of games on but my Dad (for some reason) wanted a computer he could actually do... like... stuff with so he bought a BBC Micro, Model B natch. This was our computer for the next few years and a very fine computer it was too. It marked the end of me being mainstream with video games though, while my friends had Spectrums and C64s (and even one weirdo with a Dragon 32) i had a BBC Micro and no one else did in my class so i couldn't share any games any more...

We could however expand the computer fairly easily (a key feature of the BBC) and could actually use it to do some useful things. We bought a printer for it (a Star NL-10 i believe), it was difficult to get anything decent printed out though. The printer was working perfectly normally then. We bought a word processor which loaded from ROM (the name i can't recall right now but it may have been a Word Star variant). My Dad wrote a database program while i wrote some text-based adventure games and some other rubbish.

More excitingly we got a floppy disk drive for the computer and were freed from the misery of loading software from cassette tape!

The BBC was a great little computer, i know BCU still had them in its Engineering faculty up into the early 1990s, but ours died long before then. It suddenly conked out one day while i was using it (and i would like to emphasise not because of anything i was doing on it!) The 8-bit era was over in any case so our next computer was our first foray into the PC world but that is a story for another day...